Today, music, music, music! The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I was in college when Teresa
Brewer came out with the hit that first made her
famous. Maybe you remember:
Put another nickel in,That song has stuck to me like glue. I
never could shake it. Now a New York Times
article offers a clue to its staying power.
Researchers have been asking why the craving for
music is universal. No human society has ever been
without it. And, as far back as we trace human
activity, we find evidence of
In the nickelodeon.
All I want is loving you
And music, music, music!
Parents in every culture rock their babies and sing
to them. The babies love it. Now biologists and
psychologists ask if this craving, this need, is
learned or hard-wired into our system.
They've found that rhythm and melody trigger
pleasure centers in the brain, that the octave is a
universal reference in relating tones to one
another, and that the appeal of consonant
intervals, like fourths and fifths, is also
Another wrinkle here: Perfect pitch, that rare
ability to replicate a musical pitch long after
it's been heard, cannot be learned after the age of
around ten, if at all. Perhaps it should be no
surprise that Chinese, with their tone-inflected
language, are far more likely to have that ability.
But then, we're surprised to find that Chinese
Americans, who've never spoken Chinese, are also
more likely than other Americans to have perfect
It all suggests that the need for music really is
wired into our brains. So biologists look for
mechanisms that give music its hold over us. PET
scans show people reacting to their favorite pieces
of music, much as they react to food or sex.
All this triggers a deeper question: What purpose
has been served by the evolution, not just of
musical ability, but of such a craving for music?
Darwin raised that question a century and a half
ago when he remarked that music "must be ranked
among the most mysterious" of our capacities.
suggested that we developed these capacities, even
before speech, to, and I quote, "charm each other
with musical notes and rhythm." He suspected music
to be a courtship tool, and it well may be. Many
biologists believe the ability to make music
functions rather like the peacock's tail. As Teresa
Brewer puts it, "All I want is loving you and
music, music, music."
Yet there's more to it. Music is constantly used to
express community within human and other animal
societies -- choral music and orchestra playing --
whale singing and chimpanzee hooting. They all
release endorphins, accelerate our brains, and make
us feel good. They join us, one with another. It
takes more than just mating to hold a society (or a
species) together. And that's why I shall --
Put another nickel in, In the nickelodeon.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
(Outro music: Teresa Brewer singing, Put
Another Nickle in ...)
This is derived from two adjacent pieces in the
Times: N. Wade, We Got Rhythm; the Mystery
Is How and Why. And Perfect Pitch: A Gift of Note For
Just a Few. New York Times, Science Times,
Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2003, pp. D1 and D4
Three web sites pages in which you may listen to
the melody of "Put another Nickel in, In the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.