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May 21st, 2009
Music and the Brain
Are Humans Wired for Music?
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Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP: We are wired for speech, we are wired for spoken language, for expressing and understanding spoken language. That’s to say any human being who is exposed to language at a critical stage of development in their second or third year will acquire language without any explicit form of teaching. Comsky above others has spoken wonderfully about this, but basically exposure to language activates language parts of the brain. However we are not wired for written language in the same way. Written language only goes back five or seven thousand years. There is no built-in circuitry in the brain for written language. But a circuitry is developed through learning to write. A circuitry which may be somewhat different in different people. In other words what is already in the brain is recruited and pressed into a new use when one learns to write. So in this way is music like speech? Or is it like writing? I’m inclined to think, but here only one can speculate, that both of these are involved. I think there are certain aspects of music which do not have any equivalent in speech, in particular the pulse of music, the steady rhythm, and its synchronization with movement.  I think there is good reason for supposing for that is built in, and there are anatomical connections, which are strongly and almost exclusively developed in human beings.

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