Music · Word of the week

Word of the week: spandrel

Is music a spandrel? This is a question I have discussed with many people over the years, usually beginning with a definition of the word spandrel. The term comes from architecture and has been borrowed to describe the by-product of an evolutionary adaptation, like flight in birds. Feathers evolved to keep birds warm, but they also enabled birds to fly: flight is therefore a spandrel, an evolutionary by-product arising from the development of feathers in birds.

I came across the word, the definition, and the question in that opening sentence, in Daniel Levitin’s excellent book “This is your brain on music”. It surprises me that in over 100 posts so far on this Blog I have not yet mentioned the book.

The term is discussed at length in Chapter 9, with reference to Steven Pinker and Stephen Jay Gould:

Pinker had just completed “How the Mind Works” … but he had not yet found popular notoriety. “Language is clearly an evolutionary adaptation,” he told us … He explained that, once in a while, we find a behaviour or attribute in an organism that lacks any clear evolutionary basis; this occurs when evolutionary forces propagate an adaptation for a particular reason, and something else comes along for the ride, what Stephen Jay Gould called a spandrel, borrowing the term from architecture … Birds evolved feathers to keep warm, but they co-opted the feathers for another purpose – flying. This is a spandrel.

After arguing that language is an evolutionary adaptation, Pinker claimed that music is a spandrel. If music had never existed we would still have language, and humanity would have evolved the same way. He dismisses music as “auditory cheesecake”. “It just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way, as cheesecake tickles the palate.” Levitin disagrees, and so do many other neuroscientists. And 150 years ago Darwin suggested that music was important in evolutionary terms.

I side with Levitin and Darwin, but I’m not a neuroscientist. I haven’t devoted decades into researching music and the brain. Over the years, when discussing the question “Is music a spandrel?” (and then having to describe what the word means) I am often surprised at the certainty with which people form an opinion. One minute they don’t know what a spandrel is, and five minutes later they have concluded that, yes, it must be, yes, definitely: music is a spandrel; or no, it can’t be, it must be important in evolutionary terms. Why bother devoting an academic career to the study of music and the brain when you can form an opinion with minimal information in under 5 minutes? And why bother reading even one book about it? But if you want to form a better-informed opinion do yourself a favour and read “This is your brain on music”, or at least read Chapter 9. And if you still can’t make up your mind at the end of it that’s fine: you don’t have to have an opinion on everything, and you’ll know what a spandrel is.


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