Thursday, June 19, 2003


Here's the question of the day: what makes music so popular with human beings?

For example, let's take Britney Spears. She gets up in the morning, goes to work, stands in a room and she says, "I want to make love to you baby, I want to make love to you baby, I want to make love to you all night long, do do, da-do do, ooooo." Or whatever it is that she says. She doesn't "say" the words, though. She "sings" them. Behind her, a guitarist plays some notes. A drummer beats out a simple rhythm. A microphone records those sounds. That's all they are -- sounds. Music is a pattern of words and tones strung together. The whole "performance" lasts two and a half minutes.

What happens next is the mysterious part. When people hear these words and tones, a chemical reaction occurs. Suddenly, 15 million people want to spend money so they can hear Britney over and over again on a CD. Tens of millions more people download software so they can trade digitally compressed versions of these words and tones with one another without spending money. Millions of people pay $30 each to pack into coliseums so that they can see and hear Britney in person from a thousand feet away. There are Britney posters, Britney dolls, Britney Happy Meals, Britney calendars, Britney lunch boxes, Britney clothing. When Britney's face is attached to an AOL ad, more people sign up for AOL.

There are gigantic, multi-billion dollar companies devoted to imprinting Britney's words and notes onto CDs, as well as multi-billion dollar companies like ASCAP, BMI, the RIAA, etc. devoted to extracting money for Britney's words and notes whenever anyone hears them. All of this money, all of this merchandise, all of this human energy is propelled by Britney's act of stringing some words and notes together for two and a half minutes. After a year or two, people get tired of Britney and they transfer their devotion to a new person, who has also strung some words and notes together in a new pattern.

What is going on inside human heads that makes us act in this way? If we were ever to meet an alien species from another solar system, would the aliens listen to music too? Is "music" an integral part of "intelligence"? Or would the aliens look at us like we are nuts?

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