Hey Bill Nye! What Makes Music So Human and So Powerful?

Television Host and Science Educator

It is called the universal language — music — yet speakers of different languages prefer different genres. Cultures that communicate using tonal languages, for example, have markedly different musical traditions than western languages. Yet the primacy of music across so many distinct human cultures suggests a deeply embedded drive to create it — and groove to it. In this video, Bill Nye talks science, culture, and musical notation.

Recalling his college psychology classes (Mr. Nye is a career engineer, but sometimes we like to throw him a curve ball), the Science Guy knows that dogs respond to octaves, defined as the doubling of the pitch frequency. So certain qualities of music that are also found in speech affect behavior in natural ways, which also suggests that musical qualities are buried deep in our evolutionary history.

Responding to Big Think fan Aiden, from California, Bill Nye does what he has done throughout his career as a popular science educator: encourage young people to be diligent in their studies, whether the subject is science or music. So if you want to get to Carnegie Hall, it is going to take a lot of practice. After all, refining millions of years of evolutionary forces and expressing it through a string or a brass tube is not easy. And if you want to play jazz, make sure you include a major seventh cord (which is not bad musical knowledge for an engineer).

Ultimately, says Bill Nye, whatever drives us to create music is so deep within us it must serve a very basic purpose. And what purpose is more basic, more fundamental, than procreation? Likely none, and there is likely no greater purpose belonging to music, evolutionarily speaking, than to bring people close together — very close together.

  • Transcript


Aides: Hey Bill Nye, Aiden from California. I'm a musician, a songwriter, and I really would like to know what makes music so human and powerful in its nature? Thank you.

Bill Nye: Well Aiden, as you know I know everything. I don't know why but it sure is deep within us. Now, I remember when I was in school people in psychology class talked about dogs responding to octaves, that is the doubling of the frequency. And so there may be something to that that there are natural resonances that appeal to us that have something to do with our voices. I mean I'm not an expert on this but I've been to China and people will listen to sort of western disco music but other music, like a swing music, that doesn't appeal to them. They don't like it. There's something about the traditions with tonal language speakers versus us that doesn't jive, doesn't fit in. But then in Japan it's not a tonal language but they also got something that sounds more like Chinese to me. I don't know, it is deep within us and I will say that if you want to get to Carnegie Hall practice, practice, practice.

I will say scales are very important. Do scales. That's what it's all based on somewhere down there. And if you're going to play the blues, I'm looking at you with your guitar, if you're going to play the blues you got to get a couple minor chords in there. You got to have a major third and a seventh or something like that. But I'm not sure why, but it's got to be just ultimately based on trying to attract a mate. That's got to be what's down in there.