Photo: Denver’s Josie Quick | David George Haskell, Wired | A gesture as simple as holding the violin is intimately connected to our biology. This story is adapted from Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, by David George Haskell.
I first held a violin in my late forties. Placing it under my chin, I let go an impious expletive, astonished by the instrument’s connection to mammalian evolution. In my ignorance, I had not realized that violinists not only tuck instruments against their necks, but they also gently press them against their lower jawbones. Twenty-five years of teaching biology primed me, or perhaps produced a strange bias in me, to experience holding the instrument as a zoological wonder. Under the jaw, only skin covers the bone. The fleshiness of our cheeks and the chewing muscle of the jaw start higher, leaving the bottom edge open. Sound flows through air, of course, but waves also stream from the violin’s body, through the chin rest, directly to the jawbone and thence into our skull and inner ears.
Music from an instrument pressed into our jaw: These sounds take us directly back to the dawn of mammalian hearing and beyond. Violinists and violists transport their bodies—and listeners along with them—into the deep past of our identity as mammals, an atavistic recapitulation of evolution.
The first vertebrate animals to crawl onto land were relatives of the modern lungfish. Over 30 million years, starting 375 million years ago, these animals turned fleshy fins into limbs with digits and air-sucking bladders into lungs. In water, the inner ear and the lateral line system on fish’s skin detected pressure waves and the motion of water molecules. But on land the lateral line system was useless. Sound waves in air bounced off the solid bodies of animals, instead of flowing into them as they did underwater.
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