Dinosaurs couldn’t sing. Perhaps their demise had nothing to do with earth impacting asteroids or the frustration of tiny arms after all and was instead triggered by their physical inability to sing. Now, I’m no scientist but…
Findings from a report published last year suggest the Jurassic age was filled with awkward silences punctuated only by squawks, leaf munching and worse. Without the option to experience the joy of shared breathing patterns, matched heartbeats or the release of life affirming endorphins catalysed by singing together, life in the days of the dinosaurs must have been bleak. Imagine having no way to celebrate the break of a new day or the setting of an evening sun. Imagine a world without song.
The oldest, complete example of a found fossilised syrinx belonged to a species of ancient bird related to the ducks and geese of today called Vegavis iaai, which lived during the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic Era between 66-69 million years ago.
The specimen was dug up on Vega Island in Antartica by a team from the Argentine Antarctic Institute, led by Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at The University of Texas. Twenty five years later, upon subsequent re-examination in 2013, Clarke and her team discovered the fossilised bird was found to contain a complete syrinx, the avian equivalent of a human larynx or ‘voice box’.
The team spent the next two years searching records of previous Jurassic finds to establish whether earlier examples of a syrinx existed. Their research came to nothing, with all other examples of fossilised syrinxes occurring in species of birds that evolved long after the extinction of land-based dinosaurs.
This discovery was important as it offered insight into the Jurassic soundscape: Without a syrinx, those poor old land lubbin’ dinosaurs would have been incapable of song:
“To speculate wildly, we might have closed-mouth booms more similar to crocodilians in large-bodied dinosaurs like T. rex…..said Clarke.”
If you’re thinking okay, enough about dinosaurs already, what does all this have to do with community music? Well, for the sake of this blog, what’s relevant was a subsequent observation of Clarke and her team:
“…the evolution of vocal behaviour can provide insights into other anatomical features… such as the development of bigger brains.”
Aha, now this is more like it! Jumping from the Jurassic age into the 21st century, a study led by Dr Vanessa Sluming from the University of Liverpool and published in 2002 of a British Symphony Orchestra found that musicians exhibited larger volumes of grey matter in Broca’s area, the part of our brains responsible for language and verbal working memory, and this volume varied depending on how many years they’d been playing their instrument.
“Although this area declines with age, orchestral players kept more of their brain cells than non-players, as they aged.” Dr Vanessa Sluming
Furthermore, it’s well documented that singing and learning songs builds neurological pathways, and also boosts levels of acetylcholine in the brain, an organic chemical which functions as a neurotransmitter sending messages through the brain and playing a highly important role in memory retention.
In committing new material to memory and then drawing on that in the context of our singing and music making, we improve our capacity to recall and remember.
Valuable for all this and more, community music making provides the opportunity to simply celebrate being alive. We should all keep learning and singing new songs and playing new tunes, recalling favourites from the archives along the way and our long term mental health and well-being will reap the rewards. And we should all be grateful not to have been born a dinosaur.
Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria
Music improves brain power – in some performers
Do musicians have bigger brains?
Boost your memory and your brain by singing
And further reading on dinosaurs…
Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic https://www.nature.com/articles/nature19852.epdf?referrer_access_token=N4n-vV1ZFQa_2ZrBCVDDqNRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0POdDZwZ05Pa-IKumwU5iqFPqb9J0RCiSbNodY9t6fsIlllkLV3NV3ydjAEF95r56mcI_GYrpf2Qnn5rc1s0gl6sKaUASwdqhDR20W53nuCUV_E8jqkJBnLnuEms1KFl1PFBulm