Submitted at the University of Otago, New Zealand, the thesis "Gesturing, transformations and evolution of musicians' muscular peak" by Priscilla Clark provides tangible evidence of the evolution of the human body related to instrumental practice. In her conclusions, musicians will find answers about the cognitive pathologies resulting from repeated gestures. Explanations and concrete results with the author of the thesis:
CelticHarpBlog: Hi Priscilla, your thesis sounds like a true advocate of the theory of evolution, is this theory so questioned that we must keep looking for evidence?
Priscilla Clark: Yes, and three times yes. Creationists have never been so virulent in their rejection of this theory. Their strategy is based on claiming the absence of any concrete scientific evidence of evolution. On a human scale, no one is able to observe evolution because of its measurement in millions of years, and therefore impossible to verify at our scale. Functional Anatomy, an experimental branch of Anatomy, meets this deficiency by studying tiny genetic changes over just a few generations. This branch is by far the most demonstrative, practical and exemplary of the study of evolution because we can observe concrete phenomena, far from pseudo-philosophical speculations.
CHB: For many years, you have observed the genetic evolution of musicians like violinists, pianists but also harpists. What conclusions do you draw on the evolution of their body related to their instrumental practice?
PC: The main conclusion is that instrumental practice directly affects the anatomy of the musician. We see a real natural selection within musicians' families. For example, we studied a family of four consecutive generations of clarinetists and observed an outgrowth of the second phalanx of the right thumb due to the carrying of the instrument.
Also, the left fifth digit (little finger) within several generations of violinists is subject to increase (probably because of its intensive extension in order to reach high notes, especially on the G string) whereas, within families of harpists, the size of the fifth digits dramatically decreases: almost 1cm less in just three generations!
CHB: Will we end up losing our pinkies?
In genetic selection, one must keep in mind the important functional trait over any aesthetic appeal of the change.
PC: Not only you do not play with the little fingers on the harp but a waste of energy increases consequently from joint movement. This is the cornerstone of Darwin's theory: something useless does not pass through generations, only the positive contributions are preserved and passed on to succeeding generations.
But, and this is one of the other conclusions of my thesis, one must focus on long-term practical human consequences. In other words, think of your children. If you play an instrument like the saxophone, perhaps you should encourage the next generation to learn the mandolin or banjo for example, rather than the same instrument. Otherwise, adopt new "evolutionary strategies". For example, try the strategy employed by some harpists of Latin America: They play with five fingers to strengthen the cartilage of the small fingers. Otherwise, dancing a Breton An dro for at least 20 minutes three times a week strengthens the little fingers very well. It's always good to know!
"Use it or lose it" says the proverb. This is true for our extremities, including those that we do not always think of. Legs too often forgotten by musicians are also prone to this kind of evolution. Thanks to paleontology (also molecular phylogeny), we know that musicians in the 18th century had shorter legs than normal people, probably due to their inactivity. It is only during the following centuries that some measures have been taken in order to oblige the musicians to "move" their legs while playing: the invention of pedals for the classical harp, piano and timpani, street fanfares mandatory to wind and brass instruments, etc. It is important not only to develop the diversity within the population, but also to maintain sizes and various forms of the human body in large numbers to preserve the wealth resulting from millions of years of evolution on our planet.
CHB: What about the feet of musicians playing the Celtic harp, as we do not have pedals?
PC: Well, if you do not have pedals, then you must adopt other strategies to compensate for the genetic weakening of the lower extremities, like beating the tempo with your feet, which is still a good practice to strengthen this part of the body. Anyway, it is not because something is not used that it will disappear automatically: wisdom teeth, hair, etc. are not going away anytime soon!
Did you know that Wagner drew the orchestra pit of the Bayreuth Opera according to the average height of men at his time (1m65 in the late 19th century)? Since this size has been steadily declining since the Middle Ages (on average 6cm less between the 11th and 18th century), Wagner thought that there was no reason to see this trend reversed. This is why the pit is exceptionally low with only 1m85 height at the very bottom despite musicians there play quite large instrument such as the famous Wagnerian Tuba. But the curve of the size of men has quickly reversed since then to reach about 1m80 on average today. Many musicians started to complain of neck injuries due to the bended position they were forced to take to play their instruments. We understand why some orchestras impose size criteria when recruiting musicians. This "functional" selection over several generations causes a decrease in the size of the orchestra musicians who will eventually be smaller than the rest of the population.
More surprising is that the size of the instruments is inversely proportional to the musicians. During history, whereas the size of humans decreases, the one of the instruments increases. It was not until the 19th century that the curves were reversed: humans became taller, while instruments became smaller. The cases of the diatonic accordion compared to the chromatic one and the Celtic harp compared to the pedal harp are obvious. Space restriction even pushes some orchestras to suggest the replacement of the oboe with the much smaller bombarde, but it is difficult to assess what determines this decision: natural evolution or musical reasons?
In all of this, we must understand that we are not the end of evolution but only another step: Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon ... today we are all Homo sapiens. What will we be for tomorrow's next generations? Homo musicabilis! (laughs).
CHB: Priscilla, thank you for these well-documented explanations.
PC: My pleasure.