Friday, September 25, 2009

Darwin the Musician

While responding to a comment on a previous post I came across this bit of information which is too good not to share.
Nothing is known about Darwin's musical disposition as a child. There is no indication that he ever played a musical instrument, nor had an appreciation of music in general. As a young man Darwin acquired a taste for classical music while studying at Cambridge University. He often visited King's College there, and would sit for hours listening to the church choir.

What is interesting about Darwin's fondness for music is that he was tone deaf, and had a very difficult time recalling a tune he just heard the day before. Darwin was also unable to hum a tune properly, or keep time to music as he was listening to it. As far as specific composers go, he loved the symphonies and overtures of Mozart, Handel and Beethoven. In the evenings his wife, Emma, who was quite an accomplished pianist (she was trained by Frederic Chopin), would play for him on her piano forte as he reclined on a nearby sofa.


Anonymous said...

Unsure about the definition of tone deaf. Anyone who can enjoy music cannot actually be truly tone deaf. Perhaps this is a naive statement by a biographer who is not musical? That Darwin could not restate a theme the next day is no proof he was tone deaf as I understand the term. Anyone who would enjoy Beethoven or his wife play Chopin would be an individual who could discern difference between pitches.

I looked to WIKI which had a link from tone deafness to Darwin, but in the article about Darwin on WIKI no mention was made of this, so it may well be a case of scholarship.

Darwin seemed to be aware of and appreciate music, for he commented that music seemed related to sex selection. And who doesn't like a pretty tune? Or what couple doesn't associate certain music with certain life cycle events?

Anonymous said...

From a book review:

Charles Darwin was so captivated by his musician wife Emma's daily piano playing that her music influenced at least two key evolution theories formulated by the British naturalist, according to a new paper.

The paper, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Endeavor, suggests that Charles Darwin's home life, and particularly his love of music, played a larger role than many might think in shaping his work, such as his groundbreaking book "On the Origin of Species," authored 150 years ago.

"The long-term marital dance of Emma and Charles Darwin was set to the routine beat of an almost daily piano recital," according to Julian Derry, who told Discovery News that "music was central to home life and a panacea after a hard day's work, or often when not feeling well."


Charles' appreciation of music began before marriage when, as a Cambridge student, he used to time his walks in order to hear anthems issuing from King's College Chapel.

"This gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver," he later wrote.

The naturalist frequently lamented his own lack of musical skills, which seemed to heighten his admiration of Emma's playing, usually enjoyed while he reclined on a living room sofa. Derry believes such evenings contributed to Darwin's theory of sexual selection.

Anonymous said...

Darwin on Darwin:

My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have also lost my taste for pictures or music. My mind seems to have become a machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts.

If I had to live my life again, I would make a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week. The loss of these is a loss of happiness.

--- From The Life and Letters of Darwin, Quoted in Kinsey, by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy