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CAL Dean uses Einstein, Ancient Flute to show Music is Universal

The Dean of CAL discusses the roots of music with students and faculty. |  Josh Napier / The Minaret

The Dean of CAL discusses the roots of music with students and faculty. | Josh Napier / The Minaret

Haig Mardirosian, the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters stepped up to the podium on Thursday in Reeves Theatre and said, “Delighted to see all of you, especially the students.

My faculty and colleagues have stopped by to figure out if their dean knows how to think.” The crowd laughed and with this comment felt a sense of what to expect for the next hour.Mardirosian regretted to inform the audience about technical difficulties.

His presentation was based upon big impressive sound, but because of the difficulties he told the crowd they would only hear one sound when they should have been hearing two or five. He began to speak and played the first clip of music and said, “Well, there you go, that’s as big as it gets right now.” So much for that.

The question of the afternoon was: “What’s music all about and where does it come from?”

“If we take this question — what is music — we can define it in at least four different ways. Just so you’re aware, all music is physics. Doesn’t it kill you? You thought you were in the arts and now you’re taking a science course,” Mardirosian said while preparing to define the question at hand.

He informed the students that there can be no music without vibration, whether from string, air or electronic vibration.

According to the Dean, genres are created when groups of people do things similarly and come to be identified as a style from a certain time and place.

Then there is the anthropological view of music in relation to culture and behavior. Mardirosian showed a picture of Lady Gaga on his PowerPoint and explained the reasoning for the picture. He said she is defiantly a representative of
culture, time and place.

He also said that someone told him that if he was going to talk about music he should really use a picture of Lady Gaga, “This is the best I can do for the afternoon, so there you are.”

Acording to the Dean, the New York Times a year ago printed an article about a discovered flute made out of a vulture bone and found to be at least 35,000 years old, dating back to when Neanderthals still roamed the earth. It is considered the oldest musical find in history. He then played a clip of a person playing a replica of this vulture bone flute.

“Does this sounds like it’s that old?” Mardirosian asked. The consensus in the audience was that it did not. The piece sounded a little like Three Blind Mice.Mardirosian began to sing in the tune that the flute had just played: “Three blind dead mice…” He noted, “There’s an extra little hook in there.”

The dean explained that this song was chosen not because the person knew what was being played 35,000 years ago, but just to show that it is possible to play a more modern piece of music on an ancient instrument.

In fact, he said the positioning of the holes were the same as a contemporary instrument, like the bamboo flute. Mardirosian said he had gotten one in a souvenir shop that looked almost identical to the ancient vulture bone flute. He played the same notes on his own souvenir bamboo flute and it sounded very similar to the vulture bone flute.

“If everyone makes music and we’ve traced that back to the beginnings of human existence on the planet, then by rights, by virtue of evolution of who we are and where we sit in our genetic make-up, we should have the capacity to at least understand and speculate on musical purposes.

We have the same ability to think about this as did someone in antiquity,” Mardirosian said. Mardirosian asked the audience to think of a good reason why people make music. He played music to help the students and faculty think.

Some examples of some of the things the audience came up with were: “to defy language barriers,” “for self expression,” “escapism,” “forms of celebration,” “entertainment”’ and “ritual.” Mardirosian used these examples to ask the audience to vote on what they thought the top five purposes for music were.

He guessed 30 votes for both “entertainment” and “self expression,” 22 for “ritual,” 20 for “as a form celebration,” ”12 for “escapism”and six votes for “defying language barriers.”

“Don’t you love my statistical method; this is scholarly work; they do it on the fly,” Mardirosian said about his haphazard guessing method and laughed. When the Dean worked for another institution, he began his classes with a similar question and collected the data.

Over 10 years, he had 286 responses. What he discovered was that the results were similar:
1. self expression, 2. entertainment, 3. dance, 4. social activity and 5. a learned intellect. Mardirosian said the last reason usually came with a grumble and came from children with parents who made them play in the band.

According to Mardirosian, Albert Einstein was considered “stupid” in school, until his parents made him learn the violin.

Einstein spontaneously made music that described problems he was working on.

This goes along with the “Mozart effect.” Music does not make you smarter, but instead enables the brain to achieve the potential for intelligence that the brain already has.

Apparently the ability to learn is connected to tempo.

The noise fires up the brain cells. Sitting in silence is no longer considered the best way to learn.

The Max Plank Society did a study asking people who had never heard western music the same questions the Dean asked the audience. The people came up with the same answers as the westerners had. Mardirosian left the audience with a question to ponder: why does this happen?

Mandy Erfourth can be reached at

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