Monday, 19 April 2010

The origins of music, part 1

“Music is a strange thing, I would almost say it is a miracle.”
— Heinrich Heine

Most musicologists agree that music — like dance, its close companion — is universal in human cultures. All human beings, apart from those with unusual cognitive deficits, perceive pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre etc, process them as music in various parts of our brains, and experience emotional responses. This seems to be true at least as far back as 35,000 years ago, when examples of musical instruments from the Upper Paleolithic provide the first unequivocal evidence of music-making. Given the sophistication of those examples, the history of instruments probably extends back even earlier, implying that music has always been practiced by anatomically and behaviourally modern human beings. It is also conceivable that musicality existed in some form amongst pre-sapiens human species. So music is both ubiquitous and ancient.

All existing human societies have music — whereas not all have literacy. Parents and carers the world over sing to babies, who are sensitive from birth to tonal variation and rhythm. We use music to motivate armies, to marry, to bury the dead, to worship deities and for sheer fun; we listen in groups and alone; it can make us happy or sad. Although music takes an infinite variety of cultural forms, key elements like rhythm and repetition are common to all, and even people who consider themselves ‘unmusical’ can enjoy and participate in it. Enjoyment of music has no national boundaries, meaning that whereas an untranslated poem will be incomprehensible to millions of people, a piece of music may be appreciated by anyone, and this remains true even of music from completely different periods and cultures to one’s own. In 1973 the British musicologist John Blacking put this well:

Music can transcend time and culture. Music that was exciting to the contemporaries of Mozart and Beethoven is still exciting, although we do not share their culture. The early Beatles’ songs are still exciting although the Beatles have unfortunately broken up. Similarly, some Venda songs that must have been composed hundreds of years ago still excite me. Many of us are thrilled by Koto music from Japan, sitar music from India, Chopi xylophone music, and so on… I am convinced that the explanation for this is to be found in the fact that at the level of deep structures in music there are elements that are common to the human psyche, although they may not appear in the surface structures.[1]

Despite music’s extraordinary universality and its evident importance in human culture (including its part in an entertainment industry worth billions of dollars), research into its origins and evolution has been relatively scarce. Only in the last decade or two, which have seen a surge of interest in human cognition, have scientists begun to study it consistently. There have been Marxist texts on aspects of music (e.g. Sidney Finkelstein, Theodor Adorno) but to my knowledge none on its origins.

Has music existed from the beginnings of Homo sapiens, or in earlier human species? What was it for? How does it relate to the development of language and other capacities? Did it give some kind of evolutionary advantage? These are not easy questions, and I will be offering no concrete answers, as music’s origins are still opaque. Our theories can be difficult to test in the face of the incomplete archaeological evidence. Like language, music does not fossilise.

Even defining music is not straightforward. Trying to do so according to particular styles or instruments, for example, is an obvious dead end. All cultures use rhythm, vocals and melody, together with bodily movements, in order to organise sound, but musical practice varies enormously across cultures. There is always an exceptional case — such as John Cage’s 4’ 33”, a piece consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence played by any combination of instruments — to confound definitions [2]. The best we can do is focus on what most music tends to be like, and recognise that not all ‘universal’ musical traits will appear in all music. Although we know of no society that did not have music in practice, a concept of music is not universal, and some cultures (such as the Ewe people of Western Africa) do not even have a word for it, or at least for what the West means by it.

Our understanding of music is further complicated by the subjectivity of our response to it. Some people are obsessed by music, or by one specific form of it, whereas others have no taste for it at all. Every human being will respond to a piece of music in different ways, and furthermore, a person’s reactions to the same piece can vary from one day to the next.

One of music’s most important abilities is arousing emotions in the people who hear it. We shall consider this elsewhere, because we are interested in aesthetically aroused emotion as a topic pertinent to all art forms.

The biology of music

The universality of music suggests that our capacity to create and enjoy it is to some extent genetic, so in our search for its origins we need to draw upon anthropology and evolutionary theory. If we can identify the physiological capacities necessary for making music, we may be able to discover when humans first became capable of it, and gain other insights into its nature.

Like any art, music is not only produced but is also perceived by an audience. (The two cannot be separated, as we only make art that we know can be perceived.) Let us begin with production.

We know from the tool record that human species long before Homo sapiens had the dexterity to hit two objects together in a way that would function as percussion. But even this does not represent the earliest potential limit for musicality. Part of the musical skill set amongst modern hunter-gatherers requires purely bodily actions such as body-slapping, hand-clapping, stamping and so on, which require only basic primate physiology.

One of the first musical skills, predating the creation of instruments, must have been some form of singing. Singing is almost impossible to trace via the fossil record, but for vocalisations in general we have more evidence. Many animals use vocalisations to serve various functions: courtship, territorialism, aggression, and so on. Some species, such as parrots and bats, can even learn vocal [3] behaviours instead of merely inheriting them. Our hominid ancestors must also have had a repertoire of vocalisations, gestures and other behaviours which, following an increase in general intelligence from Australopithecus or early Homo, provided the foundation for more complex communication later. Humans can produce far more sounds than other apes — partly because of the construction of their vocal system, e.g. the descended larynx which extended the vocal tract and increased the range of sounds we could make, and partly because of our gift for vocal learning and imitation.

It is possible that a vocal apparatus capable of chanting and singing dates as early as Homo ergaster (1.8–1.3 million years ago), though the evolutionary biologist W. Tecumseh Fitch has argued that singing requires more precise control and breathing capacity even than normal speech, which would date true singing much later, perhaps to the split between the Neanderthal and modern human lineages. [4] It is likely that Neanderthals had a vocal apparatus much like ours: amongst other similarities, a Neanderthal hyoid bone from 60,000 years ago is similar to that of humans, and their larynx was low in the throat like our own.[5]

As for the perception of music, this depends upon our auditory and cognitive abilities, themselves a product of the evolutionary process. The human ear has thousands of nerve endings that send signals to the brain, and it is sensitive to a great range of frequencies and dynamics. It converts sounds into neural messages which are interpreted by parts of the brain in terms of pitch, rhythm, melody, timbre, time, and so on. This can provoke a variety of physiological and emotional responses such as foot-tapping, swaying, weeping and the rest. Processing music requires some brain specialisation and a division of labour between the hemispheres.

It seems from the study of infants that our perception of music is innate. Despite certain difficulties (not least infants’ inability to tell us what they are perceiving), research such as that of psychologist Sandra Trehub has shown that infants can recognise differences in tone, melody, key and rhythm, sometimes better even than adults. Patricia Kuhl, a researcher in language and brain development, found that babies have an “exquisite sensitivity” to speech, preferring to listen to ‘parentese’ [6], the lulling half-sung speech used by parents with infants. As this sensitivity occurs even before language, it is possible that the mechanisms involved are very ancient, predating our species.

The range of frequencies perceived by the ear approximates to the range of frequencies of our vocalisations (making our auditory system very well suited to perceiving singing). It is probable that our vocal and auditory abilities evolved in a close relationship with one another.

On one level our musicality can be reduced to electrical contacts firing through some of the hundred billion of the brain’s neurons, or nerve cells. We know that parts of the brain are responsible for different functions: two sections named Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area for example are essential for language, and defects in or injuries to the brain can damage people’s ability to understand language (aphasia) or music (amusia).

But aspects of music such as rhythm, melody and pitch seem to be processed in different areas, and there is no evidence that there is any one ‘music area’ of the brain. Consider the totality of a musician playing a tune on an instrument: the process requires not just neurological activity relating to melody but also memory (for remembering what fingering is required to get the desired sound), motor skills, listening to and assessing the sounds one is making, breath control, social awareness of the audience’s reaction, etc. The brain’s functions and physical spaces — whether or not one believes it is modular — overlap in complex ways that are poorly understood. The reason there is such a variety of cognitive deficits is because these functions can go wrong in different places, and it is possible that the brain sees the aspects of music as specific examples of more general cognitive tasks rather than identifying it as one musical process. Any hunt for a ‘music gene’ will, like all genetic determinism, be in vain.

The limits of biology

There is certainly a biological aspect to music (without auditory organs, we wouldn’t be able to listen to it) but possessing a physiological equipment capable of producing and perceiving music is a different matter to actually using it for that purpose. Evidence from Blombos Cave and elsewhere suggests that we had the capacity for art before the emigration from Africa — though unequivocal evidence for music does not exist prior to the appearance of musical instruments in the Upper Paleolithic — but as we have discussed, the flowering of true art seems to have come thousands of years later and was probably driven by culture. Tracking only the physiological capacity for music is clearly not going to be enough: we must also ask when, how and why we began to use it.

A crow’s syrinx is no less developed than a nightingale’s, but its croak hardly compares to the latter’s song; nearer to home, Neanderthals’ vocal equipment may well have been similar to ours, but there’s no unequivocal evidence that they were at all musical. Any physiological similarity to ourselves in earlier human species does not mean that they created music, as it is understood by behaviourally modern Homo sapiens, because a qualitative leap of consciousness separates us from them.

As Marx himself observed: “It is obvious that the human eye enjoys things in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc.”[7] By this he meant that sights and sounds are experienced differently by an animal to how they are experienced by a self-aware human being. Humans are tool-making, creative, universal beings. Although humans are not strictly unique in making tools, having culture, etc, the reality is that in the sum of our creative and intellectual powers we are unique among animal species. This is why birdsong, the most obvious instance of ‘musicality’ in animals, cannot be considered to be music. However beautiful it may sound to humans, the ‘musical’ behaviours of animals are fixed, functional activities, not creative ones.

Also, of course, music as practised by actual human beings always takes a concrete form mediated by the social context lived in by the musicians. The biological aspect of music doesn’t explain why particular groups or individuals produced particular ‘works’. To ignore this wider context is to distort our understanding and turn music into an abstraction. This is what allowed evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller to make conclusions like this:

I took random samples of... jazz albums... rock albums... and classical music works... Males produced ten times as much music as females, and their musical output peaked in young adulthood, around age thirty, near the time of peak mating effort... [This suggests] that music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display, mostly broadcast by young males to attract females.[8]

Miller’s view is that music, which makes great demands on our time and energy, must have evolved as an adaptation, specifically as a way of finding a mate.

It is true that complex sound displays in other animals, such as birds, are related to sexual selection, so it is not unreasonable to explore this in humans. Darwin originally proposed the idea in The Descent of Man, writing, “it appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavoured to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”[9] No doubt plenty of males, as in Miller’s model, have succeeded in winning women’s sexual attention with their skill in music. But Miller’s reduction of music to a heterosexual courtship display, with reference to a narrow sample of modern Western practice (e.g. the promiscuity of Jimi Hendrix), is not adequate to explain most of the music created across human cultures. There is a huge qualitative difference between human music-making and the courtship calls of animals, however fascinating and complex the latter can be. Also it is ignorant, at best, to take male predominance in popular music at face value and ignore the intense sexism that has dominated cultural production.

In my view sexual selection is an unlikely explanation of music for three reasons. Firstly, sexual selection in animals is usually accompanied by sexual dimorphism, i.e. a divergence of form or capacity between the sexes. Musical performance for sexual selection is most animals is exclusively performed by males, but in humans, males and females are born with equal musical ability. Secondly, musicality exists from birth, whereas human sexual characteristics generally come into play later in childhood and adolescence. Thirdly, the great majority of music is created by groups involving the whole community, not least to encourage collective identity — not for individual sexual display. Poor examples of evolutionary psychology do not necessarily discredit evolutionary psychology in principle, but Miller’s approach serves more to ‘prove’ reactionary social stereotypes than to take science forward.

Opinions on the origins of music tend to divide into two camps: one seeing it as an evolutionary adaptation, principally serving natural selection (e.g. sexual selection as with Miller), and one seeing it as a product of other cognitive adaptations and less adaptively important in itself (e.g. Steven Pinker). It is however possible to consider it as a mixture of both. With this context in mind, our next post will look at one of the most popular evolutionary theories: ‘musilanguage’.



[1] John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (1973).
[2] This work by Cage should nonetheless be considered music because it is organised sound, albeit one where the sound is playfully silenced, within a tradition of comparable sound performances (i.e. classical concerts).
[3] ‘Vocal’ is distinct from ‘verbal’, which implies language.
[4] W. Tecumseh Fitch, ‘The Evolution of Music in Comparative Perspective’ (2005).
[5] See for example d’Errico et al, ‘Archaeological Evidence for the Emergence of Language, Symbolism, and Music — An Alternative Multidisciplinary Perspective’, Journal of World Prehistory (2003).
[6] Sometimes called ‘baby talk’, ‘infant-directed speech’ or ‘motherese’. I don’t recommend the latter term, as it is sexist in its implication that communicating with infants is a domain for women.
[7] Karl Marx, ‘Private Property and Communism’, Third Manuscript, 1844 Manuscripts (1844).
[8] Geoffrey Miller, ‘Evolution of Human Music Through Natural Selection’, from Wallin, Merker and Brown (eds), The Origins of Music (2000).
[9] Darwin, Chapter XIX of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

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