Sunday, 16 May 2010

The origins of music, part 3: Social bonding

We have already expressed some scepticism about the idea that music’s origins lie in sexual selection. That does not mean that natural selection has not played a part in some other form.

Plenty of thinkers across history have decided that the arts have no practical use whatsoever. Adaptive value may lie in other processes which make music possible, rather than in music itself. If that is so, then in evolutionary terms music is a tremendous waste of time and energy.

We may more or less agree with the musicologists Cross, Zubrow and Cowan that “from a cognitive-scientific perspective, music is inescapably material, being evidenced in musical behaviours; behind human behaviours lie human minds, and behind human minds lie embodied human brains.” [1] In order for music to originate in evolution, even if only partly, it must be demonstrated to have given our Pleistocene ancestors some kind of advantage in natural selection: that is, in survival and procreation. The sheer ubiquity of music suggests to many thinkers that is not a mere by-product or accident. At the same time, recognising an evolutionary heritage does not require us to be reductive or deny creative freedom. Our palaeo-anthropological past is one thing, post-Human Revolution creative practice is another. Human consciousness has allowed us to go beyond our evolutionary inheritance.

We referred in the last post to the ideas of Dissanayake and Mithen on infant-directed speech. In this post we shall look at another significant adaptive theory centred upon social bonding. Our task is two-fold: to ask whether music does in fact reinforce social bonding, and if so, to work out if it does so as ‘evolution’ or as ‘cheesecake’.

Music as a collective activity

When we are infants we are very effective at creating non-verbal sound that communicates a solipsistic need. In babies, this is usually a demand for something, such as food, drink or reassurance. As we get older, we are forced to come to terms with the existence of others who have their own intentions and demands, and must relinquish our infantile egotism. Part of this involves learning the structures through which our self-objectification is normally expressed. Learning to hum and sing along the lines of what is considered music in our culture, and in combination with others, rather than producing noise to please ourselves, is an essential socialising process.

Music in modern Western society is often a passive activity, in the sense that the listener becomes a non-participating audience for the work of professional musicians. This separation of ‘artist’ and ‘audience’ is unusual — a product of the compartmentalised, commodified society of capitalism — but even then, the relationship between artist and audience creates a collective experience. Mithen notes that “music-making is first and foremost a shared activity, not just in the modern Western world, but throughout human cultures and history.” [2] This doesn’t mean that music can’t be created or enjoyed by just one person, or a couple of individuals, but it was and is normal in most societies for music to be a group activity in which everyone may take part.

In this, music is different to most other arts. It is not inconceivable for people to paint, sculpt or declaim poetry simultaneously with other practitioners in one creative event, but it is very far from usual practice. Music and dance therefore are peculiarly suited to the active expression of a collective identity.

In doing so they call upon responses which go beyond the arts. The historian William McNeill, recalling his basic training as a US conscript, commented on his experience of military drill:

Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.[3]

McNeill concluded that there was “something visceral at work”, a satisfying sense of social cohesion and solidarity through rhythmic and musical group movement that he terms “muscular bonding”.

Paleolithic bone flutes show we were making instruments at the time of our cultural flowering 40,000 years ago, and non-instrumental music must have long predated that. So not only are music and dance used in various forms to encourage group solidarity across the world, they probably always have been. The biologist Walter J. Freeman has pointed out that “anthropologists and ethnopsychiatrists have documented the prevalence in preliterate tribes of singing and dancing... during religious and social ceremonies.” [4] In these ceremonies, the members of the social group gather together with shamans/priests and musicians, and dance themselves into a trancelike state to the accompaniment of clapping, drumming, chanting etc until they collapse with exhaustion. In the trance, individualism is broken down, with each individual repeating a set of rhythmic movements to the unifying glue of music. “There is no reason to doubt,” writes Freeman, “that these activities give great pleasure and catharsis to those caught up in the communal spirit of the events, and that immersion in the dance is followed by a refreshed sense of belonging to the tribe.”

For similar reasons, music is regularly used throughout social life: wedding marches and parties, military parades, funerals, religious rites and so on. There is plenty of evidence that the “strange sense of personal enlargement” described by McNeill is a genuine phenomenon. But if music can help encourage social bonding, what evolutionary advantage might it have conferred?

The possible adaptive value of music

On this question we are limited to educated speculation. Certain clues do suggest an adaptive explanation: the universality of music to all human cultures, its likely great age, the possession of musical skills by infants, its use to mark key stages in our lives, and its ability to rouse emotions and give pleasure.

The anthropologists Hagen and Bryant have proposed that music and dance evolved as a ‘coalition signalling system’ that allowed cooperative alliances between social groups. [5] Humans are unique among primates in being able to form such alliances between groups even when there is no kinship relation. Originating in territorial signals, music and dance could have communicated information about the group’s quality as coalition partners, through such means as co-ordinated vocalisations to signal group strength.

A slightly different approach was taken by another anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, who claimed that the difficulties of communicating and alliance-building in ever-increasing social groups may help to account for the origins of language. For our hominid ancestors, group cohesion was encouraged by social grooming, but once the group grew bigger than about 80 members it was no longer practical for individuals to spend half their day grooming others. Language was a more efficient means of communication, and music — or musilanguage — may have been its precursor, arising out of cooperative primate behaviours.

Encouraging greater cohesiveness may have had its own adaptive value. As human groups became larger, organising a functioning society required co-ordinated and collective behaviour. Solipsistic individuals could never have built a functioning tribe, let alone a civilisation. As Mithen put it:

Music-making is a cheap and easy form of interaction than can demonstrate a willingness to cooperate and hence may promote future cooperation when there are substantial gains to be made... Those who make music together will mould their own minds and bodies into a shared emotional state, and with that will come a loss of self-identity and a concomitant increase in the ability to cooperate with others. In fact, ‘cooperate’ is not quite correct, because as identities are merged there is no ‘other’ with whom to cooperate, just one group making decisions about how to behave.[6]

During the Ice Age, an increasingly complex human nature and society demanded social, collective action by human groups. The advantage may have resided in the ability of some groups of (musical) hominids to outperform other (non-musical) groups through superior group morale and cooperation.

Critics such as Steven Pinker contend that music is linked to domains of human experience that are connected to survival, such as vocalisation, emotion, auditory skills and motor control, but that it is itself only a tantalising by-product of these adaptations. To this we might reply, with musicologist Ian Cross, that music actively exercises those domains. “If the faculties that it exercises are necessary for survival, then the availability of a competence such as music that gives them a periodic workout and is fun into the bargain would seem to be highly adaptive.” [7] By affecting a number of aspects of experience, musical skills could actually promote general development. An infant rocked by a parent singing a lullaby has a complex experience that is sonic, emotional, symbolic, motoric, spatial, social, etc. Bringing together multiple domains on multiple levels, music allows for social interaction within agreed cultural norms, encouraging the flexibility of the mind. It’s for this reason that Cross thinks it may be “the most important thing that we humans ever did”.

Another possible criticism is that music provides no advantages to the social group that are not met by language, which is a more effective form of communication. In reply, we might refer to the musical competences of infants — shared emotional states, stress and rhythm, etc — which predate the ability to talk. One need only attend a concert to experience how music’s power to express emotion is highly effective in bringing people together without requiring any words at all.

For reasons such as these, a strong case can be made for the importance of social bonding in the evolution of music, and that such bonding offered adaptive advantage.


Evolution is a very slow process, and adaptations require millennia. To be an adaptive behaviour, music needs to be immensely old. If we accept the musilanguage theory, which allows musicality to predate our own species, it probably fits this criterion. It is also conceivable that music will have encouraged the propagation of the genes of those who practiced it, e.g. through a variety of benefits resulting from closer social cooperation.

There is however a danger in stressing adaptive models, because we are dealing not with animals but with self-aware human beings. When we discuss music’s ‘evolution’ we must consider both biological and cultural evolution. It is because so much of our musicality is not genetically but culturally transmitted that we see such variation in musical form and content. We are not slaves to biological programming — lots of human sexual practice, for example, has nothing to do with procreation. (It is for that reason that Freud referred to sexuality as a ‘drive’ rather than an ‘instinct’.) In the same way, we can enjoy music in ways which don’t obviously accord with the processes by which it originally arose — even if music did evolve partly as an aid to bonding a group of participants, that doesn’t stop us enjoying it in solitude.

The scientific debate between music as an evolutionary adaptation and as ‘cheesecake’ is still open, and Marxists possess no magical insight that can resolve it either way. I find the arguments for music’s adaptive origins persuasive, but there is no such thing as a ‘correct’ Marxist view on this intriguing question.

[1] Ian Cross, Ezra Zubrow, Frank Cowan, ‘Musical behaviours and the archaeological record: a preliminary study’, Experimental Archaeology. British Archaeological Reports International Series (2002). I would prefer an extended concept of the mind that embraces all our body and partly includes our environment — the mind cannot be constrained to the brain alone.
[2] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
[3] William H. McNeill, Keep Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (1995).
[4] Walter J. Freeman, ‘A neurobiological role of music in social bonding’, from Wallin, Merker and Brown (eds), The Origins of Music (2000).
[5] Edward Hagen and Gregory Bryant, ‘Music and Dance as a Coalition Signalling System’, Human Nature (2003).
[6] Mithen, op. cit.
[7] Ian Cross, ‘Is music the most important thing we ever did? Music, development and evolution’, Music, Mind and Science (1999).

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