23.04.2012, Words by Charlie Jones

Humans and music – who made who?

Interesting conversation between two psychologists discussing whether music came before or after we evolved is totally worth a read.

A great article in US magazine The Atlantic today questioned whether or human invented music or whether music invented humans. One psychologist, Gary Marcus, believes music is a cultural invention, while his colleague Geoffrey Miller believes it to be an evolutionary boon, fating back far earlier. The full text is totally fascinating – did you know the earliest known instrument is a bone flute from around 35,000 BC? – but here some selected highlights:

Music is everywhere, but it remains an evolutionary enigma. In recent years, archaeologists have dug up prehistoric instruments, neuroscientists have uncovered brain areas that are involved in improvisation, and geneticists have identified genes that might help in the learning of music. Yet basic questions persist: Is music a deep biological adaptation in its own right, or is it a cultural invention based mostly on our other capacities for language, learning, and emotion? And if music is an adaptation, did it really evolve to promote mating success as Darwin thought, or other for benefits such as group cooperation or mother-infant bonding?

Miller: A lot of music’s features vary across cultures, especially in elite/pretentious music like Arnold Schoenberg, Indian ragas, or Chinese opera. But every culture includes singing, drumming, and dancing, and many aspects of folk music look fairly universal, such as rhythm, dance, pitch contours, scales, structural repetition, and timbre changes to express emotion

Marcus: When ethnomusicologists have traded notes to try figure out what’s universal about music, there’s been surprisingly little consensus. Some forms of music are all about rhythm, with little pitch, for example. Another thing to consider is the music is not quite universal even with cultures. At least 10 percent of our population is “tone deaf,” unable to reproduce the pitch contours even for familiar songs. Everybody learns to talk, but not everybody learns to sing, let alone play an instrument. Some people, like Sigmund Freud, have no interest in music at all. Music is surely common, but not quite as universal as language.

Miller: What about the fact that responsiveness to music starts in the womb, and kids show such a keen interest in music?

Marcus: My best guess is that early interest in music is parasitic on language. We’re born to listen for language, and music sounds sort of like language, so kids respond. But given the choice, infants prefer speech to instrumental music, and my lab’s research suggests that they analyze language more carefully than music.


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