One of thing things that is common to all of mankind and has been for all of recorded history is the presence of musical ability and expression. Music has transcended throughout every era and every culture and has been constantly changing and evolving alongside with humans.

It has played such a significant role in the history of mankind, yet little is known about how humans acquired musical ability and why it evolved as a part of our species. For what reasons did musical ability develop in humans?

The purpose of this investigation is to answer this question and reveal more about why music became a part of mankind.

Music in the Early Man

One thing is known for sure about music: humans have had musical characteristics for a very long time. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that primitive man was using drums and flutes long before the last Ice Age, which was over 20 000 years ago.

A recent article from BBC exhibited a set of flutes found by archaeologists that were determined to be 42 000 to 43 000 years old through the use of carbon dating. The flutes were fashioned for bird bones and mammoth ivory.

They were proof that music existed long before there was any recorded history. According to scientists, it was clear that music was a part of the day-to-day life of early humans.

Even as time progressed, music continued to be of importance to mankind. By 3000 B.C. when history began to be recorded in China, sophisticated musical theories were starting to develop. The other major ancient civilization from which there was very early music was Egypt.

The clay figures shown in Figure 1 depict a noble Egyptian couple being serenaded by a harpist and three singers clapping out the rhythm. The figures were made about five thousand years ago and were buried as part of a ritual. They give evidence of the role that music played in the lives of early humans.

The Benefits of Music to Early Humans

According to archaeological findings, early humans used music for many social contexts. It was used for religious rituals and possibly recreational reasons, similar to how humans still use music today. It has been argued by some researchers that the musical behaviour in humans is part of what gave them the advantage over other species, such as the Neanderthals.

The Neanderthals went extinct approximately 30000 years ago, while the humans expanded their territory to make it easier to survive. Music allowed humans to maintain larger social networks, which helped them expand the territory and give them an edge over the Neanderthals, who were more conservative and demographically more isolated.

Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection

The famous scientist Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of Natural Selection, had his own views on the origins of music in mankind. His theory of the “survival of the fittest” stated that organisms containing genotypic traits that made them better suited to their environment were more likely to survive, reproduce, and increase in number, passing these successful traits to succeeding generations.

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In Darwin’s publications, he made specific reference to his thoughts on why music originated as a trait in humans. Darwin theorized that music originated in humans as a part of mating rituals. Males struggled for the attraction of the females, and music became a successful tool in finding mates.

Through sexual selection and natural selection, the successful trait of musical cognitive ability in humans was passed down, because those who were able to employ music were able to find mates and therefore reproduce and pass down their genes. The musical origins in humans can therefore be explained in part through evolutionary principles.

Music in Nature

The concept of music is not an abstract idea invented by the human species. The foundation for the creation of musical ideas was already present for humans everywhere in nature. Many animals make unique sounds for different purposes such as mating or communication.

Birds employ the use of song to communicate alarm, to attract mates, and to mark their territory. These songs have varied pitches and inclinations depending on their purpose. The bird song is an example of how melody and harmony are natural parts of the environment.

A fundamental part of music is rhythm. Rhythm is the underlying structure of all musical ideas and gives the music a sense of order. To explain how pitches and tones came together to form structured rhythms in music, one can examine all the places in the natural world where rhythm can be found.

Rhythm is defined as a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound, and with this definition, it is clear that rhythms are found everywhere. The theory of quantum physics states that everything exists in a state of constant vibration. This means that every single particle that makes up everything in the universe possesses a rhythmic quality.

On a bigger scale, rhythms are found in many naturally occurring processes. Cycles in nature such as the seasons, the periods of daylight, and dark and tidal patterns all follow periodic recurrences. The phases of the moon, as seen in Figure 2, are examples of how recurring rhythmic patterns are a fundamental part of the universe.

The power of rhythm also regulates bodily functions such as the heartbeat, breathing, brain waves, and sleeping patterns. Scientists believe that rhythm is an important part of life, and that lack of rhythm can indicate illness. With rhythm so deeply embedded into the nature of the human species, it is no surprise that musical ideas developed from the powerful structuring of rhythm.

Arguably the significant rhythm in a human’s life is the beating of the mother’s heart heard while in the womb. An unborn baby is united with its mother through her heartbeat. It is the first thing that every human feels, hears, and experiences. When a baby is born, it feels the loss of the constant, reassuring rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat and attempts to replace it with the crying of its own voice.

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Every human being could hear the reassurance of the mother’s heartbeat long before they could see anything. This emphasizes the importance of a steady rhythm to humans and provides an explanation for why that transformed into the structured rhythm of the music.

The Musilanguage Model of Music Evolution

The Musilanguage model is a hypothesis by Stephen Brown to describe how ancestral human traits evolved into language and musical abilities. He hypothesized that the common structural features shared by music and language were evidence that they co-developed, one emerging from the other. He viewed both music and language as “collective, real-time repetitions of formulaic sequences.” (Wallin 301)

This theory of music evolving from the precursor of language or vice versa can be contrasting to the model of music origin that views music as property determined by its adaptive roles (e.g. mating).

Music and Cognitive Processes

Referring back to Darwin’s theory of musical origins, it is apparent that a human’s capacity for musical expression is a heritable trait that is passed down through the generations. This is because “Traits that are common among all people give evidence of a biological rather than cultural basis for that behaviour.” (Sebald 30)

Therefore, every human being has a biological guarantee of musicianship, which means that all humans have the capacity to at least listen to and interpret musical ideas. Although some scientists may argue that musical ability does not confer any survival benefits, they are unable to see the indirect benefits that music has provided for the human species.  The fact that musical ability was provided for in our neurophysiological structures indicates that it is of significance to the human species and not an arbitrary thing.

Cognitively, the development of musical ideas is partially what developed humans’ minds to be more sophisticated than other species such as the Neanderthals. The structure and logic that are required for music-making improved the mental capacities of early humans. Music is in part what distinguishes humans from other animals and has played a role in shaping our minds to possess the enormous capabilities that we have today.

Works Cited

Levitin, Daniel J.. This is your brain on music: the science of a human obsession. New York, N.Y.: Dutton, 2006. Print.

Levitin, Daniel J.. The world in six songs: how the musical brain created human nature. New York: Dutton, 2008. Print.

Menuhin, Yehudi, and Curtis W. Davis. The music of man. Toronto: Methuen, 1979. Print.

Sebald, David, and Donald Hodges. Music in the Human Experience. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Smith, Hermann. The world’s earliest music: traced to its beginnings in ancient lands,. London: W. Reeves, 1904. Print.

Wallin, Nils L., Björn Merker, and Steven Brown. The origins of music. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. Print.


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