Saturday, April 21, 2012

I sing, you sing, we all sing, with feeling

On the broad biological origins of music.

Why do we love music?  Is it uniquely human? Where did it develop from, and why do magical chords strike us with such immediate emotion? Why is there such a wide and evocative palette available in music?
"As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed. They are present, though in a very rude and as it appears almost latent condition, in men of all races, even the most savage ... Whether or not the half-human progenitors of man possessed, like the before-mentioned gibbon, the capacity of producing, and no doubt of appreciating, musical notes, we have every reason to believe that man possessed these faculties at a very remote period, for singing and music are extremely ancient arts."
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), from Wallin, Merker, and Brown.

I think the current theories on the origin of music are a little weak, whether for sexual selection among humans showing off, mother-infant bonding, or cultural coordination, etc. They certainly address parts of the story, but fail to put humans into a properly deep evolutionary relationship with other animals.

"There are at least three possible interactive theories for the evolution of music and speech: that music evolved from speech, that speech evolved from music, or that both evolved from a common ancestor. As Erich von Hornbostel wrote in 1905: “The close correlation between language, music, and dance has already occupied the attention of earlier theoreticians. Spencer (1857) considered singing to be emotionally intensified speaking; for Darwin (1871), it was the inherited and mellowed remnant of the courting periods of our animal ancestors, from which language derived at a later stage; Richard Wagner (1852) believed that language and music issued from a common source, that of speech- music” (p. 270). Unfortunately, despite the age of this issue, it is still too early to predict its resolution."  ...  "Second, several authors link music’s adaptive role to its ability to promote coordination, cohesion, and cooperation at the level of the social group." from Wallin, Merker, and Brown.

The fact is that all animals above a certain low level live in a world of sound, especially including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Music touches our emotions most immediately and forcefully, and since emotion is the motive force for life, it stands to reason that there is something about music and its relatives that is not just ornamental, but evolutionarily important not just for humans, but through a very long evolutionary history.

So first off, to ask about the origin of music in humans is like asking about the origin of vision in humans. It is the wrong question, because music, and especially its emotional appreciation, far predates human evolution. Whales sing, birds sing, wolves sing, frogs sing. Even crickets and many other insects sing. We all sing.

Walking through a forest, there can be a cacophany of animal sounds, each expressing some feeling or idea, each meant to be heard by someone else, whether friend or enemy. And I think it is fair to posit that each of these sounds carries emotional power. This is not just anthropomorphism, but simple recognition that animals have fully functional emotions that they express in ways that we might not readily appreciate, but which function much the same way they do for us- as the connecting rod between cognition and action.

When a cow moos, it is expressing a feeling, and its point is not entertainment, but to induce a sympathetic feeling, and appropriate response, in other cows. Likewise for all the calls and songs of other animals. The calls within a species can be richly communicative, (chickadees differentiate their warning calls among serveral predators), while the calls meant for other species (cries of attack, or defense) are more broadly dissonant, sure to be understood instinctively by most targets.

Human language is a highly stylized form of singing/calling that has been abstracted to a symbolic communication stream, though heavily supplemented by movement, facial expression, gestures, and complex tonal and rhythmic inflections. I favor theories that human language developed out of a more general musical form of interaction that is common among animals, and which continues to affect us far more immediately than abstract language does.

In sum, music appreciation seems to be a natural capacity common to most animals, evolved out of the clay of sonic math to communicate and evoke emotions both within and across species. The texture of possible sound varies with a species' size, where elephants use infrasound at super-long wavelengths and birds tend to be very high-pitched.

So, why is the communication of emotion so important? Wouldn't it be typically better to keep personal issues to oneself? The suffering of prey animals is often silent for that reason. But generally, any social species needs some way to share feelings, which leads to social connection and support. Ants don't use sound, as far as I am aware, but have about twelve pheromones they use for communication, plus a lot of touchy-feely behaviors. Only with these kinds of  interactions can some know that others are hungry, or danger alarms spread, or food sources get found.

Likewise with musical sounds for other animals, who don't have the infinitely varied symbolic streams humans have via language, but a more limited, though evolutionarily deeper and more directly evocative palette that is musical tones. Social interactions rely on "mirroring"- the empathic experience of what the other is feeling, so that we can come in aid, flee in fear, or collaborate in sex, among many other important activities. And that is what music is about- mirroring in the most powerful way.

As Steven Pinker states, we have made of music, like our other art forms, confected "ice creams" of cognitive overload, which can make it hard to figure out their core appeal and origin. It is more the appreciation of art that needs to be explained than their methods of creation. Visual animals have strong search images and preferences- seeing certain types of landscapes and faces of familiar or high-status individuals. In touch, we love certain textures and warmth. In foods, we love variety, certain textures and tastes. And in music, we enjoy the cycle of warning tension and release, the pathos of deeply felt tragedy, and the reflected jaunty happiness of the composer, all as ways of connecting with others and with our deepest history.

  • Krugman lays out the links between inequality, corruption, and dysfunction. Corruption in its political, economic, and intellectual senses, with added dollops of institutional sclerosis, viciously circular feedback, and the religion of business "confidence".
  • GOP continues its campaign of deregulatory corruption.
  • Report on BP oil spill- things are getting worse, and the dispersants were not such a good idea.
  • Becoming a religion by accident ... scientology.
  • Cringely returns to IBM, as the hollowed-out corporation.
  • Shariah and Islam.. not so bad after all, as long as you ignore central tenets and practices.
  • “This is what heaven would be like if God were real.”
  • "First they came for “hopefully” and we said nothing."
  • Peak oil, going mainstream.


  1. Another possibilty exist. Music, the harmonious vibration of infinite (but not arbitrary) variation, may be the sound of the divine. The divine path (the Tao) seeks harmony; both simple harmony, but also complex harmonies in infinte (but not arbitrary) variation. Putting the divine into human language (religion) invariable causes disharmony, because words are probably not suited to manifest the divine path (the word that can be spoken is not the eternal Word). Every word limits and causes tension with its opposite, which is also limited. Music soothes; it inspires; it transports; maybe because it is a connection with the divine. A human connection with the vibrations of the universe in the their infinite (but not arbitrary) variation.

  2. Great thoughts, Burk. It does seem likely to me that music and language both evolved out of a more base way of communicating. But I like your basic idea that music became a broader way of communicating, a ceremonial way of expressing emotions in a way that lights up the brain differently than our vernacular speech.

    It reminds me of ideas about the evolution of morality - how it started so basically, and our concept of self has expanded so dramatically that our sense of morality has broadened. The circle has grown. In that sense, music's communication has broadened in scope. Instead of base manipulation, it has become a method of achieving empathy and togetherness. (though there's nothing wrong with a little "base manipulation" now and then)

    There is certainly a natural logic to what sounds consonant and dissonant (the overtone series) - although our tastes to which is more appealing is more in line with the perceived agency we ascribe to the sounds. If we find Shoenberg's purpose inspiring, then the very dissonances become inspiring and pleasing. If we know nothing of his purpose, then perhaps we lose this affinity for his music. Although I know many people who have naturally gravitated towards more dissonant music.

    I am really interested in how music became art. The logic to it. Sonata form is very pleasing, the organization is a pleasure, presenting an overall sense of journey and progression. of variation and repetition, in a way that pleases beyond just whether a particular chord sounds appealing or not.

    Fascinating stuff.

  3. G G G Eb

    F F F D

    And so on. The organization of that single four note motif into a seven minute opening movement is so fantastic.

  4. Catfish-

    That is indeed one hypothesis, very Platonic. But evolution seems a more concrete, validated, and logical framework to put this in, for me as a biologist, and I think generally. Does the divine have much to do with crickets chirping? How can you validate the interaction of the divine and anything else? How does this work?

  5. Steven-

    Thanks! I still have a hard time with dissonance in large helpings. As you say, it can tell a story, as perhaps in Wagner, where one would be emotionally engaged, if not automatically attracted. Or it can be fashionable or high-art, as in the current visual arts scene. My impression is that artists like to perform it more than lay listeners like to hear it, and that is truly interesting / puzzling.

    Another thought is that to someone immersed in the profession, performing the popular old warhorses for the umpteenth time has got to be boring. And lastly, on the spectrum from the Osmonds on into classical and modernist classical, the movement is from superficial to emotionally more rich, complex, and deeper work. Does it ever end? Is that presumption really true? Do great films have to have tragic endings?