Sunday, 30 May 2010

Paleolithic art, part 7: Music in the Paleolithic

As we have discussed, the physiological requirements for music existed from at least the advent of Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago. When humans dispersed from Africa around 70,000 years ago, they had modern behaviours, distinguishing them cognitively from the early generations of Homo sapiens. Only then, I would argue, could we make music as we understand it today.

Like language, music itself leaves no traces and can only be studied indirectly through the material remains of musical behaviours, but archaeological finds of musical instruments prove beyond doubt that Homo sapiens was making music towards the end of the Paleolithic.

We shouldn’t conclude though that music is no older than these surviving instruments. Modern hunter-gatherers often make instruments out of natural materials like skins, wood, hollowed plant stems and gourds, which are perishable, and we have ample evidence that Paleolithic humans had the tool-making skills necessary to make comparable objects. We know from wooden spears found at Schöningen in 1995 that early humans were skilfully working wood, for example, at least 400,000 years ago. Also, we don’t need accessories to make music: the most versatile musical tool of all (and probably the oldest) is the human voice, which can create an immense range of sounds. This could have been accompanied by handclaps or other forms of percussion, such as hitting objects together. Music in this form could in theory predate tool-making. So if the only evidence we consider is the surviving instruments, we will have only the most limited conception of Paleolithic music-making.

Even when instruments still exist, reconstructing the development of music in the Paleolithic is very difficult because only the invention of time travel could reveal to us what music was created with them. Ways of writing music down appeared relatively late — our earliest example of notation is a tablet from Nippur in Mesopotamia dating to around 2000 BCE. Even today, a huge amount of the music created is never written down.

Musical instruments in the Paleolithic

We don’t know when in the Paleolithic humans began making instruments. The simplest percussion instruments — such as rattles, shakers and drums — must predate sophisticated objects like flutes, possibly by many millennia, and they predominate over melodic instruments amongst modern hunter-gatherers. One unusual discovery was a set of mammoth bones found in Mezin in the Ukraine. These were ornamented with red paint and located with a hammer and other items, which invite interpretation as percussion instruments — even as a kind of Ice Age ‘orchestra’.[1] These date to around 20,000 years ago, and it remains to be seen whether we will unearth anything more ancient.

Archaeologists have found many Paleolithic objects which are or may be musical instruments. All the human-made items are made of bone or ivory, because these preserve much better than materials such as wood and skins. There is still considerable debate about whether some of these objects should be identified as instruments.

The archaeologist Iain Morley has concluded that the objects fall into five main types: flutes and pipes, pierced phalanges, bullroarers, rasps, and caves (as exploited for their acoustic effects).[2]

Divje BabeThe object regarded as possibly the oldest surviving musical instrument is a perforated bear femur found at the Divje Babe site in modern Slovenia, thought to date to 43,000 years ago. This object was found in a Mousterian level, associated with Neanderthals. If it was made by Neanderthals, it would predate the Human Revolution often associated with the flowering of symbolic behaviours and art. Archaeologists are still disputing whether this object is part of an instrument or just a bit of bone with two holes in it. A detailed study by Francesco d’Errico and colleagues in 2003 was sceptical, concluding that the perforations were made by a carnivore [3]. Morley considers some rival interpretations and also concludes, albeit with reservations, that this object probably wasn’t a musical instrument. There is little other evidence that Neanderthals made music, so for the moment it is better to err on the side of caution. One of the suggested reasons why our species survived while Neanderthals became extinct is the possession by Homo sapiens of unique cognitive and social powers, which could have made a huge qualitative difference to our ability to create music.

Unambiguous flutes and pipes made by our own species do exist, and are the most numerous sort of instrument, with over 120 claimed examples having been found. (A pipe is blown into directly, whereas a flute is played by blowing across a hole, but not every writer makes this distinction.) More than thirty unequivocal examples survive, all from the European Upper Paleolithic, spanning the Aurignacian, Gravettian and Magdalenian periods. These are often made from bird bones — which are naturally hollow — and have a variable number of holes. The oldest examples were found in caves in Germany and date to around 35,000 years ago. The most complete was from Hohle Fels in Swabia: a flute with five finger holes made from a vulture bone. Two other examples from nearby caves at Geissenklösterle were made of swan bone and mammoth ivory.

Hohle Fels bone flutePaleolithic bone flute, ca. 35,000 years old, from Hohle Fels.

The latter in particular would have required considerable skill, as mammoth ivory is a dense material and difficult to carve. This implies what the flutes’ discoverers call a “well-established musical tradition” [4] that must date further back than these particular specimens. These finds represent the first known unambiguous evidence of music-making, as all other extant Paleolithic instruments post-date 30,000 years ago. The prehistorian Friedrich Seeburger has reconstructed what these prehistoric flutes sounded like using replicas, which you can listen to at the website. These pipes were not mere crude ways of making a noise, but in fact are not far removed from modern flutes and capable of expressive melody.

Another important set of pipes was found at Isturitz in south-west France, where more than twenty items have been found spanning a 15,000-year period from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian. The status of some of these is questionable, but the finest examples have drilled holes and incised decorations and were clearly intended for making music.

The next set of instruments are pierced phalanges or phalangeal whistles. These are made of the phalange bones — in humans, these are the bones of the fingers and toes — of animals such as reindeer and ibex, pierced with a single hole. Blowing across this hole produces a high-pitched sound.

Phalangeal whistlesPhalangeal whistles from France. The two left-hand items are from the Aurignacian site of Tarté; the right-hand item is from Le Moustier. Photo: Duncan Caldwell.

The ease with which such perforations can appear sometimes makes it hard to tell exactly if an object was manufactured. But there is no doubt that some were deliberately made by Paleolithic humans. Whether the whistles were in fact used for music, rather than as noise-makers for other purposes, such as signalling, remains hard to say.

Less common is the third category, the bullroarers — these are flat pieces of bone or wood that make a buzzing or humming sound when spun in the air. (You can hear a sound sample here.) These have been used by many cultures, including modern hunter-gatherers such as the Australian Aborigines. A bullroarer can be made very easily by drilling a hole in a piece of bone, flint or wood and spinning it on a cord, so many perforated Paleolithic objects are open to interpretation as bullroarers. Many have been described as pendants or fishing weights, or as not of human provenance at all. But some of the evidence is stronger, such as the oval specimen carved from reindeer antler found in the cave of La Roche de Birol in the Dordogne, which is incised with a geometric pattern and pierced at one end. It is not certain that this and similar objects from the Paleolithic are bullroarers, but in tests they perform very well as such.

The fourth type of instrument is the rasp, a scraped form of idiophone or vibrating instrument. This is a piece of wood, stone or bone carved with grooves, against which the musician scrapes another object. Likely candidates include a Mousterian mammoth bone discovered in Belgium and dated to 50–40,000 years ago, which has regular striations down one side; a Magdalenian item made of reindeer antler from Pekárna cave in the Czech Republic; and further Magdalenian examples from the French sites of Mas d’Azil and Bruniquel. These objects perform as rasps, but, as with the bullroarers, we still cannot be sure that their purpose was musical.

We have referred before to the bas-relief image from Laussel known as the ‘Woman with a Horn’. Morley points out that the crescent-shaped object in the woman’s right hand resembles an incised bison horn similar to rasps from Mexico.

Woman with a HornThe ‘Woman with a Horn’ from Laussel, ca. 25,000–20,000 years ago.

The final type of instrument is a telling example of how Paleolithic peoples could have used their environment to make sounds in a variety of creative ways. Several prehistorians have observed correlations between cave acoustics and parietal art. Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois studied three caves in the French Pyrenees, making sound tests to draw up a ‘resonance’ map of the caves, and found that most cave paintings are situated one metre from points where the caves resonate to certain notes.[5] They concluded that the paintings’ locations were chosen according to the acoustics of the caves, even when the point of resonance was poorly accessible and did not leave the artists enough room for a full image.

It follows that there may have been rituals or other social events that involved both the paintings and music — above all the human voice, to which the caves’ resonances responded more than to whistles and other instruments. As the archaeologist Chris Scarre noted, “the image of the cave artists chanting incantations in front of their paintings may not be too fanciful.”[6]

Researchers have also noted that stalactites, stalagmites, and other points can produce a tone when struck, thus acting as lithophones.

The caves at NerjaThe caves at Nerja in Andalucia in Spain. Image: Luzzyacentillo

One example of this is the cave of Nerja, a natural amphitheatre in which concerts are performed today. The Belgian archaeologist Lya Dams observed that the so-called ‘organ’, a section of the cave compromising a series of fluted calcareous folds, can produce clear notes when struck. These had been painted with both abstract images and animals, and bear signs of having been hit with hard objects.[7] It is hard to believe that the cave’s Paleolithic occupants would not have noticed this property, so Dams concludes that the ‘organ’ was being used as a lithophone, and that the parietal art was closely connected with this musical purpose.

“Whereas we now visit painted caves in a hushed reverence,” Steven Mithen commented, “they probably once reverberated with the sounds of pipes, stalagmite xylophones, singing and dancing.”[8]

The instruments we’ve considered are all from the Eurasian Upper Paleolithic. This is not down to Eurocentric bias but to the reality of the archaeological record. Instruments from other parts of the world, e.g. the bone flutes found at the Jiahu site near Henan in China, currently date only from the Neolithic. This does not necessarily mean that musical instruments were unique to Europe during the Paleolithic, only that we haven’t found any elsewhere. This absence could be for a variety of reasons — e.g. the preservative quality of the materials used.[9] There is a disparity, unexplained as yet, that anatomically modern humans seem to have emigrated from Africa around 70,000 years ago, but the earliest unequivocal musical instruments appear not in Africa but in Europe nearly 40,000 years later. This gap in the archaeological record may simply be down to the different intensity of research in Europe as opposed to Africa, and future excavation may yet resolve it.

The purpose of Paleolithic music

It is impossible to say what form music took in the Ice Age. If we look to modern hunter-gatherer societies for parallels, we can see that music is likely to have been highly diverse. Bullroarers, for example, are used in quite different ways across cultures; amongst Australian Aborigines alone, their uses vary according to context and to tribal group: in initiation ceremonies, in burial rituals, to ward off spirits, to imitate the voices of spirits, to warn women away from exclusively male rituals, and so on.

It would be a mistake to make bold assertions about the music-making of Paleolithic humans based on our observations of peoples who are separated from the Stone Age by many thousands of years. Music developed during the Pleistocene, in part when humans were still undergoing speciation. No such environment exists today for us to study. It would also be a mistake to view hunter-gatherer societies as somehow ‘frozen’ in a Paleolithic state, as thousands of years have passed since the Pleistocene and no society undergoes zero change. So all such parallels can do is open our minds to some of the possibilities.

Nonetheless there are grounds for some educated speculation. Iain Morley studied four diverse hunter-gatherer groups — Native American, African pygmy, Australian aborigine and Eskimo — and found strong parallels between their musical-making.

All four groups meet up with fellow communities during their most difficult subsistence season, during which time there is increased performance of ceremonial and communal music and dance. In all four cultures, the ceremonial and social use of music is very important, is communal and is almost always accompanied by rhythmic dancing. In all four cultures music is also performed purely as a communal activity for pleasure.

All four have music which is predominantly vocal, and accompanied mainly by percussion instruments. The use of melodic instruments is minimal and, when used, invariably consists of end-blown pipes. These are usually single-toned instruments. All the instruments, whether percussive or melodic, are made from naturally occurring organic materials.

All four peoples believe themselves to have come from the land, to be akin with the other fauna of their environment, and use music to try to influence the world around them. Music and dance can have important uses in engendering group cohesion, altering mood, as an aid to the teaching of dance, and can facilitate group interactions and communality, within and between groups. In the majority of these instances the music itself has no inherent symbolism, but it can be used to accompany symbolic activities.[10]

A great deal of these societies’ music didn’t require any instruments. Instead, the group vocalised, with accompanying foot-stamping, hand-clapping and so on. This may be significant given the absence of instruments older than 35,000 years. Morley also found that these societies sometimes used music as a mnemonic, helping to preserve tribal lore. It is much easier to remember texts that are highly structured with pattern and repetition.

The findings are important because the groups studied occupy different continents and developed their musical practices independently of each other. Morley concludes that there are “fundamental similarities in the nature and roles of music between these diverse groups” which may indicate an extremely ancient tradition, and proposes that “there are important evolutionary driving forces towards those common behaviours, either as a consequence of subsistence method or of human biology.”


Bone pipes and most other instruments can only be made with an advanced level of tool-making. As technology improved so did the sophistication and range of our instruments, which were often artistic objects in themselves. By the rise of early civilisation around 3000 BCE, we see very finely-made instruments such as the lyres found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, decorated with beaten gold. This technological process has of course continued into the present, adding electric guitars and samplers and many other things to our musical inventory.

On the current evidence, there appears to have been a relatively sudden proliferation of instruments from about 35,000 years ago. The creation of musical instruments may therefore be the product of the crucial leap in human cognitive and symbolic capacities during the Upper Paleolithic. It is probably no accident that instruments appear in Europe at about the same time as cave painting and sculpture. This is not to say that we can rule out musical activity by Homo sapiens or even pre-sapiens humans prior to 35,000 years ago. The sophisticated instruments that have survived must have been preceded by earlier, less developed forms, perhaps in more perishable materials, not to mention yet earlier periods before musical tools were used at all. As always in palaeoanthropology, the incomplete archaeological record gives us only very partial information. Limited to material traces and what can be inferred from them, we can say little or nothing about what melodies were played, about which people in a particular society created music, if and how music was combined with other art forms, etc.

It can be difficult to ascertain whether a particular item that can be used musically was actually made for that purpose. There is ongoing debate about whether or not Neanderthals were capable of creating music and therefore musical instruments, and whether some of the objects were created by humans at all. There is also no way of knowing whether the materials used for making them were simply the most appropriate or had their own symbolic meaning.

Paleolithic humans may have used music for some or all of the reasons that modern hunter-gatherers do, or for other reasons now lost. What does seem certain is that they, like more recent societies, are bound to have created rich and varied musical cultures for a range of spiritual, social and entertainment purposes.

[1] See for example Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age (2007).
[2] Iain Morley, The Evolutionary Origins and Archaeology of Music, PhD dissertation (2003).
[3] D’Errico, Henshilwood, Lawson, Vanhaeren, Tillier, Soressi, Bresson, Maureille, Nowell, Lakarra, Backwell and Julien, ‘Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism and music — an alternative multidisciplinary perspective’, Journal of World Prehistory Vol. 17 (2003).
[4] Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen, quoted in John Noble Wilford, ‘Flutes offer clues to Stone Age music’, New York Times (24 June 2009).
[5] Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois, ‘La dimension sonore des grottes ornées’, Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française Vol. 85 (1988).
[6] Chris Scarre, ‘Painting by Resonance’, Nature (1989).
[7] Lya Dams, ‘Preliminary findings at the “Organ” Sanctuary in the cave of Nerja, Malaga, Spain’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology (1984).
[8] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
[9] The oldest known wooden instruments, for example, a set of six pipes found at Greystones in Ireland, are relatively recent at 4000 years of age.
[10] Morley, op. cit.

Lunacharsky on music

Extract from Lunacharsky: ‘Taneyev and Scriabin’ from On Literature and Art, 1925.

Music originated as an expression of human emotions. We cannot for a moment doubt that it was born of man’s cries of emotion. We know wherein the “music” of the animal world originates. Erotic music is the most objective example since, besides its cries of naked passion, it includes some elements of enticement, attracting the female by a sort of serenade. In the nightingale’s song we find not only the emotions of the male, but an art that is self-contained, unfolding in the mating process and reaching, not in the individual, but in the species as a whole, true perfection.

Every other type of song has apparently developed along similar lines: sobbing gave rise to lamentation, which in turn became a dirge; the wild shrieking of warriors before battle resulted in military marches, and so forth. The whole significance of transforming emotional cries into music, or, more probably, into singing, lay in the fact that a purity of form was acquired, that there gradually evolved clear tones and their set combinations, the skill of producing melody, etc.

In following this course, music eventually became most complex. Man gained helpers, the most varied instruments, to express the personal or social emotions that burned in his breast.


Sunday, 23 May 2010

The origins of music, part 5: Summary

Given its existence in even the most isolated human cultures, it is highly likely that our musical capacities were already in place when we emigrated from Africa. Music is universal, participated in by everyone as a community, not just for entertainment but for practical and social purposes. As observed by Brown, Merker and Wallin:

Even the most cursory glance at life in traditional cultures is sufficient to demonstrate that music and dance are essential components of most social behaviours, everything from hunting and herding to story telling and playing; from washing and eating to praying and meditating; and from courting and marrying to healing and burying. Therefore the study of music origins is central to the evolutionary study of human cultural behaviour generally.[1]

Music is yet another of the many ways in which human beings fulfil their creative impulse — objectifying their human essence through the ordering of aspects of the material world.

Despite the new wave of research, the precise origins of music remain opaque. Charles Darwin concluded that “as neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.”[2] Like language, music clearly draws upon diverse variables: the formation of the vocal tract and auditory system, hominid brain expansion, symbolic gesturing, the development of syntax, cultural transmission and many more evolutionary, cognitive and social aspects. Depending upon whom you ask, music is a form of sexual selection; a means of group bonding; a way for parents to communicate with their infants; or conversely a ‘spandrel’ drawing upon capacities that formed for other purposes, with no evolutionary value at all.

Trying to locate music in this or that part of the brain, or such and such an adaptive advantage, is probably futile. A Marxist reading of the evidence suggests that music arose as part of a complicated interaction of processes predicated upon the qualitative uniqueness of human consciousness. Music (and dance) cannot be reduced to a single function, and many of the processes crucial to its formation will have had no direct relationship to musicality at all.

Let us take one example. The physiology of music depends in part upon bipedalism, which allowed a lowering of the larynx and a greater control of sounds in the oral cavity. It also encouraged a 90-degree rotation of the labyrinthine capsule of the inner ear, which affected the morphology of the semi-circular canals responsible for balance and body coordination. In other words, bipedalism (as we touched on in the previous post) had implications for dance, breath control, and vocal expressiveness. Yet bipedalism is not an adaptation ‘for music’ but to life on the African savannah. It is not difficult to see from this that the totality of human music-making is dependent on a great web of evolutionary and cultural processes. Some of these processes will have been far more powerful determining forces than others, and establishing which were most important is the key to understanding music, but this does not mean the others can be ignored. So to explore the origins of music, we must also research the development of language, mind, and body through various scientific fields. This is the dialectical and materialist approach best placed to advance our understanding.

One of the most important characteristics of music is that it is primarily a social and collective activity. Attempts to explain it as a form of individual selection cannot account for why it has predominantly been created by groups. Adaptive theories only work when they are able to explain how music-making humans would have had an advantage over non-music-making ones — the only satisfactory account is that the former had advantages from stronger group cooperation, i.e. music as an adaptation can only work at the level of the social group. Therefore I find Steven Brown persuasive when he argues that “music making is not only about within-group cooperation, coordination, and cohesion, but it is principally about these things.” [3]

This does not mean of course that we cannot listen to music in solitude. But such behaviour is probably very unusual in the history of music, especially in its prehistory — and even listening in solitude requires, in usual Western practice, a set of musical equipment, such as MP3 players supplied with digital sound files, which has to be manufactured and therefore involve the solitary listener in a network of social labour.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding its origins, on one level music simply follows the same pattern as all the arts. We take the materials we find in nature and transform them through labour into a humanised object. Just as we use minerals to create pigments and make paintings, we take the naturally occurring phenomenon of sound and organise it, transform it and impose an order upon it to create a new ‘object’ in which we see ourselves objectified. Only humans do this. The study of gorillas beating their chests and animal mating calls, etc, is important and interesting, but social communication, group bonding, parent-infant interaction and so on are behaviours displayed by many animal species. Humans bring a particular qualitative ingredient to such activity which allows something new and unique to take off — it is in the extraordinary creativity of human consciousness that music really begins.

My own expectation is that music as we know it was probably a result of the cognitive leap that produced the Human Revolution. We may have had the capacity for making musical sounds for thousands of years, just as we had the capacity to make images on cave walls using tools long before we actually did so, but this could not become true music until our species underwent the enculturating process that made possible the flowering of art. Hence the absence of musical instruments until the Human Revolution was already underway — presumably there must have been other, cruder instruments at the outset around 60–40,000 years ago. How our basic musical capacity developed is still disputed, but whatever that process was, and whatever forms the earliest manifestations of musicality took, only with behaviourally modern, creative Homo sapiens could music flower.

[1] Wallin, Merker and Brown, ‘An Introduction to Evolutionary Musicology’ in The Origins of Music (2000).
[2] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871).
[3] Steven Brown, ‘The Musilanguage Model of Language Evolution’, from Wallin, Merker and Brown, op. cit.

Tony Babino: The Internationale

While we’re on the subject of music, readers may enjoy this swinging version of the Internationale sung by Tony Babino. It was commissioned for Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and used over the closing credits.

Or you can watch it with a more interesting video, also on YouTube.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The origins of music, part 4: Movement and dance

Music is not just about sound. Wherever you go, it is accompanied by movement, from Western nightclubs to African drumming or children clapping in the playground. Even infants can match their body movements with the rhythm of voices, and we may see the germs of musicality in their desire to communicate with adults through gestures of voice and body.

This behaviour, found in all human cultures, is known as bodily entrainment, defined by W. Tecumseh Fitch as “the capacity to move one’s limbs or body to a complex external ‘beat’.” [1] Music can compel us to tap our feet, click our fingers, or swing our whole bodies in circles. This movement can be purely spontaneous and unconscious or it can be highly organised. The phenomenon seen in classical concerts of people listening to rhythmic, emotive music in complete stillness is highly exceptional, and has its origins in the elite culture for which that music was originally written.[2] In almost every society, music and movement have explicitly belonged together. Just as we can’t properly understand language if we ignore gesture, we can’t understand music without exploring its relationship to movement.

Of course, movement and music can exist independently of each other. But there is a strong relationship between the auditory system and the motor system, producing the bodily movements that seem to be an instinctive part of our response to music and become part of how we make it. This relationship is expressed most comprehensively in dance, which takes an immense diversity of forms: tribal dances, ballet, the tango, figure-skating, breakdancing and many more. And if music is a means to communicate individual and collective experience, so is dance. This is why dance therapy is possible: by sharing a series of gestures, the client and the therapist can communicate their emotions and build a relationship.

ancient Egyptian dancersFlutists and dancers in an unusually animated Egyptian wall painting from a tomb in Thebes, c. 1400 BCE.

Why we do all this is surprisingly hard to explain. Like the earliest music-making, movement to music has not left archaeological traces. Dance has certainly been practiced since at least the early civilisations: there are illustrations of dancers from Egypt dating back to the predynastic period, and from Mesopotamia dating to the eighth millenium BCE. But none of this goes back nearly far enough.


Steven Mithen suggests that a hugely important development in both music and dance was the hominid shift to walking on two legs (bipedalism) approximately four million years ago. Our cousins the great apes struggle to stay upright on two legs, and have an anatomy adapted for both knuckle-walking and tree-climbing. Unlike humans they cannot lock their leg into a straight position, and must walk by shifting their weight from side to side on legs that are relatively wide apart. Mithen observes:

We avoid this waddling gait by placing our feet relatively close together on the ground and using strong hip muscles to counter any side-to-side movement.[3]

Australopithecus afarensisA reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis

Humans developed bipedalism as early as the australopithecines, as evidenced by the skeleton of Lucy and the 3.6 million year-old footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania that have been ascribed to Australopithecus afarensis. These species would not have walked as efficiently on two legs as we do. One of the archaeological clues to this is the morphology of the inner ear, which assists our sense of balance: that of the australopithecines was still ape-like, reflecting ways of moving around that included tree-climbing and hanging.

By the advent of Homo ergaster (which had an inner ear morphology much like ours), hominids had developed a bipedalism much like that of modern Homo sapiens.

Anatomical adaptations for bipedalism continue up through the body: a broader pelvis, a curved lower spine, and a head held vertically. With such anatomy, humans have a striding, fluid gait, in which each leg alternately has a swing phase followed by a stance phase.

As argued by the anthropologist Leslie Aiello [4], it is likely that the increase in brain size in Homo ergaster was necessary to handle the more complex motor control required by bipedalism, an increase that may have given impetus to more general intelligence and language development (and thereby also to singing). It was also significant that a large proportion of our body, most obviously our hands, was freed from being used for locomotion, allowing us to make not only tools but complex gestures.

There has been plenty of debate about why we adopted bipedalism. It was not to free our hands to make tools — although that was certainly useful subsequently — because fossils show it predates tool-making. No adaptation ever takes place in anticipation of some future development. Nor was it to allow us to see over the grasses of the savannah, because australopithecines lived in wooded landscapes. Most likely is that it was a mixture of things, above all to reduce overheating and energy use. As we spent more and more time on open plains, an upright posture exposed less of our bodies to the sun and was a more efficient method of movement. This increased our range for scavenging — our ability of long-distance running is unique among primates.

Whatever its causes, bipedalism had implications for expressive movement. Mithen lists “new degrees of motor control, independence of torso and arms from legs, and internal and unconscious time-keeping abilities” as contributors to our potential for dance. Even though it did not evolve expressly for the purpose, our anatomy enables us to make an immense range of flexible and athletic movements. This may have “initiated the greatest musical revolution in human history.” Mithen notes approvingly the work of the musicologist John Blacking, who wrote:

Many, if not all, of music’s essential processes can be found in the constitution of the human body and in patterns of interaction of human bodies in society.[5]

There seems to be a close connection between the areas of the brain responsible for complex vocalisations and for complex muscular movements. If these evolved together, it might help explain why rhythm, music and dance are so closely related in human cultures. If musilanguage existed, uttered holistic phrases may have been accompanied by gestures of the body such as the head and hands.


Our sense of rhythm, one of the most important aspects of music, begins with a sense of time, something human beings share in both perception and motor behaviour. Brown, Merker and Wallin observed:

One of the most distinct features of music, with reference to both animal song systems and human speech, is its use of isometric rhythms. The human ability to keep time should be distinguished from the ability of most animals (including humans) to move in a metric, alternating fashion.What is special about humans is not only their capacity to move rhythmically but their ability to entrain their movements to an external timekeeper, such as a beating drum.[6]

This ability to entrain is effectively unique to human beings, as the testing carried out so far tells us that animals do not naturally demonstrate this ability; even in the rare exceptions that have been observed, their ability is severely limited compared to ours. Mithen relates this to bipedalism:

Rhythm... is essential to efficient walking, running and, indeed, any complex coordination of our peculiar bipedal bodies. Without rhythm we couldn’t use these effectively: just as important as the evolution of knee joints and narrow hips, bipedalism required the evolution of mental mechanisms to maintain the rhythmic coordination of muscle groups.[7]

We still don’t quite understand how our auditory system links up with our motor system to produce synchronated movements, although they are very clearly connected. It is likely that the evolution of bipedalism had a profound impact on our association of movement and rhythm. The existence of rhythm awareness in newborns — even blind ones, who cannot be imitating their parent — proves that it is not culturally acquired but hereditary. Infants show strong emotional associations too, being able to recognise a difference for example between approving and scolding tones of voice, and this union of emotion with tone and movement lays the foundations for music and dance.


As we all know, our bodies can be highly expressive of emotional states, even unconsciously. The evolutionary changes in Homo ergaster — greater motor control, a strong sense of time and rhythm, the independence of the arms and hands — meant a dramatic increase in hominids’ command of body language. Together with vocalisation, emotional association and a possible musical proto-language, we were equipped with powerful tools for communication in the complex social life of our species.

Gesture works differently to words because it does not rely on any form of grammar. As Mithen puts it:

the majority of spontaneous gestures used by modern humans are iconic, in the sense that they directly represent whatever is being verbally expressed... So if I were describing something big, my gesture would most likely involve placing my hands together and then gradually moving them apart; whereas when describing something as small I might gradually move the finger and thumb of one hand together until they are almost touching.[8]

Not only do such gestures back up what is communicated verbally, they add additional layers of meaning, i.e. they are complementary rather than merely derivative. But gestures can also be made independently of verbal meaning, or convey information that contradicts it. A measure of the communicative power of gesture to illustrate our inner life is that when we are being dishonest with our words, our body language can sometimes betray our true feelings.

Some of the earliest gestures may have been acts of mimicry. As Merlin Donald has explored [9], our ancestors probably used acting, song and dance to metaphorically recreate certain emotions and experiences in a narrative form. Donald suggests that such mimetic acts would be an early stage in the evolution of the human mind: miming everyday events like hunting, stripping a carcass, etc required us to understand metaphor and so prepared the way for symbolism. Later, dance may have been a means to recreate and preserve tribal wisdom and stories in an age before written records.

Another aspect of mimicry is that by imitating the posture of another person, we imply an empathy with their emotions. When consoling someone, we adopt a similar sad posture, facial expression and tone of voice. Music and dance provide a culturally defined framework for recreating emotional states through synchronicity and cooperation. Understanding how certain facial expressions, for example, communicate certain emotions, we may then adopt those expressions metaphorically, pretending to be sad, happy, and so on to elicit an emotional response from others. The responses elicited then, in turn, have an impact upon the dancer.

Mithen refers to the work of the dancer, choreographer and theoretician Rudolf Laban, widely considered one of the most important figures in the history of dance:

Laban gives the simple example of the expressive range of gestures that can accompany the word ‘no’. He explains that one can ‘say’ this with movements that are pressing, flicking, wringing, dabbing, thrusting, floating, slashing or gliding, each of which ‘says’ ‘no’ in a quite different manner. Once such gestures are integrated into a sequence of body movements and vocalisations, once some are exaggerated, repeated, embedded within each other, one has both a sophisticated means of self-expression and communication, and a pattern of movements that together can be observed as pure dance alone.


Our capacity for music and dance expresses a need to communicate with other humans through co-ordinated gestures in time, a skill we seem to possess to some degree even before we are born. Like musilanguage, gesture and movement as means of communication predate language. It depends upon our ability to recognise others as intentional and sympathetic human beings like ourselves. Like language and music, dance is a means of symbolic communication — because of our differing personal experiences, symbols are never entirely fixed but have differing meanings for individuals, which may help to explain why a certain piece of music can provoke wildly different responses in its listeners.

In music and dance we act as social beings, using a shared cultural framework to share experience through drama and metaphor.

[1] W. Tecumseh Fitch, ‘Biology of Music: Another One Bites the Dust’, Current Biology (2009). In this essay Fitch observes that entrainment is not strictly unique to humans, reporting evidence for its appearance in some bird species.
[2] This cultural elitism persists in classical music because of its history, but no one should let that drive them away. The music may be appreciated by anybody.
[3] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
[4] L. C. Aiello, ‘Terrestriality, bipedalism and the origin of language’, Evolution of Social Behaviour Patterns in Primates and Man, ed. J. Maynard-Smith (1996).
[5] John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (1973).
[6] Wallin, Merker and Brown, ‘An Introduction to Evolutionary Musicology’ in The Origins of Music (2000).
[7] Mithen, op. cit.
[8] Mithen, op. cit.
[9] See Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind (1991).

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).