Origins of Music: It has been used consistently to form political alliances


Love is not the reason why we sing and create symphonies – at least not the primary reason, according to a new evolutionary theory of the origins of music.

In an article published recently in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a team of anthropologists and psychologists argue more evidence supports music coming from the need for groups to impress allies and foes, and for parents to signal their attention to infants.

The researchers also take issue with other music origin theories including that making music arose out of a need for social bonding, or that it is merely a fancy evolutionary byproduct with no real purpose – ‘auditory cheesecake’ as the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker once called it.

The sexual-selection theory, however, is perhaps the most entrenched, dating back to Charles Darwin who first suggested that like bird-song, music was developed by humans to attract mates.

“Sex and mating are a part of the story, but music seems to expand far beyond that particular domain,” said Ed Hagen, an evolutionary anthropologist with Washington State University and a co-author on the study.

“The sexual selection hypothesis doesn’t really explain a core feature of music: that it is often performed in groups. It’s also listened to and performed by both sexes.”

Hagen and his colleagues from Harvard and UCLA point out that if the sexual selection theory were true men would have developed superior music skills and women highly selective listening abilities – yet from simple observations and scientific experiments, both sexes show the similar levels of aptitude in each area.

The researchers also argue against the social bonding theory noting that there are many more efficient ways for groups to bond than the time-consuming process of making music, including talking and sharing a meal.

The theory also does not account for the fact that music is often performed for others who take no part in the creation of it.

The audience is the key, the authors say, to understanding the utility of music. Animals often use vocalizations to signal their territory, warn others of intruders and scare others off, and there is evidence that this is a central function of human music as well.

“If we study music in traditional societies, we see it used consistently to form political alliances,” said Hagen.

Elaborate musical performances from war dances to military bands and even college marching bands, are often used to show a coalition’s strength and impress outsiders.

Hagen pointed out that many state visits include a performance by a national orchestra or military band. Studies also show that people can detect how well synchronized musicians are, and connect that higher synchrony to a coalition’s strength.

Humans also have another special audience that benefits from the “credible signal” that music provides – babies.

“We need to invest a lot in infants since human babies are born helpless and need all sorts of help from the adults around them,” said psychologist Samuel Mehr, director of Harvard’s Music Lab.

“The parent or caregiver needs a reliable way to signal to the infant that they are attending to them. But attention is a covert property of the mind. It’s hard to determine if someone is actually paying attention to you.”

Directed song gives the infant a signal that the adult is paying attention to their needs, Mehr added. When singing, the adults cannot be talking to other people. The music also alerts the baby to the adult’s physical location.

“That’s information that can’t really be faked,” he said.

These two audience-focused purposes, coalition building and parent-infant signaling, provide compelling evolutionary reasons for the human development of music, the researchers said -and even makes the null-hypothesis, that music is “auditory cheesecake” and serves no purpose, less convincing.

“I don’t think we can completely dismiss the ‘auditory cheesecake’ hypothesis, but it really doesn’t offer a very compelling explanation for the entire package of evidence,” said Hagen.

“There’s a widespread occurrence of similar kinds of vocal signals in many species. Then, there’s the fact that we develop musical aptitudes very early in life. Music also appears to be universal. We’ve found music in every culture that we’ve studied.”

Adaptation, evolution, and music

From simple percusives to facile musical instruments, the tools of music represent a small leap for humankind. Diverse forms of art, tools, and probably music emerged in early Homo sapiens, and are evident in remains that date back at least 40,000 years (See Figure ​Figure4)4) (Mellars, 1996, 2004).

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Figure 4
Bone and ivory flute fragments from the Hohle Fels and Vogelherd caves in southwestern Germany (Conard et al., 2009).

One cognitive adaptation is the capacity for the basic discernment of inanimate objects from animate objects. We represent animate objects, often giving them divine-like status, which infuses them with specific and transcendental meaning.

Musical instruments ultimately derive from this expanded cognitive approach to objects. A key artifact is something that is sometimes called a “sound tool” or “lithophone.” The oldest date back to some 40,000 years ago from sites in Europe, Asia, and Africa (Blake and Cross, 2008). Sound tools are simple stones that resonate when struck, as shown in Figure ​Figure55.

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Figure 5
Flint sound tool, known as a lithophone, from the Victorian Era (Blake and Cross, 2008).

While song is the earliest form of music, the cognitive and motor capabilities necessary for the invention of musical instruments are embedded in evolutionary cognitive development over time (Cross and Morley, 2008; Cross, 2009). After all, making objects, musical, and otherwise is a cephalic extension of the world beyond ourselves (Donald, 2001).

Darwin was prepared to believe that musical expression, as a particular universal human expression, is a feature of natural selection, linked to communicative function and sexual selection (Darwin, 1871/1874). Perhaps it is tentatively tied in origins to basic functions, but surely one wants to be respectful of these simple origins without being reduced to them.

Evolutionary trends are not necessarily unidirectional, as Darwin had suggested and had penned in one of his rather unaesthetic drawings. Evolutionary trends may be more like jumps and starts, punctuated by sudden changes (Gould and Eldridge, 1977; Foley, 1996; Wood, 2000).

One view of evolution is the hypothesis that language and speech emerged between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago (Lieberman and McCarthy, 2007), and artistic representation can be traced back to 30,000–40,000 years ago (Mellars, 1996).

Music, while frequently considered an art, captures the sciences in its generative process, and draws on human expectations. The cognitive architecture, the generative processes, the diverse variation and embodiment of human meaning within almost all spheres of human expression, are rich fields of discovery for both the arts and the sciences (Dewey, 1896; Meyer, 1967; Premack, 1990; Schulkin, 2009).

This development of art and music was an important evolutionary step in forming the communicative scaffolding for social interactions that have become so crucial or our species.

Art, like science, is embedded in discovery, testing, experimentation, and expansion through technique. There is no divide between the scientific and artistic. They intersect quite readily and naturally as they expand the human experience.

Action, music, and the brain

Given the key role that music plays in our social world, it is perhaps not surprising that music activates broad neurological systems, and that cognitive structures are in place for receiving, understanding, and producing music. Important biologically derived cognitive systems are not divorced from action or perception, but are endemic to them (Peirce, 1878; Barton, 2004; Schulkin, 2007).

Lakoff and Johnson (1999) depict relationships between perception and action, which underlie all of music, with thinking, perceiving, communicating, imagining, etc. Music is an action, but can also permeate our imagination, whether it is heard by someone, or simply imprints on neural systems. Music plays inside our heads, and as we shall see, common neural circuits underlie the action of playing and hearing music, as well as imagining music in reverberation (See Table ​Table2)2) (Myers, 1905).

Table 2 – Relationships that underlie all aspects of musical experience.

Thinking (music) as perceiving
Imagining (music) as moving
Knowing (music) as seeing and responding
Attempting insight (through music) as searching
Representing (music) as doing
Becoming- aware (of music) as noticing
Communicating (music) as showing
Knowing (music) from a “perspective”
Listening as detecting, knowing
Lakoff and Johnson, 1999

Music is fundamental to humans as a species. Most of the expectations we have may not be explicit, since the vast array of the cognitive systems are not conscious (Rozin, 1976); imagine playing an instrument while being explicitly conscious of all that we have to do.

Impossible (Sloboda, 2000, 2005)! Cognitive systems are vastly unconscious and underlie action as well as music. The inferences, expectations, and prediction of auditory events are not particularly part of our awareness, and certainly the mechanisms are not (Helmholtz, 1873; Temperley, 2001).

A core anatomy that includes a larynx (Lieberman, 1984) tied to systems which orchestrate movement featuring statistically related acoustical harmonics and periodicity is responsible for song production. These are bound to preferences for ratios and intervals between sounds via the modulation of the larynx (Ross et al., 2007).

The expansion of the larynx, along with the development of cognitive/motor capability and “recursive thinking,” underlies speech, song, music, and other social communicative cephalic expressions (Corballis, 2007). These features figure in key adaptive responses that underlie our social capability (See Figure ​6).

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Figure 6
Key features in the vocal capability of a chimpanzee (center) vs. a human (left, right) (Lieberman and McCarthy, 2007).

Access to pre-adaptive systems makes a difference in diversity of expression (Rozin, 1998; Fitch, 2006; Lieberman and McCarthy, 2007). As one investigator put it: “The larynx is a source of acoustic energy, not unlike the reed in a wind instrument (Lieberman, 1984, p. 317).” Communicative capabilities are endlessly opportunistic in the exploitation of existing resources with diverse and expanding uses.

More generally, auditory perceptual systems code and structure events for music within contexts of semiotic systems, which then further expand our capabilities for song. The evolving motor cortex, united with cognition and perception, underpin the production and appreciation of song (Lieberman, 1984, 2002). Music as we know it could not have existed without cognition or the motor skills to create musical sounds.

Diverse forms of cognitive systems reflect brain evolution (Rozin, 1976, 1998) with musical sensibility distributed across a wide array of neural sites, something that Leonard Meyer, an early exponent of a cognitive/ biological perspective, appreciated.

reference link :

More information: Samuel A. Mehr et al, Origins of music in credible signaling, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X20000345


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