The Evolutionary Origins of Music

how did music evolve

Music is universal. It is found in all cultures and societies, and it is something which humans seem compelled to create. Even indigenous tribes who are completely cut off from the civilised world will feel the urge to create music, whether it is through drumming, chanting, the use of full-fledged instruments, or a combination of these. But while we know that music is universal, and has diversified over time, when did music originate? How did music evolve? And what did primitive music sound like?

These are difficult questions to answer, and it may be impossible to give a complete picture of the origins of music. If we assume that music is ancient, that is, much older than the oldest musical instruments that archaeologists have uncovered, how can we know what that music sounded like? Sound recordings and musical notation did not exist before the written language, so it is almost impossible to imagine what primitive music might have sounded like. Despite these mysteries, there are still some interesting theories which aim to explain how music itself evolved.

One theory argues that the evolution of music was only possible once humans began to walk upright (this is called bipedalism). Once humans became bipedal, our brain rapidly increased in size in order to handle the complexity of this new kind of movement. Professor of evolution, Leslie C. Aiello, suggests that this increase in brain size is not only what made our impressive intelligence and linguistic capacities possible, it also set the stage for the evolution of music. Walking upright also changed the structure of our throat. Sophisticated vocalisations, such as language and singing, could emerge because the larynx (the voice box) sat far deeper in the throat compared to other primates.

Bipedalism also gave humans a greater sense of rhythm – rhythm being an essential component of music. Brain mechanisms had to evolve in order to coordinate muscles to walk and run. Professor John Sloboda has said that “music is the embodiment of the physical world in motion”. In other words, music can be viewed as a creative expression or a reproduction of the rhythm that our own bodies produce. In fact, many Western musical terms seem to support this idea. The terms describing the tempo of music are lento, andante and corrente, which respectively mean “slow”, “walking”, and “running”.

Other scientists that expressions of rhythm evolved to serve certain social functions. For example, studies have shown that oxytocin (a hormone which produces a feeling of social bonding) is released when people sing together and during ritual performances. There is also no doubt that many ancient drums that have been dug up were used by tribes during wars. The rhythm created by the drum could be used both to coordinate the movements of the group, as well as to terrorize the enemy. Rhythm clearly still plays these roles today: with drums being used in the military, and in communal activities, such as sports and dancing.

The evolutionary scientist, Joseph Jordania, has suggested that music evolved primarily for predatory purposes. He says that music is one component of a system used by our ancestors in order to prepare our ancestors for battle – other components would include dancing and body painting. Singing, drumming, rhythmic body movements and striking body painting, Jordania proposes, evolved to threaten the enemies of the tribe. Furthermore, the singing, drumming, and rhythmic dancing would put the tribe into an altered state of consciousness, what Jordania calls a “battle trance”, so they would be less likely to experience fear and pain. This trance state could also increase group solidarity, say if there was some kind of group religious experience. To support Jordania’s argument, it is a well know fact that rhythmic drumming, chanting, and dancing can create altered states of consciousness and trance states.

Jordania also argues that basic forms of music, such as humming, could have evolved for two reasons: the first to communicate a sense of safety (I.e. there are no predators about, so let’s gather food), and the second to communicate a sense of danger (i.e. there are predators about, so let’s retreat). Jordania suggests that silence would be a sign of danger for humans, so humming (and other musical sounds) could act to relax humans when carrying out important activities.

The anatomical changes in humans also meant that basic grunts could be transformed into melodies. Dr Daniel Levitin argues in his book, This Is Your Brain On Music, that our more primitive ancestors would have taken advantage of any ability which served to strengthen social bonds. He argues that singing songs of joy, love, and comfort would increase solidarity and feelings of goodwill among the tribe. Evidence shows that listening to music stimulates the pleasure and reward centres in our brain – so Dr Levitin is asserting that these same feelings of pleasure when listening to an uplifting song, were experienced by our ancestors as well. On the point of bipedalism, it is also worth reminding that the playing of instruments depended on us walking upright. Walking upright meant that our hands were free to make tools, weapons, structures, and, of course, musical instruments.

Levitin also makes the point that music evolved because it was an effective way to transmit knowledge and information to children. He claims that humans would have sung about farming, hunting, superstitions, and history. These songs, which could be repeated and passed down, would be an effective way to ensure that children retained the information they were being given. Since writing had not yet been developed, this might have been the best method available for encoding valuable information. We know, for example, that the ancient Hebrews did the same thing. They memorized the Torah in chant and song before they were able to write it down 1,000 years later. In addition, everyone knows how easy it is to memorize something when it is in the form of a song – for whatever reason, music appears to make learning a lot easier.

All of these theories so far assume that music evolved for an adaptive reason; that is, that music evolved because it carried with it some obvious survival value. However, others assert that music evolved as a by-product of something else that was useful for survival. The famous evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker, is committed to this viewpoint. In his book, How the Mind Works, he says music is “auditory cheesecake”, in the sense that it was beneficial for our ancestors to have a preference for fat and sugar, but this does not mean that cheesecake played a role in the evolution of that preference. Music, therefore, can be thought of as something complex and pleasurable which we have invented, but which is essentially useless and non-adaptive.

Perhaps music can be both adaptive and non-adaptive, depending on the situation. In the context of social bonding, battle, and hunting it can be adaptive; whereas in the context of making music for the sake of pleasure, it can be non-adaptive. That said, if an activity increases our well-being and satisfaction, so long as that activity does not put us at risk, is that activity not adaptive? In Pinker’s “auditory cheesecake” theory, the difference between music and cheesecake is that music is not harmful to us, whereas cheesecake, with its high levels of fat and sugar, is harmful to us. Perhaps music is adaptive for the simple reason that it uplifts our mood, and that this increase in well-being is more conducive to survival and reproduction.


  1. paradiddle
    May 17, 2013 / 11:31 pm

    Great read man, I would also be inclined to agree that music is purely adaptive- the idea that music can be harmful is completely subjective.

  2. Dan
    September 18, 2013 / 8:59 pm

    The biological organism requires not only an external source of gravity, but a pressure of a domestic medium as a function of gravity. And, so long as there is a normative spatial separation between the organism and all other important solid objects, it seems undeniable that vibration of the organism’s domestic medium is a primary stimulus to the organism, both in terms of itself and in terms of the primary dynamic objects in its environment. Can you say ‘music’ and ‘society’?

    Gravity acts as counter-balance to the self-repetition/identification, and self-expansion activities which constitute every known biological organism. This implies, first, that the biological organism is not a self-contained set of all forces necessary to its own survival and development. Second, it implies that the biological organism is, in some way, a product of its gravity environment. In fact, given its own mass, a biological organism is constituted partly by gravity.

    But, in so far as the biological organism depends on gravity, it also depends on basic external materials for its maintenance and development both post-conception and post-gestation. The most continuously necessary material to that end in post-gestation is a common domestic fluid (in land-based organisms, this fluid is the gaseous material that envelopes the Earth). In other words, a natural byproduct of gravity is atmospheric pressure, and, it is upon this pressure which a biological organism depends not only for maintenance of its own structure as an ongoing action against external gravity, but as the primary constant force allowing equitable intake of its own most constantly necessary substance. (It seems to me that this gravity/atmospheric pressure/organism system comprises a triad.)

    I suspect that all known biological organisms require a minimum of compression of a domestic medium to survive (atmospheric pressure). Hypothetically, this pressure could be said to act as a necessary counterbalancing force to that of the self-repetition/identification, and self-expansion, activities of the autonomous biological system. In other words, it seems that atmospheric pressure, in conjunction with a basic minimum external gravity, is necessary to the long-term survival of a species.

    Pressure of domestic medium is, for the most part, a static force. But, in order for an organism to identify other organisms without direct contact, and, thus, to develop internal systems to identify itself apart from other organisms, an organism’s domestic medium must include vibrations produced by other organisms.

    Based on this theory that vibration of domestic medium is critical to the normal development of an organism, I propose the hypothesis that music and language are basic cognitive functions prior to their respective conventional specializations. Think sense and reference. According to this hypothesis, only later are the sense and reference functions in humans channeled into conventions: the language function normally is channeled into speech, and the music function normally is channeled into human artful sounds.

    But, there is a problem. According to this hypothesis, the conventions intuitively are known to contain their respective basic functions, so, oftentimes, the conventions are mistakenly equated with their functions. Hence, the popular human notion that the essential roots of music and language are not naturally possessed by non-human animals. But, if vibration of a domestic medium is necessary to the survival of any given animal species, including to humans, and if that vibration is a key stimulus to biology, and, thus, to psychology, then non-human animals do possesses a level, however primitive, of both the referential and sense/aesthetic modes of cognition. How well or how often the non-human animals practice a distinction between these two modes is beside the point.

  3. Anonymous
    April 25, 2014 / 12:29 am

    Interesting theories, but all highly speculative, as evidenced by the mutually contradictory conclusions that music is adaptive and that it is not. Personally, I doubt we can ever know.

    P.S. @Dan 18 Sep — using 600 words to say what could be said in 20 doesn't make a vacuous theory more impressive. I'd lay off the big words for a while.

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