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On the origin of music

10 November 2010

His master's voice

"If you don't turn off that racket I'm gonna howl!'"

Few art forms capture our minds as readily as music does. Just a few chords, a simple melody or even single note can transport us to a different emotional place in a matter of seconds. No surprise then that music is the most widely used art form, and is included almost by default in films, television programmes, computer games and advertising.

In our modern society, we spend on average 5-6 hours/day actively listening to music. Add to that the music we’re involuntarily exposed to and the total listening time is probably closer to 8-12 hours/day.

Looking closer at the phenomenon that is music it becomes more and more perplex. We are – as far as we know – the only species on the planet that produce and appreciate music. Although other animals might find the sounds of music intriguing, they don’t seem to perceive the intricacies of rhythm and harmony – to them, music only appears as ambient noise and abstract sounds.  Not even our closest living relatives the great apes seem to have any sense of rhythm.

So how come we are so different? Why did we deviate from the lineage of all other animals? And what is the point of music?

As humans, we have a deeply rooted feeling that we are special, that we’re not like any other animals. This is not only because we are arrogant (although we are) – we have accomplished things no other animal would even have dreamed about, if indeed other animals dream of things other than eating, sleeping and you-know-what. But the one thing I believe responsible for making us truly different is the invention of language. Human language, just like music, consists of pitch, timbre and rhythm, and music and language could be seen as two sides of the same basic function – communication.

But this raises another question: Why have we evolved the sense of music in addition to our sense of language? Surely our complex and advanced language should be enough? Well, yes and no. Language is very good at communicating distinct information, like: “Look out! There’s a Bourret’s pitviper over there!” or “I dreamed I was an Emu last night.” But although language is very rich in information, it doesn’t have the emotional immediacy that music possess.

Now this is what I call tribal music!

And there in lies the answer: To survive in a hostile world as mere humans, we need to work together as a team. And to work together as a team we need to create and maintain strong bonds between individuals in the group. And one very effective way of doing that is by partake in group ceremonies, like rhythmic chanting or hitting logs with sticks. If you doubt the effectiveness of these methods, just observe the behaviour of the supporters at a football match – rhythmic chanting and noise-making is all the rage. And it works too: the supporters feel united and connected with their team, and the team feel the support as an emotional boost, often helping them to win the game.

So there you have it – music came into being as a group bonding ritual in preparation for difficult or dangerous activities. Over time, these rituals grew ever more complex as we invented ever more complex instruments to produce sound. And before you knew it, you had the perplexing variety of music you see in the world today, with everything from Spandau Ballet to Mongolian throat singing.

But hang on a minute. If music is so great and gave us such an advantage in forming complex societies, why didn’t other animals also develop music? Why is Homo Sapiens the only musical creature on Earth? The answer, again, comes down to language. We are the only species with a highly complex, grammatically governed acoustic language. A language with all the components required for music: a sense of rhythm and harmonics. A language with unparalleled power of communication and formulation of abstract thinking.

The cost of speech - risk of choking on a ham sandwich (click to enlarge).

We did have to make some serious sacrifices to be able to practice it, however. In order to form the sounds necessary for speaking (and singing) we had to drop our voice box further down the throat than any other known animal, stretching the throat so that our epiglottis no longer can reach the soft palate to block off food from the mouth from getting into our airways (see the comparison sketch between a Chimpanzee and a human). This has the rather severe side-effect that there is a risk that we might actually choke to death when we eat, something other animals never have to worry about.

In addition to the silly voice box placement, we also had to develop big and complex brains to process language and abstract thinking. That required big skulls, which is what has made human birth such a painful and dangerous affair.

In the end, you need to be pretty desperate to evolve the kind of vocal apparatus the human language requires. The risks are extremely high. But so are the potential gains, with an amazing level of cooperation possible, leading to highly successful societies and truly breathtaking music.

So sit down and put on your favourite piece of music. Listen and enjoy. Just be careful eating that ham sandwich.

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