The Origins of Music

Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker + Steven Brown (editors)

The MIT Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
The Origins of Music brings together papers on subjects ranging from birdsong to neurobiology to fossil flutes to musical universals. Music rarely gets even a passing mention in work on human evolution, while evolutionary approaches in musicology are even rarer, so such a volume offers challenges to both musicologists and paleoanthropologists. Indeed the editors hope to see the start of an evolutionary musicology, a subfield of biomusicology "devoted to the analysis of music evolution, both its biological and cultural forms" — and The Origins of Music deserves wide interdisciplinary attention.

After an introduction to evolutionary musicology by the editors, the other papers are grouped into four sections. The first focuses on vocal communication in animals. General papers by Simha Arom and Peter Marler are followed by papers on birdsong repertoire (Peter J. B. Slater) and its neural basis (Carol Whaling), the perception and production of primate vocalizations (Marc D. Hauser), gibbon songs/duets (Thomas Geissmann), the role of social organisation in primate vocal communications (Maria Ujhelyi), and creativity in the songs of humpback whales (Katharine Payne).

Any similarity between birdsong and human music is by analogy, as vocal learning evolved quite differently in the two cases. As there are around 4,000 species of songbirds with a rich variety of vocal patterning, the occurrence of some with features also found in our music does not necessarily imply a deep similarity between the phenomena. (Slater)

The papers in the second section look broadly at music and language in human evolution. Derek Bickerton suggests some lessons biomusicologists can learn from the history of "language evolution studies". Jean Molino argues that music and language (and dance, chant, poetry, and pretend play) have at least in part a common origin. Harry Jerison explores homologies in the paleoneurology of mammalian and bird brains, but concludes that "the evocative role of music in human experience is directly related to language as a specifically human adaptation". Dean Falk looks at what the latest technology reveals about the regions of the brain involved in music and language. And, in a long paper which I only glanced through, Drago Kunej and Ivan Turk analyse a possible "flute" from the Middle Paleolithic.

Because music and language are so neurologically intertwined, it is hypothesized that they evolved together as brain size increased during the past two million years in the genus Homo. (Falk)

The papers in the third section present different theories for the origin of music. Steven Brown presents a "musilanguage" model in which music and language evolved from a common ancestor; Bruce Richman argues that both originated in collective repetition of formulaic sequences; and Björn Merker suggests that synchronous chorusing was a key adaptation in human evolution. Geoffrey Miller argues that music must have originated through sexual selection and Peter Todd looks at simulation of coevolution between "male song producers and female song critics". In contrast, Ellen Dissanayake suggests music needs to be considered as part of the "temporal arts" more broadly and that the key to their evolution lies in interactions between mothers and infants under six months of age. And Walter Freeman ranges from neurobiology and brain chemistry, through altered states of consciousness, to cooperative action and links between music and politics.

I took random samples of... jazz albums... rock albums... and classical music works... [M]ales produced ten times as much music as females, and their musical output peaked in young adulthood, around age thirty, near the time of peak mating effort... [This suggests] that music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display, mostly broadcast by young males to attract females. (Miller)
[I]t is in the evolution of affiliative interactions between mothers and infants — not male competition and adult courtship — that we can discover the origins of the competencies and sensitivities that gave rise to human music. (Dissanayake)

Four papers at the end are grouped in a section "Musical Universals". Sandra Trehub looks at human predispositions for processing music and Michel Imberty connects the generative theory of tonal music with innate competencies, while Bruno Nettl presents an ethnomusicologist's perspective on universals and François-Bernard Mâche that of a composer.

I can only say, as a composer, that Craticus nigrogularis, the pied butcher bird, is a kind of colleague. (Mâche)

August 2000

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%T The Origins of Music
%E Wallin, Nils L.
%E Merker, Björn
%E Brown, Steven
%I The MIT Press
%D 2000
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0262232065
%P xii,498pp