How did music begin? Did early humans make music by clapping their hands or by beating things to create rhythm? Did they use their voices to sing? What instruments did they use? Like language, music is a universal trait in our species. But yet, its origin remains a great mystery in human history. Where did music come from? How did it start?
The evolutionary purpose of music
The earliest known musical instrument was discovered in Germany. They are flutes made from bones and are almost 42,000 years old discovered in caves. Scientists assume vocal music predates these instruments. But unfortunately, music doesn’t fossilize. Our brains also do not fossilize. With little evidence, researchers still debate what evolutionary purpose music serves. Obscure evidence does not offer enough to warrant a debate while some skeptics wonder if music has any evolutionary purpose at all.
The father of evolution, Charles Darwin did manage to find one purpose for the invention of music. He found evidence for his lesser-known theory of sexual selection. He proposed in his 1871 book The Descent of Man that music may not have a role to play in survival but it could be evolved to charm the opposite sex.
Is music a frivolous invention?
Researchers have continued to debate the evolutionary purpose of music. Most have settled into two camps: those who believe music is a result of biological adaptation and the others who believe it is a cultural invention.
Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argued that music is a pleasing byproduct of other adaptations like language. He said, “As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless.” He added that music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would remain unchanged.
Others disagree with Pinker. After all, our ability to make and enjoy music seems ingrained in all of us. Music is a profession today and those without musical training also have implicit knowledge of the structure of music in their culture. Sandra Trehub, a psychologist from the University of Toronto argued that even if we may not know an arpeggio from an interval, we can all keep a beat, copy a pitch and move our bodies to sounds.
Trehub researches music perception in babies and found that infants are quite captivated by music. She said infants’ aptitude for distinguishing differences in pitch and timing is very similar to adults. Infants are even able to remember melodies months after hearing them. She believes there is a biological foundation to the music.
There is a possibility that music sprang from the soothing sounds parents make to communicate with their babies. If prehistoric lullabies improved parent-infant bonds and offspring survival, there could be an evolutionary incentive for the caregiver’s cooing.
Others have argued for music’s role in social bonding. It helps us to coexist in cohesive, well-functioning groups. Collective singing and dancing have served the purpose of social cohesiveness through music. However, it may be too narrow-minded to pigeonhole music into a specific evolutionary purpose. Music can increase social bonding, maintain relationships, help with sexual courtship and also pacify babies.
Music no doubt is part of the human story. If you are interested in learning a musical instrument, get in touch with us at Ritmo Music Studio.