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The Origin of Music


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This is a short musing I wrote on music recently. It's a bit wordy but I think it raises some interesting concepts.


How, why, and when did music originate? Apparently, as is obvious from its ubiquity, the question of who first created music is not appropriate. All cultures exhibit musical forms and appreciation. With a form of creativity this accessible and widespread, it begs the question: is music a result of our humanness? Do humans, as a species, gravitate towards the creation of music? Or is it a fluke, an evolutionary misfire, that led to a world of organized sound?

These questions take us to the definition of music. It is often described as I have already noted, "organized sound". This is simplistic, to be certain, as a large part of music is also cultural and, ultimately, subjective. For the present discussion, however, this definition will suffice. How, then, did music come into being? The natural world is full of pleasant sounds from which our ancestors may have derived their inspiration. This is assuming that the creation of music was spontaneous and unrelated to our DNA. One could argue for a genetic basis that animals have their own counterparts to what we recognize as music: birdsong, whalesong, crickets chirping, apes beating on logs, etc. But is this merely an acoustic pareidolia, an interpretation of sound by our musically-conscious brains? In other words, do we identify animal communication as music because it matches our concept of music? Obviously, we cannot inquire if these creatures are exhibiting creativity (which requires intelligence and self-awareness) or simply conversing. Nor can we assume that music sprung into existence without influence or growth. But we do know one thing for certain: humans can create and enjoy music. Otherwise, OCR would be... well, pretty pointless.

Why, then, did music become a feature of every human culture, past and present? We take for granted that it is used in many, many situations, including celebrations, recreation, travel, toil, and family bonding (lullabies, for example). Without music, humankind would still have its rites-of-passage, its long walks, and its hard work. Music is not necessary to be human or to live well. Its exclusion may remove much from what we consider a modern human experience, but one does not die from a lack of music. That said, it is possible that music was not developed until humans had the time and the minds to create and appreciate it. For, if the mind was unable to create or understand music, it was unlikely to have existed. Instead, it would not have offered any benefit to mankind, and would, therefore, present a waste of time and energy, as well as a possible attractant to predators.

Perhaps evolution led to the creation of music. Humans as a species are gregarious, as the apes before us. The development of social grouping led to division of labor, which led to better nutrition, which led to longer lives, which led to increased intelligence, which led to higher levels of social grouping. As our wisening ancestors left the jungles and savannas, they developed language, which probably consisted, first, of rudimentary sounds and gestures. It is possible that, in this time of burgeoning intelligence and creativity, music was born also or in tandem with language. This would imply that we have had music for at least 50,000 years.

In contrast, music may be more than a natural manifestation of intelligent creativity. It may be a feature unique to our human nature, a product of the human spirit, tempered by our experiences and birthed of our emotions. Either that or a deep-seated passion kindled by the divine spark. While no one could prove a sublime origin of music, it certainly affects our species in such a way to believe a numinous genesis to be possible.

Though the topic may never find a sufficiently satisfactory answer, this discussion does lead to a number of interesting hypothetical situations which could test the origin of music. Consider, for example, a person with no knowledge of music who lives alone for their entire life. Would this person be capable of creating music? Or is musical creativity a social process, based on knowledge and the appreciation for musical sounds and styles that seems to be hard-wired in the human mind. If our hypothetical test subject was to create music, what form would it take? How much of musical creativity is constrained by the individual's own abilities, and are these gene- or experience-based, or some combination of the two?

Regardless of scientific or philosophical findings, past, present, and future, on the subject, I think we can all agree that music is an important part of humanity and well worth our time and investment as creators or patrons. Why else would you be here?

Thank you for reading. Long live OCR!



http://www.answers.com/topic/prehistoric-music http://www.answers.com/topic/evolutionary-musicology


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I love this stuff.

I wrote a similar article on the subject a while back:


In his book "This is Your Brain on Music", Daniel Levitin suggests that music evolved as a method for attracting potential mates; similar to, but obviously more complex than, say, peacock feathers. Several things correlate with this:

1. The love song, which, when written and performed well, has a powerful effect on those who listen to it.

2. The fact that being a musician takes intelligence, agility, coordination, social skills and patience, all of which have been important for human survival in the last 5 million years or so.

3. The absolutely incredible sexual attraction that rock stars have over everyone else.

I'm not saying I believe that, but it is hard to ignore the fact that a rock star can pretty much choose whatever mate he or she wants.

Anyone interested in the origins or purpose of music should first understand human origins in general. I recommend the famous Richard Leakey's "The Origin of Humankind".

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This was pretty interesting to read. It made me think of a story I read in a Property Law textbook:

A lawyer in New Orleans searched title in land back to 1803 for a federal agency. The agency then asked the lawyer who owned the land prior to 1803, and he, in reply, said that in 1803, the U.S. bought Louisiana from France, which got it from Spain by conquest. Spain had Louisiana by discovery of Columbus on authorization of Queen Isabella. Isabella had obtained the sanction of the Pope before granting the authorization. The Pope is the Vicar on earth of Jesus Christ, the only son and heir apparent of God. God made Louisiana.

I would assume here that applying the same logic to the origin of music, one would, as has already been indicated, get back to the cavemen. Since God created the cavemen, God created their music. I supplement this by noting that because I think that I'm God, I created music. See? It's pretty simple.

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