Music is one of humanity’s defining creations. Spanning several millennia and transcending cultural divides, it has an enduring capacity to touch and change our lives. Music is frequently described as a universal language, that despite culturally differential musical traditions, techniques, scales and types of instruments, it engages our brains in broadly the same way across every culture and society.
The universal qualities of music are a tricky subject and delving into music’s cross-cultural forms and elaborations is a near-infinite task. In a sense, though, simply branding music as a ‘universal language,’ as catchy as the concept is, doesn’t pay fair homage to its tremendous diversity and flexibility as both an art form and medium of communication.
Music permeates the chasms of our hearts and minds, creating experiences that are relative to ourselves; personal, introspective, and not universal in any sense – experiences that are not mutually intelligible or comprehensible.
But clearly, music can also adhere us together in experiences of incredible mutual power; concerts, dance, gigs, festivals, raves and rituals, or anytime we simply sing, dance and play or listen to music with others. Some of these events stick in our minds forever, some of us build our lives around them and for most of us, they really make us feel alive.
Music has both universal and relative qualities that can be enjoyed both introspectively and extrospectively, with both ourselves and others. That is a small part of its magic.
The Language of Music
Like nearly all languages, music often uses a scheme of notation – a means of representing and communicating information using written symbols. Noises provide the different elements of musical composition and these too are organised, e.g. into lead, rhythm and bass parts.
These schemes and notations still vary considerably between cultures, though. But even when music is not entirely formalised within a culture, and where a scheme of learning and studying music has not been developed, there is still a cross-cultural consensus on at least some of music’s raw components.
Many ethnomusicologists consider rhythm to be music’s most universal or cross-cultural feature. Cameron et al. (2015) found that our ability to tap to a rhythm and synchronise to a beat is enhanced when we listen to music from our own culture, but critically, that we’re generally very accurate at synchronizing to a beat regardless of what music we’re listening to (crazy free jazz and prog-rock time signatures aside).
Drums and percussion are some of the most rudimental and accessible instruments around (I say humbly as a drummer). We all have some intuitive knowledge and experience of rhythm – we’re used to our beating hearts, the pulse of our footsteps on the pavement, the continuous rhythms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years. It certainly makes sense that rhythm forms the cross-cultural foundation of music.
Another intriguing aspect of music is that it belongs primarily to the arts, but is present in many other more curious places; a mother singing her baby to sleep using motherese (baby talk – also applies to pets), birdsong, the whistle of the wind, creaking trees, grinding factory gears, glitching electronic devices, chainsaws and power tools, the sounds of the city…but is this music, or is it just sound?
What is the difference? When does music become art and art become music, or just sound, not music, for the sake of art, or something completely different?
The lines are blurrier than ever – we’ve become ever-increasingly adept at experimentation and abstraction, and we’ve come up with some weird stuff.
When I consider the question ‘where do we draw the lines between noise, sound and music?’ this provocative video always springs to mind:
If you watch this and feel some form of outrage or resent well up inside you, then you’re obviously not alone.
Whilst this one snare ‘solo’ is particularly outrageous and provocative, there are others by the same artist that are musical and tonally interesting.
But still, is it music? Or is it art? Or both? Or neither? Who cares?
But Why Does Music Exist?
Music has existed for a very long time indeed. Flutes and other instruments dating to some 40,000BC were found in the Geissenkloesterle Cave in Germany’s Swabian Jura, a cave that has yielded many important landmark archaeological finds related to the early technological development of homo sapiens. Given that these findings are only indicative of our ability to craft functional and reasonably complex musical instruments, the raw concept of music is probably thousands of years older still.
Ancient civilisations in both the East and West began more formal investigations into music around 40 – 400BCE. Pythagoras discovered that a plucked string that is exactly half the length of another (and of equal thickness) will produce a tone that is exactly one octave above it, and thus a theory of musical tuning and pitch was developed.
Pythagoras and Plato later theorised the harmonic characteristics of numbers and letters, developing the theory of Musicalis Universalis, the ‘harmony of the spheres,’ that described the Sun, Moon, and planets as vibrating together in some form of synchronous cosmic symphony. This early connection between music, mathematics and astronomy came to influence the arts greatly via a medieval curriculum called the Quadrivium.
An Indian essay or manuscript of the arts named the Natya Shastra written between 200BCE and 200CE also discussed the fundamental musical characteristics of dissonance, consonance, harmony and rhythm. Chinese inscriptions detailing the chromatic and pentatonic scales dated to some 400BCE were unearthed beside a tomb that contained a series of precisely-tuned bronze bells.
Musical engagement and understanding were not dispersed from a central geographic region or civilisation, they erupted spontaneously across nearly every culture.
It also seems that music and the art of sound helped occupy a gap between science and spiritualism, and that this connection helped inspire the expanse of both.
A New Universe of Audio
The palette of sounds and tones available to us are now more diverse than ever and the musical map has been totally transformed by technology.
From bashing snare drums with microphones to extratone, an experimental genre of music produced at some 5,000 BPM, the boundaries are defined not merely by what you can do physically, but what you can do with the help of technology, and what you can get away with!
Consider this, though. It’s only in the last 100 years that music has taken this technologically dynamic modern format. That’s a tiny space of time in music’s 45,000 to 70,000-year existence.
In this short space of time, we’ve experienced sounds that, to our knowledge, have not ever been experienced anywhere else in the universe throughout its entire 13.5 billion year existence.
In the early 1900s, Luigi Russolo wrote The Art of Noises, a futurist manifesto that described an epiphanic moment where he realised music would be transformed inexorably by technology, never to be the same again:
Let’s walk together through a great modern capital, with the ear more attentive than the eye, and we will vary the pleasures of our sensibilities by distinguishing among the gurglings of water, air and gas inside metallic pipes, the rumblings and rattlings of engines breathing with obvious animal spirits, the rising and falling of pistons, the stridency of mechanical saws, the loud jumping of trolleys on their rails, theLuigi Russolo – 1913
snapping of whips, the whipping of flags.
This is why we get infinitely more pleasure imagining combinations of the sounds of trolleys, autos and other vehicles, and loud crowds, than listening once more, for instance, to the heroic or pastoral symphonies
Russolo was urging forth a new era of music, one that departs the classical musical canon and traverses new sonic horizons. He’d bathed in the industrial tones of the city – a new sonic palette never previously exposed to the denizens of planet Earth.
I hope Russolo, who died in 1947, would be proud of how we’ve incorporated noises into music today. I reckon he’d have loved Ryosuke Kiyasu’s snare solos, gabba and a bit of extratone.
Our Musical Origins
The main thing I wanted to discuss here is the origin of music and the role it may have played in our evolution. Yes, we’ve enjoyed music for thousands of years, but how important is it really? Do we actually need it to survive?
One of the most polarising commentators on this subject is psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, who in How the Mind Works compares music to “auditory cheesecake”, and says that “as far as biological cause and effect is concerned, music is useless” (Pinker, 1997).
Naturally, others disagree. Darwin was one of the first to bring this evolutionary debate into mainstream academia. On Darwin’s second voyage aboard the Beagle, he undertook extensive research into the wide varieties of finches that lived on the Galápagos Islands, published in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). His observations made a huge contribution to the theory of evolution, which at the time, was still largely rejected as nonsense by other scholars and the public.
One of Darwin’s most famous achievements was the identification of morphological differences between the beaks of various finches, which correlated with differences in their behaviour and various specialisms or expertise. For example, a thicker, broader beak helped some finches crack tough nuts, whilst a longer slimmer beak was more adept at picking fruits from trees, etc.
This led Darwin to believe that whilst the finches may have at one time been largely the same, as the environment diversified, they diversified and changed, and evolved, to take on more specific roles in their environment and ecosystem.
Darwin also developed a fascination for bird song, which he discussed extensively in The Descent of Man (1871). Darwin’s theories drew many analogies between human language and bird song, which he described as both intrinsically beautiful, extremely complex, sociable, and advantageous for survival.
Again, scholars rejected these analogies. Friederich Max Müller, professor of linguistics at Oxford University said: “language is the Rubicon which divides man from beast, and no animal will ever cross it … the science of language will yet enable us to withstand the extreme theories of the Darwinians, and to draw a hard and fast line between man and brute” (Muller, 1862).
In Darwin’s later studies of language evolution, he put forward the theory of ‘musical protolanguage’. This proposed that prerequisite to language development, there must have been something there before to equip us with the neurological structures required for advanced communication.
Darwin’s musical protolanguage could have been the grunts and random noises that we may imagine of prehistoric human conversation. Here, there are no real words, no scheme of regularised communication, just an assortment of noises that slowly became more ordered, eventually developing into more complex language. Different communities may have had their own schemes of noises that correlated to different actions, some of these noises may have been chosen arbitrarily, but others would have been more intuitively easy to understand, such as crying or screaming.
Here, we can see a pretty classic evolutionary ‘chicken or the egg’ argument develop between music and language. The argument revolves around how pivotal music was in our evolution. If it was pivotal, does that go some way in explaining how it occupies such an important role in society today? Or is it really simply ‘auditory cheesecake’, and it only really merely tickles the senses?
In evolutionary science, there are 3 key approaches to understanding the evolution of an organism:
Spandrel – Some, like Pinker, believe that music exists as a form of spandrel. This means music simply ‘uses’ structures that already existed for other means. In this case, Pinker refers to auditory scene analysis (ASA), the process of decoding environmental information from sound for the sake of survival. Here, humans evolved the ability to listen to their environments and analyse them, e.g. the sound of impending storms, predators rustling in the bushes, distant footsteps, etc. The intuitive knowledge of sound we gained from ASA combined with the tonal qualities of language and the biologically rewarding process of making music led us to install it as a high-value cultural activity. Indeed, whilst Pinker’s quote is often highlighted with contempt, he wasn’t actually trying to devalue music. It can still become heavily woven into our neural processes despite not having adaptive value.
Exaptation – Exaptation suggests that music was not an original adaption but that it could still be positively selected later on for its biological usefulness, i.e. it is a byproduct that came to be reinforced as it enhanced survival/fitness (hard to delineate from spandrel).
Adaption – In evolution, an adaption is a trait, behaviour, or function that evolves in response to an environmental need or purpose. For example, giraffes adapted to taller trees by evolving longer necks. Without doing so, they would die. Most forms of evolutionary adaption occur as a specific reaction to changing environmental conditions or demands. Those who view music as a form of adaption believe that it was necessary for our survival to develop music and musicality. Without it, we would have struggled as a species. We may not even be here today as modern homo sapiens.
For example, without our proto-musicality, we could have never gained the skills required for language development. Or, without participating in musical activities, early humans wouldn’t have been able to form the cohesive social bonds required for cooperation and ultimately, survival.
Interestingly, the researchers at the heart of the flute discovery at Geissenkloesterle Cave in Germany’s Swabian Jura noted that music was part of a host of intellectual and cultural developments that gave homo sapiens (us), an edge over the neanderthals. Here, musical engagement would have been an extremely strong bonding force that adhered groups of humans together across communities.
Researchers also highlight behaviours such as motherese, the instinctive act of singing to a baby to soothe it. Dissanayake (2010) stated, “it is in the evolution of affiliative interactions between mothers and infants that we can discover the origins of the competencies and sensitivities that give rise to human music” (Dissanayake, 2000:392).
These highly instinctive survivalist traits then evolved to encompass wider forms of auditory communication that enabled homo sapiens to form the strong communities that have helped make us so successful; “close cooperation became unprecedentedly critical for individual survival” (Dissanayake, 2010:398).
In practical terms, musical evolution was probably a mixture of the above evolutionary sentiments. Noting the debate surrounding music’s survivalist value, Trainor (2015) says “the origins of music are complex and probably involved exaptation, cultural creation and evolutionary adaptation” (Trainor, 2015). Huron argues similarly “musical behaviors satisfy a number of basic conditions, which suggests that there is indeed merit in pursuing possible evolutionary accounts” (Huron, 2015).
Nothing is ever as easy as picking one account of a phenomenon, it’s always a mixture of every account!
Within the adaptionist argument, it is still unclear where precisely our musicality came from. Motherese provides a partial explanation, as does Auditory Scene Analysis (ASA), but still, you have to dig deeper to discover precisely why we began to use sound this way. There must have been a proto to Darwin’s musical protolanguage…
Some here have also drawn attention to apes, who have schemes of language and communication but not music per se, though this is contentious. This could still indicate that our musical instincts did not descend from apes.
Another explanation for music’s first origins, and for me, one of the most intriguing, lies in the brains of birds.
It’s quite fitting that even cutting edge evolutionary arguments have a knack of reverting back to Darwin.
One of Darwin’s observations was what birds do not simply sing for the sake of communication, they also sing simply because they enjoy it.
Enjoyment is one of the brain’s finest and most complex adaptions. A cocktail of neurotransmitters and chemicals are involved in our experience of joy, but one of the most significant structures from an evolutionary perspective is the mesolimbic reward pathway. This brain structure and pathway is responsible for dopamine production and release and its evolutionary purpose is to reinforce the behaviours beneficial for survival. Dopamine triggers in pretty large quantities when we sleep, exercise, have sex and eat, but it plays some role in almost everything we do.
Dopamine has also been found to trigger reliably and in large quantities when we listen to music. A commonly reported effect of music listening is frisson, or goosebumps, that can even be accompanied by an orgasmic wave-like sensation that ripples through the skin, literally a skin orgasm. Musical frisson isn’t regularly experienced by everyone, but it can be pretty powerful.
Musical frisson has received some high-profile coverage and research candidates have been analysed for dopamine release using PET scanners. Dopamine was found to be released in concentrations that rivalled that of sex, eating good food and other evolutionarily important behaviours that have not changed since the early days of our evolution.
Robert Zattore, one of the researchers that investigated the characteristics of this dopamine release, concluded that “our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies,” (Zattore, 2011:257). Indeed, this would suggest that we’ve become well-tuned to the powerful effects of music on neurological level.
But what is the relevance of birds here?
Birds experience the same phenomena – Darwin was right to believe that they enjoyed their songs. In an experiment involving White-Throated Sparrows, Sarah Earp and Donna Maney discovered they too show significant activity across the same neural reward pathways as we do. Not only that, but humans and songbirds share some of the same genes necessary for complex audio processing.
“The involvement of this circuit in music listening suggests that hearing music activates evolutionarily ancient neuroaffective mechanisms usually reserved for stimuli that, like song in birds, are critical for reproduction and survival” (Earp and Maney, 2015).
Their results showed comparative reactions across the hypothalamus, amygdala, caudate nucleus, and mesolimbic reward pathway. Birds here show a possible root source of many of the neural circuits that we ourselves recruited for musicality right at the start of our evolution as homo sapiens.
The link between our brains and bird’s brains has received much coverage; “recent advances have supported the existence of the seven cerebral vocal nuclei in the vocal learning birds and the proposed brain regions in humans”… “the auditory pathway in vocal learning birds and in humans was inherited from their common stem-amniote ancestor, thought to have lived 320 million years ago” (Jarvis, 2008:750).
The general consensus here is that, like songbirds, humans also inherited a complex sense of musicality that was advantageous for survival.
In many ways, it’s a beautiful sequence of events through from Darwin’s early hard-fought analogies between us and birds to the current state of modern evidence surrounding evolutionary musicology.
Our brains do indeed seem to share the same structures as bird brains when it comes to audio and music processing. They function similarly, for the same purpose – because it helps us survive. Joy is part of that survival.
As Keats communicates in his poem Ode to Nightingale, the Nightingale lives eternally through the essence of its song. Perhaps, with our musical bird brains, we share this fate after all.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard.John Keats