Team finds evidence of ancient human history encoded in music's complex patterns

Nov 20, 2013

In the same way that fragments of ancient pottery and bones offer valuable information about human history, music can also reveal previously hidden clues about the past, according to new research from an international team led by McMaster University psychologist Steven Brown.

The team has established for the first time that the history of human populations is embedded in music, where complex combinations of rhythm, pitch and arrangement form a code that scientists can read in a manner that can be compared to the way they read changes in human DNA and language.

"Music is an untapped migrational marker that can be used to help people understand the history of ," says Brown, an associate professor of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. "It adds to the whole story of . We need more evidence, and this is a new kind of evidence that we can add to the pot."

Brown's research team used a comparison between the mitochondrial DNA and the folk music of nine indigenous populations of Taiwan to show that each tells a similar story about the ways those populations have changed and converged over the last 6,000 years.

Mitochondrial DNA changes at a predictable rate, acting as an evolutionary clock that makes it ideal for such comparisons.

The group included researchers from Tokyo University of the Arts, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and China Medical University and Mackay Memorial Hospital, both in Taiwan. Their results are published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, one of the society's biological journals.

The researchers analyzed the structures of 220 Taiwanese choral songs recorded since the 1940s. They compared the results with DNA samples taken from 1,050 subjects from different parts of the island and found that the musical results shared significant similarities to the genetic results when it came to tracking changes over thousands of years.

The findings prove that music can be a repository of scientific information about the people who make it, says Brown, who is director of the NeuroArts Lab in McMaster's Department of Psychology.

"Languages and genes change slowly over time, but music can change much more quickly," Brown says. "I think people thought that music was too transient to carry evidence of what happened thousands of years ago. Our results support the idea that music actually has elements in it that are ancient. In addition to being able to evolve quickly, it can also retain traces of ancient population movements."

Brown's lab is devoted to understanding of the neural, cognitive and evolutionary foundations of the arts, including: , dance, drama and the visual arts, and is associated with McMaster's Institute for Music and the Mind. Research on the project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Explore further: Ancient, modern DNA tell story of first humans in the Americas

Related Stories

Music video platform Vevo comes to Germany

Sep 02, 2013

US online music video channel Vevo said Monday it will launch its services in Germany this year after reaching a licensing deal with GEMA, the country's publishing rights agency.

YouTube launches first music awards

Oct 01, 2013

Video-sharing service YouTube has announced its first music awards, which will be presented at a live event November 3 featuring Lady Gaga, Eminem, Arcade Fire and others.

Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?

Jul 11, 2013

Sad music might actually evoke positive emotions reveals a new study by Japanese researchers published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology. The findings help to explain why people enjoy listening to sad mu ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.