Why humans are musical

Why don't apes have musical talent, while humans, parrots, small birds, elephants, whales, and bats do? Matz Larsson, senior physician at the Lung Clinic at Örebro University Hospital, attempts to answer this question in the scientific publication Animal Cognition.

In his article, he asserts that the ability to mimic and imitate things like music and speech is the result of the fact that synchronised group movement quite simply makes it possible to perceive sounds from the surroundings better.

The hypothesis is that the evolution of vocal learning, that is musical traits, is influenced by the need of a species to deal with the disturbing sounds that are created in connection with locomotion. These sounds can affect our hearing only when we move.

"When several people with legs of roughly the same length move together, we tend to unconsciously move in rhythm. When our footsteps occur simultaneously, a brief interval of silence occurs. In the middle of each stride we can hear our surroundings better. It becomes easier to hear a pursuer, and perhaps easier to conduct a conversation as well," explains Larsson.

A behaviour that has survival value tends to produce dopamine, the "reward molecule". In dangerous terrain, this could result in the stimulation of and enhanced listening to surrounding sounds in nature. If that kind of synchronized behaviour was rewarding in it may as well have been rewarding for the brain in relative safety, resulting in activities such as hand- clapping, foot-stamping and yelping around the campfire. From there it is just a short step to dance and rhythm. The hormone dopamine flows when we listen to music.

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More information: Larsson, M. Self-generated sounds of locomotion and ventilation and the evolution of human rhythmic abilities, Animal Cognition, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 1-13. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-011-0433-2
Journal information: Animal Cognition

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Sep 24, 2013
This fails to account for traditional music of some south Asian countries, such as Bali, which does not have any definable rhythm at all. Percussion instruments play with no apparent coordination.

Some traditional tribal music of the USA typically has a continuous uninterrupted tone or continuous chant.

As this is some of the most ancient musical styles known we would expect, if the hypothesis were correct, for these styles to more closely follow simple stepwise rhythm rather than be far far less like it or totally unrelated to it.

The researchers have taken popular western music, apparently ignored music from South Asia and traditional tribal music and formulated a hypothesis on the current western style. The hypothesis does not even fit traditional Sitar music (eg the Rag) of India, an ancient style predating much of western music as we know it.

Sep 24, 2013
Empirically identifying a source of rhythm (probably not the only one, possibly the first) and then using a grade school knowledge of music to extrapolate it to all music is unimpressive.

They should have consulted an Ethnomusicologist. That is how science is done ~ each area has its own highly trained experts. They do not need scientists from another discipline assuming that one can trivially summarise the entire field.

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