The story of music is the story of humans

June 20, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

How did music begin? Did our early ancestors first start by beating things together to create rhythm, or use their voices to sing? What types of instruments did they use? Has music always been important in human society, and if so, why? These are some of the questions explored in a recent Hypothesis and Theory article published in Frontiers in Sociology. The answers reveal that the story of music is, in many ways, the story of humans.

So, what is ? This is difficult to answer, as everyone has their own idea. "Sound that conveys emotion", is what Jeremy Montagu, of the University of Oxford and author of the article, describes as his. A mother humming or crooning to calm her baby would probably count as music, using this definition, and this simple music probably predated speech.

But where do we draw the line between music and speech? You might think that rhythm, pattern and controlling pitch are important in music, but these things can also apply when someone recites a sonnet or speaks with heightened emotion. Montagu concludes that "each of us in our own way can say 'Yes, this is music', and 'No, that is speech'."

So, when did our ancestors begin making music? If we take singing, then controlling pitch is important. Scientists have studied the fossilized skulls and jaws of early apes, to see if they were able to vocalize and control pitch. About a million years ago, the of Neanderthals and had the vocal anatomy to "sing" like us, but it's impossible to know if they did.

Another important component of music is rhythm. Our early ancestors may have created rhythmic music by clapping their hands. This may be linked to the earliest musical instruments, when somebody realized that smacking stones or sticks together doesn't hurt your hands as much. Many of these instruments are likely to have been made from soft materials like wood or reeds, and so haven't survived. What have survived are bone pipes. Some of the earliest ever found are made from swan and vulture wing bones and are between 39,000 and 43,000 years old. Other ancient instruments have been found in surprising places. For example, there is evidence that people struck stalactites or "rock gongs" in caves dating from 12,000 years ago, with the caves themselves acting as resonators for the sound.

So, we know that music is old, and may have been with us from when humans first evolved. But why did it arise and why has it persisted? There are many possible functions for music. One is dancing. It is unknown if the first dancers created a musical accompaniment, or if music led to people moving rhythmically. Another obvious reason for music is entertainment, which can be personal or communal. Music can also be used for communication, often over large distances, using instruments such as drums or horns. Yet another reason for music is ritual, and virtually every religion uses music.

However, the major reason that music arose and persists may be that it brings people together. "Music leads to bonding, such as bonding between mother and child or bonding between groups," explains Montagu. "Music keeps workers happy when doing repetitive and otherwise boring work, and helps everyone to move together, increasing the force of their work. Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds participants into a cohesive group". He concludes: "It has even been suggested that music, in causing such bonding, created not only the family but society itself, bringing individuals together who might otherwise have led solitary lives."

Explore further: Video: Why some people just don't like music

More information: Jeremy Montagu, How Music and Instruments Began: A Brief Overview of the Origin and Entire Development of Music, from Its Earliest Stages, Frontiers in Sociology (2017). DOI: 10.3389/fsoc.2017.00008

Related Stories

Video: Why some people just don't like music

July 2, 2014

For many people, enjoying music results in noticeable physical reactions – sweaty palms or a shiver down the spine. Music can cause the release of dopamine in your body, which provides a feeling of immense pleasure and ...

The mathematics of music history

October 6, 2016

Together with colleagues from London and Amsterdam, MIB postdoc Niels Chr. Hansen, analysed thousands of musical themes composed by French, Italian, and Austro-German composers living in 1600-1950.

New digital music store to cater to theater fans

June 2, 2014

The digital age virtually wiped out specialty theater record stores where show-tune lovers could browse aisles bursting with cast albums and sheet music. Now some entrepreneurs are hoping to bring back such an experience—online, ...

Recommended for you

Nuclear technology unlocks 50-million-year-old time capsules

December 11, 2017

A scientific analysis of fossilised tree resin has caused a rethink of Australia's prehistoric ecosystem, and could pave the way to recovering more preserved palaeobiological artefacts from the time of dinosaurs or prehistoric ...

Egypt archaeologists discover mummy in Luxor

December 9, 2017

Egyptian archaeologists have discovered a mummy in one of two previously unexplored tombs across the Nile from the southern city of Luxor, the antiquities ministry said Saturday.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MrVibrating
not rated yet Jun 20, 2017
One despairs of these wooly, vacuous clichés - "music" is spatio-temporal modulation of factor of two symmetries, and our affinity and propensity for it is borne of the fact that this is how we process all information - factor of two synchronisations are the simplest possible forms of spatial and temporal frequency relationships, and so the root of harmony, as octave equivalence, and rhythm, as the 4/4, 2/4 etc. time signatures.

Think about octave equivalence - how can two different pitches be "the same"? Octave equivalence is simply maximal, elementary harmonic consonance. Harmonic dissonance is simply 'inequivalence' of succesively greater entropy, the larger the temporal integration window required to resolve longer, more 'dissonant' intervals.

This is the stuff of information itself, the clay with which we model and enumerate all the information we're processing, in all modalities, and across all species, all the time everywhere. Motor, limbic and sensory.
MrVibrating
not rated yet Jun 20, 2017
"Music" is brain candy because it's clean, idealised problem solving of the kind we're applying to everything else, in all forms of processing, from higher thought to base instinct.

The octave equivalence paradox - or rather, its solution - is the key to everything here. We simply cannot meaningfully ask what music is without first resolving this keystone element.

Applying that solution to temporal, as well as spatial, frequency relationships, explains both rhythm and harmony, and then applying these lessons further, taken to their conclusions, we find the root of language and everything else..
ThomasQuinn
not rated yet Jun 21, 2017
One despairs of these wooly, vacuous clichés - "music" is spatio-temporal modulation of factor of two symmetries, and our affinity and propensity for it is borne of the fact that this is how we process all information - factor of two synchronisations are the simplest possible forms of spatial and temporal frequency relationships, and so the root of harmony, as octave equivalence, and rhythm, as the 4/4, 2/4 etc. time signatures.


You are describing European music of the common practice period, i.e. strict tonal music. Your definition inadequately describes pre-CPP music and does not describe a wide variety of music from after the CPP-period. For instance, much of electronic music does not rely on "spatio-temporal modulation of factor of two symmetries".

Your definition also fails to describe several kinds of non-classical rhythms, including those of significant examples of 20th century minimal music as well as modern jazz music, not to mention many kinds of folk music.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.