Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Did Music Help Our Ancestors Survive?

Music has been called the universal language.  Now, research in anthropology and neuroscience suggest that music actually helped human ancestors survive, particularly before language.  In his book, "The Singing Neanderthals,"  Prof. Steven Mithen argues that "language may have been built on the neural underpinnings of music" (Begley 2006).    Could it be that humans sang before they conversed?

Studies have shown that some people with severe language impairment can still have musical abilities, for example, playing a melody on the piano after hearing it only once.  "Music," Mithen says, "can exist within the brain in the absence of language," a sign that the two evolved independently. And since language impairment does not wipe out musical ability, the latter "must have a longer evolutionary history" (Begley 2006).

So, if our brains are "hard-wired" for music, why did this happen?   More than a century ago, Charles Darwin pondered this question and theorized that, as with bird songs, human singing evolved to attract mates.  He wrote in his book The Descent of Man that "before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, [humans] endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm" (Darwin 1883)   Prof. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico agrees, saying that "Music was shaped by sexual selection to function mostly as a courtship display.."  (Begley 2006).

Prof. Mithen asserts that music fostered social bonding.  The music promoted "a sense of we-ness, of being together in the same situation facing the same problems," he suggests, creating "a social rather than a merely individual identity" (Begley 2006).

Music is a cultural universal, that is, it exists in all human cultures.  However, there is significant diversity in musical expression from culture to culture.

Begley, Sharon (2006)  Science Journal:  Caveman crooners may have aided early human life.  The Wall Street Journal.  Friday, March 31, 2006.

Darwin, Charles (1883)  The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: Appleton and Co.)

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