human music dance origin evolution

Humankind’s Musical Past

Our love of music and dance’s history

I started writing science essays like these about 30 years ago for a major New Zealand newspaper and never actually had problems of getting them also accepted by newspapers in several other countries, including the ‘Kaleva’ in Finland – with the exception of one essay: this one. Why did the Finnish editor not like this article?

Because Finns are a people who love to dance and who see dancing as an activity of a civilized cultured society. The Finnish tango is the nation’s number one folk dance and every year a Finnish tango queen and king are chosen. When I first came to Finland in 1978 even the smallest restaurant would have some space set aside as a dance floor and although nowadays this is no longer the case, Finns still love to dance. I myself wouldn’t want to live without music and I, too, enjoy to dance. But where does our musicality and feel of rhythm stem from? Aren’t animals also musical? Don’t they howl, whistle, sing, chirp and twitter their ‘melodies’ into the world?

The encyclopaedia defines music as an audible series of vocal or instrument-generated melodic tones of distinct rhythmicity, which create a pleasant impression in the listener. A bird’s warbles, trills and tweedles and a cricket’s or a grasshopper’s chirping may well satisfy the first part of the definition, but whether their vocalizations actually produce a pleasant sensation in these species’ minds is difficult to ascertain. One would suspect that the roots of our own musicality must lie in our ancestry like so many of our other characteristics, e.g., curiosity, our expressions of anger or fear, our parental instinct, etc. However, a look at our closest animal relatives, the great apes, shows us that they are without exception totally unmusical.

Their musical hearing is virtually non-existent; they are tone-deaf and their own vocalizations are howls, grunts, screams, teeth chatterings, burps and belches – anything but pleasant to listen to. Apes and monkeys are interested in noise, not music and a feel for rhythm is alien to them. And yet rhythmicity and rhythmic movements are a common feature in organisms: there is the repetitive heart beat, the breathing rhythm, the regular forward and backward swings of the legs, the pelvic movements during copulation….

Could the human love of music and dance be possibly related to reproduction? I am not the first to believe this might be so, for we observe the rhythmic stepping-on-the spot and other pre-copulatory stereotypic, repetitive movements in numerous species, and we know that vocalisations often accompany such displays. Anthropologists claim that human’s most archaic songs were passionate high pitched exclamations, sliding into lower pitch as the utterer would run out of air. The pleasant effect on the listener could have been empathy or identification with the vocaliser’s emotion, a bond between singer and listener.

And dance, the cultivated swaying, swirling and floating along the dance floor in unison, with bodies closely apposed and movements synchronised, couldn’t that too have its roots in the pre-copulatory behaviour of our ancestors. I think that is what my esteemed Finnish newspaper editor, himself an avid dancer, must have found unacceptable. Well, he may not have known about lap or contact dancing – but then again I’m sure he would not have called that dancing at all and I would certainly agree with him.

voices sound benno meyer roc how biology science

Do you want to sing? click here for reading : “Voices”

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2016.
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