zoology biology benno meyer rochow science blog sound music Florian Nock

Our Humans’ Musical Past

Where does our musicality come from?

There are some human beings, myself included, who would argue that they could not live without music. It doesn’t matter whether you enjoy singing in a choir (like I did for many years), whistle or hum a tune to yourself or just listen to some good music: music is part of our lives. And it is important to highlight and make major events like inaugurations, celebrations, preparation for battle, funeral ceremonies, birthday parties, etc. more memorable. But what exactly is music and, in addition to humans, aren’t there musical animals as well, howling, warbling, singing, chirping, crooning their melodies into the world?

A dictionary defines music as vocal or instrumental sounds having some degree of rhythm, melody, and harmony, eliciting a pleasurable response in the listener. Cricket song, although not actually vocal or instrumental, and bird song can qualify as rhythmic melodies and may even contain harmony and improvisations. That the sounds are perceived by those individuals that they are meant to reach, is obvious by the reactions that the listening crickets and birds exhibit, but whether they produce “a pleasurable response” in the listening crickets and birds is impossible to judge.

What must be true, however, is that the origin of humanity’s fondness of music has to be buried somewhere in the past. Unfortunately, music leaves no pre-historical trace like the beginnings of tool-making, painting, and writing, but bone flutes, nevertheless, existed already even during the time Neanderthal people were roaming southern Europe. Looking at our evolutionary closest primate relatives, the great apes, we will be disappointed to learn that they are anything but musical. Their sounds are non-melodious grunts, screams, shrieks, burps, chatters and howls (as I have once been able to convince myself of at a visit to the university’s primate centre in our town). Being interested in action and noise rather than the sensuous appeal of a pulsating beat, they appear to have no sense of rhythm at all.

Yet there are abundant natural rhythms: all mammals are exposed to breathing rhythms, the regular heart beat, the swinging of the legs and arms during walking and the movements of the pelvis during the process of mating. Rhythm and singing in humans could have evolved from bursts of passions similar to the excited stomping and vocalizations of many animals prior to a fight or hunt. Acts like copulations or repeatedly performed mock attacks could have been accompanied by vocalizations. And then there is of course, the “victory call” of the successful combatant or the lucky individual that discovered a food source.

It is interesting to note that chants considered most archaic in human societies are rather similar in structure to animal howls. They are descending melodies, with all the force and passion of the singer at the beginning or middle section of the song, letting the melody sag as the vocal chords slacken and the air supply gets exhausted. The pleasurable effect on the listener, required by our earlier definition of music, would then be secondary and music itself would, in the terminology of the ethologist, be a kind of “displacement activity”, a kind of escape from reality. And, thinking of the comfort I can get by listening to or composing music during times of sadness, isn’t it actually the escape from reality quite often?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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