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The Origins of Music

November 2000; Bjørn Merker:

[Editors note: This comment was first published in ©Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9(2) 2000, pp 28-31 as a response to Bjørn Grinde’s article “A Biological Perspective on Musical Appreciation” also published in Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9(2), pp 18-27The comment is republished here with the kind permission from the author.]

A New Theory of Music Origins: the Language Auxiliary Hypothesis. Comment on Grinde’s Article

Music hardly ever figures as a topic of serious discussion in anthropological approaches to the mystery of human origins, and evolutionary biology is even rarer as a topic in musicology. There are signs, however, that this silence on the possible relationship between music and evolutionary biology is in the process of being broken. Grinde’s article is a welcome addition to a small but growing number of voices which, though hardly amounting to a chorus as yet, at least are articulating important questions concerning the possible role of music in our evolutionary past, and about the possible relevance of evolutionary biology for understanding the origins of music. A sign of the times in this regard is the recent appearance of the book The Origins of Music edited by a musicologist and two neuroscientists (Wallin et al., 2000). Turning to the specifics of Grinde’s theory, one notes that the evolutionary role and significance it assigns to music does not coincide with any of the proposals featured in the section “Theories of music origins” in the above book. It is perhaps most closely related to Steven Brown’s “musilanguage” theory, which proposes a common origin for music and language in a once undifferentiated “musilanguage” stage of human evolution (Brown, 2000). However, Grinde’s proposal differs from Brown’s in a number of respects, above all in the role assigned to music by Grinde. According to Grinde, music originated as a “teaching device for language” (my expression) by providing the motivational (hedonic) underpinnings for a propensity to focus on and interpret complex sounds, a propensity needed for the primary function of language acquisition. I have therefore characterized his proposal as the “language auxiliary” theory of the origins of music in the title of this comment.

A problem with this characterization of mine is that Grinde, in the body of his paper, seems to argue for the proposed language-related function of music as primary (for example, in discussing a possible origin of music through sexual selection, he states that its functions in this regard would not have evolved “in the absence of the language connection”, i.e. language is taken to be primary), but in his concluding section he seems to suggest that our propensity for music is a result of the combination of five presumably independent factors, among which are “the language connection” and “sexual selection”. Pending clarification of this point, my comments are based on Grinde’s emphasis, in the body of his paper, on the primacy of “the language connection” for the origins of music. If so, it is important to note that the two phenomena, music and language, would be expected to have evolved together in our past. This then raises the question of why natural selection should have taken on the burden of evolving two functional domains, music and language, with only partial overlap in structural terms, on the basis of a selection pressure for one of them, namely language. The step to language is such a long one that it has been taken only once in all of biology, but the step to song and “music-like” vocal phenomena seems far shorter in that it has evolved repeatedly in nature in the form of bird song, whale song and gibbon song among others, and in all these cases without any connection to language. Might it therefore not be more natural to assume that an advanced stage of “animal song” evolved in our own past prior to language and consequently shortened the long step to language by supplying capacities of vocal control, temporal patterning of vocal production, and motivational mechanisms for attending to song, which could later be used for language though they did not evolve for this purpose?

More specifically, if such a hypothetical animal song capacity in our own past involved vocal learning, which is common in birds (contrary to what Grinde assumes) but rare in mammals (see review by Janik and Slater, 1997) it would be particularly suggestive as a facilitatory step towards language evolution, as repeatedly emphasized by Nottebohm. He points to two aspects of vocal learning in birds as particularly relevant to the issue of language origins in humans: left hemisphere control of song production in birds and the “babbling” (“sub-song”) phase of song acquisition in birds (Nottebohm 1975, 1976).

If we assume that vocal learning for song (in the animal sense) preceded and set the stage for the emergence of language in our own past, then this song/music stage would have to be explained without reference to language, a task for which the various forms of song present in the animal kingdom provide a wide range of models and heuristic tools. The elaborate song cycles of hump-back whales, for example, involve not only vocal learning, but innovative change leading to a constantly changing shared song repertoire and genuine cultural song traditions among different populations of whales (Payne 2000). Such a perspective on animal-type song as a predisposition to language evolution, in principle proposed long ago by Darwin, does not, however, seem to be what Grinde is proposing. Rather he proposes language as the primary selection pressure also for music, with music supplying a mechanism essential for language itself, namely in the process of its ontogenetic acquisition.

But in this case, one might ask why language evolution took a round-about via music, that is: why would music be needed as a language teaching device in the first place? Why not attach the emotional (hedonic) valences assumed by Grinde in the case of musical structures directly to the language sounds and patterns themselves, rather than to a substitute structure which in many ways differs from language? Chief among these differences is the ubiquitous metrization of time in music, which has no counterpart in language (though it does in poetry, particularly when chanted). Not all music is metric, but metric music is a universal human element, that is, it is present in every human culture without exception and is therefore likely to be a “deep” constituent of music likely to tell us something about its origins. In this connection, a detailed evolutionary scenario for the origin of music along with our time-keeping capacity (i.e. our capacity to entrain to an isochronous pulse, an ability not shared by most higher animals but which does randomly occur among lower animals such as insects) in synchronous chorusing at the hominid-chimpanzee split has recently been presented (Merker 1999-2000; 2000).

Other differences between language and music also make the latter sub-optimal as a primary teaching device for the former. Pure tones and pitch discreation are prominent in music, but are not a prominent feature of language, where much of the information is carried by consonants, and even vowels are not spectrally pure tones often aimed for in music. That is, both the spectral content and the temporal patterning of music are sufficiently different from language to raise questions concerning the extent of its utility for the proposed language-auxiliary function. Moreover, on that hypothesis, would one not expect – across cultures – a close correlation between the distinctive characteristics of a language and the music of that linguistic community? Is there any evidence for such a correlation?

The differences between music and language vis-à-vis the proposal that music serves as “language teaching device” appear in quite a different light according to the alternative mentioned above, namely that an advanced stage of vocal learning for song might have preceded human language. If so a later evolving language might avail itself (in ontogeny) of whatever structural features the two domains in fact share despite their differences. Language would according to this view recruit those features of a pre-existing song/music capacity that in fact might facilitate language acquisition, such as the phenomenon of “repetition with variation” (a prominent feature of “motherese” or “infant-directed speech”) pervading song and music of the most varied kinds. The sub-optimality of music as a whole for a “language teaching” role would cease to be a problem on this account, but this does not appear to be what Grinde has in mind.

The above are questions raised in my mind by Grinde’s proposal, and quite apart from the ultimate answer such questions might receive in the course of time, it is important that they be raised, in as many forms and in as many forums as possible, because so far the possible evolutionary significance of music has received scant attention indeed compared to that of language. Grinde’s article helps redress that imbalance, and though I personally suspect that Grinde’s proposal ties the origin of music too closely to the origin of language, the fact that it is a proposal concerning the evolutionary origin of music makes it deserving of serious attention and sustained scrutiny by scholars concerned with this important domain of our human capabilities and sensibilities.

Acknowledgement: The writing of this comment was supported by a grant from The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation.


Brown, S. (2000). The “musilanguage” model of music evolution. In N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown (Eds.) The Origins of Music. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, pp. 271-300.

Janik, V. M. and Slater, P. J. B. (1997). Vocal learning in mammals. Advances in the study of behavior 26, pp. 59-99.

Merker, B. (1999-2000). Synchronous chorusing and the origins of music. Musicae Scientiae, special issue on “Rhythm, musical narrative and the origins of human communication”, pp. 59-74.

Merker, B. (2000). Synchronous chorusing and human origins. In N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown (Eds.) The Origins of Music. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, pp. 315-327.

Nottebohm, F. (1975). A zoologists view of some language phenomena, with particular emphasis on vocal learning. In E. H. Lenneberg and E. Lenneberg (Eds.) Foundations of language development. New York: Academic Press.

Nottebohm, F (1976). Discussion paper: Vocal tract and brain: A search for evolutionary bottlenecks. In S. R. Harnad, H. D. Steklis, and J. Lancaster (Eds.) Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 280, pp. 643-649.

Payne, K. (2000). The progressively changing songs of humpback whales: A window on the creative process in a wild animal. In N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown (Eds.) The Origins of Music. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, pp. 135-150.

N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown (Eds.)(2000). The Origins of Music. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

November 2000; Erik Christensen:

Music Precedes Language. Comment on Grinde’s Article

[Editors note: This comment was first published in © Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9(2) 2000, pp 32-35 as a response to Bjørn Grinde’s article “ A Biological Perspective on Musical Appreciation” also published in Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9(2), pp 18-27.The comment is republished here with the kind permission from the author.]


Dear Bjørn Grinde: I have been given the opportunity to comment on your article “A Biological Perspective on Musical Appreciation.” I respect your approach, but I disagree with some of your assumptions, and wish to contribute to an open-minded discussion of your viewpoints.

Reading your summary (p.18) arouses immediate reactions on my part. You assume that preoccupation with sounds is mainly related to behaviour associated with our dependence on language. This cannot be true. The ability of listening to sounds and producing sounds precedes the acquirement of language, not vice versa.

Your second assumption that during music appreciation the brain concentrates on sounds which offer pleasant sensations, is only half of the truth. Musical sounds arouse immediate and strong emotional response, but noisy, startling, disturbing and dissonant sounds are no less important for musical experience than pleasant, relaxing, gentle and consonant sounds.

Your conclusions (p.25) open more fruitful perspectives. I find three of your five points important for the understanding of music appreciation; sound qualities that stimulate curiosity or feed the imagination, the link between music and the caring for infants, and the relationship between music and sexual behaviour. But, as above, I disagree with two points. I consider it dubious to attach crucial importance to the language connection and to the relaxing effect of music. I will provide some input for a discussion of these agreements and disagreements.

What is music?

It is not clear to me what you consider to be “music” and what you may possibly exclude. It is evident that an abundance of music offering pleasant sensations can be found in classical music, new age and ambient music, harmonious repetitive music (e.g. Philip Glass and John Adams), sweet jazz, folk music, dance music, pop and love songs. But the basis for understanding what “music” is and can be must encompass all kinds of emotional arousal. Some examples; the drama and grief in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, chaos and light in Haydn’s Creation, fear in the Dies Irae of Verdi’s Requiem, harsh dissonances in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, noisy percussion and wind instruments in Varèse’s Hyperprism, vehemence in Debussy’s Prelude on the Western Wind, the suffering of Jesus in Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur, chaotic and threatening sounds in Xenakis’ Metastasis, the surrealistic variety of emotions in Ligeti’s Aventures, the sharp, penetrating sounds of Japanese Gagaku, the simultaneity of noise and tone in African instruments, the rough interferent sound of heavy rock.

For the understanding of music appreciation, it is necessary to take disturbant as well as pleasant sensations into consideration; noise and tone, dissonance and consonance, continuity and discontinuity, irregularity and regularity, chaos and order. Not in the least in the performance and evaluation of music therapy improvisations, it is important to be aware of these polarities of musical expression. (Erkkilä, 2000)

Pleasure, continuity and regularity cannot be taken for granted in music. In your paragraph on “Safe and relaxing sounds” ( p.23) you seem to be convinced that “rhythm” is equal to “rhythm with a beat”. This is, again, only half of the truth. Musical rhythm is a continuum of variability between the extremes of rigorous beat and free flow. Gregorian chant flows freely. Debussy’s music imitates the flexible movements of nature. Messiaen employs additive rhythm to avoid the feeling of regular metre. And, in music therapy, free improvisation without a beat is an important and necessary basis for musical and emotional communication. Music without a beat is not confined to “rare cases of experimental music without commercial success”, as you suggest. Numerous composers explore the continuum between beat and free flow, not in the least with Nordic composers such as Magnus Lindberg, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Rolf Wallin, and Sven-David Sandström, available on commercial CDs.

What is the origin of listening?

I agree with you that auditory signals are important for human survival, that the human brain is designed to offer particularly strong rewards for attending to sounds, and that music is a trait coopted for a use for which evolution did not shape it.

For further explanation, I take the liberty of introducing the theory of listening I have proposed in The Musical Timespace:

“Hearing is not designed for music listening. Hearing is designed for survival in a natural environment. Hearing arouses attention of events and dangers, and it is a vital means of spatial orientation. Hearing permits the localization and distinction of sounding objects, and it evokes and maintains awareness of the movement of sound sources.” (Christensen, 1996, p. 10).

It is my proposition that hearing informs our body and consciousness of events in the surrounding world by virtue of five basic listening dimensions; intensity, timbre, space, movement and pulse.


is the fundamental listening dimension, the prerequisite for detection of sound.


is the quality that permits distinction, recognition and identification of sounds.


is the listening dimension which permits localization of sound sources.




are listening dimensions related to the experience of the body as well as the surrounding world; the perception of movement corresponds to the experience of change, and pulse perception corresponds to the experience of regularity. The origins of these listening dimensions have nothing to do with music. They are evolved as abilities of the brain and the nervous system, essential for survival and orientation. But the very same natural abilities are subsequently activated in music listening.

The perceptible qualities of music are not restricted to pure, consonant and pleasant sounds. Rough timbres, noisy percussion, startling intensity, penetrating sounds, surprises, interruptions and disturbances are also essential means of musical expression. The natural biological ability for listening provides a basis for inclusion of any kind of sounds in music.

The pre-verbal period in life is essential for music

I agree with you that there are essential links between music appreciation, the stimulation of curiosity and the caring for infants.

I adhere to the opinion that the abilities of listening to and producing sounds are developed very early in the life of an infant as means of auditory orientation in the world and communication with the caring person. The evolution of these abilities precedes the evolution of language. When language begins to emerge in the infant’s life, sound perception and communication are already developed as highly refined and differentiated abilities. Language is evolved on the basis of these abilities, but the language connection is not a determinative factor for the brain’s capacity for awareness of sound. It is already there, highly developed. The basis for auditory perception is essentially pre-verbal.

I find support for this assumption in Daniel Stern’s theory of The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985), and I wish to draw attention to one particular aspect of his theory, the infant’s experience of Self-coherence, which I consider essential for the understanding of musical abilities. In brief: Stern describes four periods in the evolution of the infant’s Sense of self: Emergent self (0-3 months), Core self (3-9 months), Subjective self (9-15 months), Verbal self (from 15 months). Characteristics of the sense of the Core self (3-9 months) are the experiences of Self-agency, Self-coherence, Self-affectivity and Self-history.

Features of experience that help in establishing Self-coherence are described by Stern as Unity of locus, Coherence of motion, Coherence of temporal structure, Coherence of intensity structure, Coherence of form (configuration that serves identification). (Stern 1985, pp. 82-87). It is my suggestion that Stern’s explanation of Self-coherence provides a basis for the understanding of the origins of music perception, musical communication and music appreciation. I take the liberty to propose that there is a coincidence between Stern’s five features of experience and the five basic listening dimensions I have mentioned above; Unity of locus (Space), Coherence of motion (Movement), Coherence of temporal structure (Pulse), Coherence of intensity structure (Intensity), Coherence of form: configuration that serves identification (Timbre).

Let this be a theoretical proposition for further investigation. It implies that the ability of experiencing sound and music is pre-subjective and pre-verbal and is developed within the first nine months of the infant’s life.

I hope that these viewpoints provoked by your article may open a fruitful discussion.


Bonde, Lars Ole (1997). På opdagelsesrejse i det musikalske tidsrum (1). En samtale med Erik Christensen og Inge Nygaard Pedersen. [ On a voyage of discovery in the musical timespace (1). A conversation with Erik Christensen og Inge Nygaard Pedersen ] . Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 6(2), pp. 139-146.

Bonde, Lars Ole (1998). På opdagelsesrejse i det musikalske tidsrum (2). [On a voyage of discovery in the musical timespace (2). Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 7(1), pp. 76-83.

Christensen, Erik (1996). The Musical Timespace. A Theory of Music Listening. Aalborg: Aalborg University Press.

Christensen, Erik (1999). Interruption, Surprise, Disturbance, Interference – A Pluralistic Track in Musical Modernism. In: Music and Society in the 20th Century. International Symposium 1998. Ljubljana, pp. 42-50.

Erkkilä, Jaakko (2000). A Proposition for the Didactics of Music Therapy Improvisation. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9(1), pp. 13-25.

Pischinger, Gerhard (2000). Musik og udvikling. Om den terapeutiske betydning af musikalske udviklingsprocesser. [Music and development. On the therapeutic meaning of processes of musical development] . Aalborg: Aalborg Universitet.

Stern, Daniel (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Stokbro Nielsen, Sanne & Tony Vesterager Sørensen (1998). Musiklytning og musikoplevelse [Music listening and music experience] Aarhus: Aarhus Universitet.

December 2000; Bjørn Grinde:

Response to the comments made by Bjørn Merker and Erik Christensen

I would like to thank Bjørn Merker and Erik Christensen for their evaluation of my article “A biological perspective on musical appreciation”. I feel, however, that their comments need a reply.

Both authors seem to disagree with the idea that an initial trigger for the evolution of our appreciation of music might have been to stimulate us to develop our linguistic capacity. However, the arguments they put against this hypothesis are very different, and are in my mind both based on misunderstandings.

I fear that Merker fails to appreciate the difference between human song or music and what is referred to as ‘song’ in animals such as birds and whales. For the present purpose, the important difference is that the song of whales and birds is their primary form of oral communication. We call the sound these animals make ‘song’, because, in contrast to the oral communication of horses or chimpanzees, it happens to contain certain qualities resembling human music, such as purity of tone. What makes the phenomenon of human devotion to song and music special, and interesting, is that this is not our primary means of communication: We have language. Although song and music certainly can serve communicative purposes, this does not seem to be their primary function. If humans had been conversing with song alone, like birds do, the functional and evolutionary implications would be obvious. It is the observation that we are able to appreciate song and music, even when communicative intent is not important, which requires an evolutionary explanation.

Most mammals use oral communication – although it typically is less important than olfactory and visual signals. Both birds and mammals need to “learn” to vocalise. The important difference between mammals and birds is that the whole process of learning is more tightly controlled by the genes in the case of birds. They do not require the degree of emotional motivation that the mammalian brain, and human brain in particular, rely on as a force to direct behaviour. In birds learning is more instinctive.

Another point that Merker apparently finds difficult to understand is my suggestions that although I believe the language connection was the initial function that started the evolution towards a musical appreciation, other functions – such as the socialising and relaxing effect and the question of sexual selection – most likely spurred this process on. For a biologist there is nothing strange about suggesting that several factors act together in forming a trait. Indeed, I believe that a problem with many evolutionary theories is that they are too fond of singling out particular factors, rather than embracing the complexity of the evolutionary process.

Merker asks if it is not strange that evolution evolved different functional domains for music and language if the former was just an auxiliary unit. The point is relevant. Of course, evolution could work in that way: Motivation (the wanting or seeking system) is mapped to circuits independent of the processes to be instigated – such as eating or keeping warm. Yet, my primary response is that although we do have some crude tools for mapping brain functions to anatomical or neurochemical characterised circuits, what they map is, at the best, circuits of particular importance for the function in question. Based on present technology we cannot state that the circuits solely care for that one function. Thus the brain regions assumed to be important in processing music may very well also have functions connected with language.

Christensen declares that music precedes language. Unfortunately his comment seems to confuse two very different processes: Ontogeny and phylogeny. With the above statement he apparently means that musical appreciation is present prior to language in infants. This is a question of ontogeny, and I fully agree. What my article is about is that the capacity of musical appreciation evolved along with, not before, the capacity for language in our evolutionary history. This is a question of phylogeny.

True, ontogeny sometimes recapitulate phylogeny, but this generalisation only fits certain features: The observation that we do not engage in sex before puberty, does not imply that sexual behaviour evolved after language.

Christensen also points to all the varied forms music has taken. When writing on music as a biological phenomenon it is, in my mind, advisable to concentrate on the “typical” or “average” musical experience. The various expressions of music are certainly interesting, but I believe, best dealt with in a different context.

Then what came first: Language or song? Unfortunately there is not much we know about early hominid vocalisation. It is actually conceivable that before human language reached the complexity is has today, vocalisation was more melodious. Anyway, whether one at some point in our evolutionary history would refer oral expression as ‘song’, rather than ‘language’, is pretty much a question of how one chooses to use these terms. Again, the important point is that today music exists as a phenomenon more or less independent of communicative purpose.

Bjørn Grinde

January 9, 2001; Björn Merker:

Further comments related to Grinde’s evolutionary theory of music origins.

Grinde’s response to my comments on his article “A biological perspective on musical appreciation” allows me to clarify some points I made regarding comparative evidence and evolutionary issues in relation to the origins of music. I did not introduce the issue of animal song on the assumption that there is no difference between animal song and human music. I do not even assume that animal song need be particularly closely related to the nonverbal singing of present day humans. My argument was quite a different one, and concerned the possibility that before our ancestors became talking humans they might in fact have been singing apes, a possibility which presumably would have direct consequences for any argument concerning the evolutionary origin of the human appreciation of music. I advisedly used the expression “animal song” in this connection, and pointed to the fact that animal song has evolved repeatedly and independently in different taxonomic groups. This means that there is nothing biologically implausible in assuming that our own ape ancestors might have been singing apes at, say, an australopithecine stage of evolution (Livingstone, 1973). To further reinforce this point, twelve species of gibbons inhabiting the South East Asian rainforests provide living proof that a singing ape is not a biological impossibility.

Since the very premises for any discussion of a possible biological background to the human appreciation of music are bound to be drastically affected by the empirical issue of whether or not we were in fact singing apes prior to acquiring human status, I raised this issue as a primary one in relation to Grinde’s proposal. A singing ape has both the receptive, motivational (hedonic) and productive capacities to respond to and engage in a peculiar type of vocal behavior which biologists have found reason to designate by the special term “song” to distinguish it from the common type of animal communicative vocalization termed “call” (Marler and Mundinger, 1971, p. 392). The distinction involves primarily matters of structural complexity and organization, rather than factors such as tone quality mentioned by Grinde in this connection.

This brings us to Grinde’s second point in his response, namely the nature of animal song and its possible relation to human music. Recognition of the obvious differences between animal song and human music need not mean that the two domains are devoid of connection. It is not the case, as Grinde seems to think, that the song of singing animals “is their primary form of oral communication”. Singing species, just like nonsinging species, conduct their “ordinary” communication with the help of a repertoire of various “calls” (not song) used between group members, mother and offspring, the members of a pair etc. Singing bird species, like non-singing ones, use chirps, peeps, clicks, buzzes, squaks etc. for communicative purposes in these situations, but in addition to (over and above) this repertoire of ordinary vocalization they have song, a special, structurally more elaborate display behavior whose nature and functions have been the subject of intensive biological study (see Catchpole and Slater, 1995). The chaffinch may serve as an example: besides its song it has a repertoire of 13 basic call patterns for social, aggressive, courtship, begging, alarm, flight and other communicative purposes (see Marler and Mundinger, 1971, p. 394-395). In many singing bird species it is only the males that sing, but females, of course, are not mute.

In gibbons both male and female sings, but their singing is, again, an organized behavior distinct from all their ordinary communicative vocalization. The latter is as rich and varied as that of other primates, and sounds like that of other primates. Gibbon song, on the other hand, neither sounds like other ape sounds, nor does it blend with ordinary gibbon vocalization. Rather, it is set apart in the form of a distinctive “song bout” or “duet”, a “display” which takes place in the morning hours, usually as a single “performance”, and not necessarily even every day. That is, most on-going gibbon vocal communication takes place via the ordinary grunts, squeals, hoots, and so on by which non-singing apes communicate. What makes gibbons into singing apes is that in addition to this common form of communicative vocalization they have a special elaborate and cyclical vocal display called song. So when Grinde points to the fact that humans have their ordinary communicative vocalization (called language) and in addition to this have song and music, the very same is true of animal song: singing animals have their ordinary forms of vocal communication (“calls”), and in addition to this they have a special vocal behavior, namely song.

Moreover, one of the reasons animal song has attracted the attention of behavioral and evolutionary biologists is that it tends to be structurally elaborate in ways which often go beyond what is easily explainable in terms of the exigencies of simple communication. If a gibbon song bout serves the simple communicative purpose of announcing the presence of the singing couple on its territory to territorial neighbors, any loud “hoot” or bark would do. Whence the elaborate structure of the gibbon duet? Whence the huge melodic repertoire and structural intricacy of singing in some bird species? The communicative purpose and significance of the structual elaborateness of animal song has been a difficult theoretical issue, and intensive research has been devoted to it. In these respects animal song has led evolutionary biologists to explore the kinds of explanatory frameworks developed for other “esthetic excesses” in the animal kingdom, such as the peacock’s by now proverbial tail, that is, models invoking factors such as sexual selection, esthetic traits as fitness indicators, Zahavi’s “handicap principle”, the need to override habituation by structural complexity, and so on (see Catchpole and Slater, 1995). That is, animal song is not only a form of vocal display added to the “ordinary” communicative vocalizations of a singing species, but the communicative significance of its structural complexity is a thorny issue subject to intensive study and theorizing, and accounts of its origins have generally had recourse to special forms of evolutionary explanation and models, some of which are still under active development and debate in behavioral biology. Much of the recent literature on this topic can be accessed through chapters and references in the book “The Origins of Music” cited in my original comments.

The reason I brought up the issue of “vocal learning” is that it is likely to harbour special significance for the human case (see Marler, 1970, and references to Nottebohm in my original commentary). Humans obviously are “vocal learners”, a pattern rare among mammals but common in birds. Vocal learning (or “plastic vocal ontogeny”) is a technical term developed by students of bird song to characterize the ontogenetic circumstance that many bird species do not acquire adult song competence without engaging in vocal practice guided by a template of adult song acquired through learning (reviewed in Marler & Mundinger, 1971). This is not true of all bird species. There are some (e.g. domestic fowl and Anatidae) in which, as in the case of the vocalizations of most mammals, the vocal pattern is innately specified, and does not require this ontogenetic learning-plus-practice stage. Mammals are proficienct learners, but vocalization is not, as Grinde seems to think, one of the domains generally included in mammalian plasticity. There are species of birds which (in the wild) learn to produce the sounds of chain saws, mobile phone “jingles”, and various mammalian vocalizations (such as the “meow” of a cat), but dogs are not known for acquiring cat “meows” or the crowing sounds of crows. That is what it might mean for a dog to be a vocal learner in bird terms! There are a few species of mammals besides humans capable of vocal learning, and again I refer to the detailed review of the evidence on this issue by Janik and Slater (1997).

Regarding the question of “one or multiple factors” my comments were not addressed to the question of potentially multiple evolutionary mechanisms and selection pressures – that is an empirical question from case to case without a general answers. Rather they addressed my uncertainty regarding how Grinde intends his proposal to be understood: does he mean, as his concluding section suggests, that language is only one among five (more or less equal? and independent?) factors involved in the evolution of our response to music, or rather, as the body of his paper seems to argue, that language is the primary factor and selection pressure, perhaps modified in various ways by ancillary factors? These are in logical and evolutionary terms very different proposals, and the issue arises only because of the way Grinde summarizes his theory in the concluding section.

Finally, with respect to the partial mismatch between the characteristics of music and of language, I did not discuss these in terms of brain mechanisms, but in strictly functional terms. I pointed to structural differences between the two domains which would seem to make music sub-optimal as a teaching device for language. If so, this appears puzzling on the assumption that music evolved specifically to serve as a language teaching device. Such a partial mismatch is easily accomodated, however, by scenarios giving music an origin separate from that of language, because in that case music might have been secondarily recruited to the service of first language acquisition despite its less than optimal “design features” for that purpose. Issues related to this question are a major focus of the research project “Music in Human Ontogeny” for which I am responsible under a grant from the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation. The study investigates the musical content of mother-infant play by detailed analysis of video recordings made in the homes of 25 mothers when their infants were 3, 6, 9 and 12 months old. It is our hope that this study eventually will allow us to be more specific concerning the relationship between music and language in human ontogeny, but we have much arduous work ahead of us before we can do so. In the meanwhile I hope that the above has helped clarify some of the points on which I took issue with Grinde in my commentary.


C.K. Catchpole and P.J.B. Slater (1995). Bird Song: Biological Themes and Variations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

V.M. Janik and P.J.B. Slater (1997). Vocal learning in mammals. Advances in the Study of Behavior 26: 59-99

F.B. Livingstone (1973). Did the australopithecines sing? Current Anthropology 14: 26.

P. Marler (1970). Bird song and speech development: could there be parallels? American Scientist 58: 669-673.

P. Marler and P. Mundinger (1971). Vocal learning in birds. In H. Moltz (ed.). The Ontogeny of Vertebrate Behavior. New York: Acedemic Press.

November 21, 2001; Sami Alanne:


1) This is a response to Kennair`s (2001) essay in NJMT on biomusicology and evolutionary psychology (EP) of music. At the same time I also contribute to the discussion of the origins of music in the NJMT that seems to uncritically place its origin to the biological dimension of being. This may be seen as the part of the reductive approach to human nature, which hard natural sciences apply and is proposed for the research of music therapy by Kennair. Kennair is willing to reject holistic concepts of humans in his eagerness to provide a new, evolutionary basis for therapy. However, the solution he offers in his essay is not new.

It includes the old idea of the positivistic science that theory and empirical study should be different and separated areas. Kennair`s idea that theory will guide or feed empirical study is analogous to the hypothesis-testing design in natural research. Kennair`s argument could be also understood as a hermeneutic circle if did not say that theory and testing or other empirical researching can be separated from the theory part. In his essay Kennair makes the same dualistic error (Kennair, ibid., pp. 60, 62-63). He separates the mind and body, an issue that has been controversial in the development of science since Descartes. I have recently engaged in a discussion pertaining to dualism with Kennair under the title Developing minds in this Forum. I shall not discuss this further in this essay (Alanne, 2000; Kennair, 2000). However, I shall try to illuminate the erratic conclusions in the on going discussion about biomusicology and EP in music therapy that the mind and body problem underlies it.

Where does EP phone when it phones home?

2) Is it possible to say that the origins of music are in biology? Of course like Kennair cogently remarks, without a biological being humans would not exist and neither would music. However, after the concept of music is developed in the mind its existence goes on even long after the individual first experienced it has died.Music can be noted, recorded, transcribed and it can be learnt all over again among the people i.e. folksongs. This can happen until no one remembers the composer of particular folk song. These songs may relate to specific situations in people’s lives such as work, war, love, faith, suffering in many levels etc. They tell us about the culture in which people live; they are not about cells or genes but may tell about physical pain and happenings as well. Even the pieces of fine art may start to live their own life. For instance “Finlandia” of Sibelius is very much associated to winter war of Finland and some may associate it to the Nazis as well because they applied it in their propaganda. Heidegger (1935/36/1998) wrote about various things in arts. For instance, paintings consist of colour, wood, canvas. These are physical objects and so are easily comprehended as things. There can be other kinds of things that relate to the situation and the mind of an individual. The song one loves may have been used to torture people (Moreno, 1999).

3) Music can exist in the living or inanimate. The sound of music is not living. It has energy and spirit from the individual i.e. when someone sings for instance. A CD like a photograph is inanimate whilst both can depict life. It is difficult to define music but in a very broad sense the instruments applied in performing are a part of the phenomenon of music and these are made of wood, metal, plastic and leather etc. The neck of the guitar is wooden and its strings are metallic. Things can also be synthesised and include voices never heard in nature like in synthesiser music.

TABLE 1. The holistic image of man and examples of the existential dimensions in music (Table cited from Alanne, 2001b, p. 104.)

Experiencing music psychically: emotions, meaning, imagery, language etc.Symbols, unconsciousness, consciousness, transference, defences. Memory, learning, thinking Sound as a physical phenomenon: sound and music as vibrations.The effect of music for the system, perceiving and producing of music physiologically etc.

Instruments, recordings etc.


History and aesthetics of music, diverse cultures, values, beliefs of music.Music theory: norms, scales, styles etc.

Individual experiences relating to music in the various phases of life.

Music education and hobbies

4) The table illustrates that there are many things in music other than the biological. Considering this it is too simple to say that the origin of music is fundamentally biological. It may have evolved from the meanings people have tried to give to phenomena since the Stone Age and may be a specific form of knowledge, a symbolic or cultural form like I have proposed earlier (Alanne, 2001a). Music has evolved from the emotions and our need to express ourselves. It is quite sure that Stone Age people thought about the mind and body dilemma and the difference between the living or inanimate. The difference between an animal and a human can be seen in their wall paintings, magical beliefs with rituals, taboos and animism (Jencks, 2001). When EP is trying to discover the origins of music or mind in genes and biology it does not seem to care about the culture of early humans or pre-humans even though it argues that our current mind is quite similar with our ancestors. EP and the current biomusicology discussion in NJMT seem to reject the situational and mind aspects of being which really give us our spirit and makes us what we are.

Aaaaa. Opening the clock

5) There are other dilemmas with EP other than its obsolete and badly targeted philosophy of science. I think music therapists and others should know that even the cornerstones of the EP, the modular mind and the selfish gene, consist of flaws that cannot be even supported by modern biology. Gabriel Dover (2001), a professor of genetics, writes that single cells or genes cannot have a specific will like the Dawkins theory of selfish gene suggests. The selfish gene theory assumes that one gene splits enormously and lives forever to carry on the mission of species survival. Dover shows that this is not possible because cells operate in one/off principle.One cell only transmits experiences from its life and generation i.e. how the environment has treated it. So it cannot “know” anything directly that has happened to cells and genes thousand years ago. In fact, genes cannot directly influence evolution at all but only inheritance. It means genes can propagate information only through sex and reproduction and so children of the parents remind their parents and not any others. However, genes cannot influence one-to-one specific adaptations of individual or complex traits. So, if we assume that art and music are adaptations, then particular gene know nothing about them or anything else about phenotype information. According to Dover (ibid., p. 65) modern biology assumes how evolution may happen in three ways and not just one, the adaptation, like Dawkins and EP claim. Evolution can produce a new biological function either by
a)natural selection which applies adaptation
b)neutral drift which uses exaptations
c)molecular drive that can apply adaptation and molecular co-evolution (see also Gould, 2001).

6) Briefly, this means that single cells or genes are not separated in the organism but are composed and interact with the same liquids, protein and RNA. Together they form larger units that are modular. However, this modularity of cells is different than the modularity theory and memes that EP suggests: They claim that the mind consists of many layers of separate modules that process information. There can be a Language module, a How to run for cover module, a How to make love module, a How to fight module etc. EP assumes that these modules present the workings of evolution and because evolution happens slowly people in nowadays have similar modules than their Stone Age ancestors. From this background EP studies the behaviour of contemporary people and explains behaviour with the Stone Age mind – how men choose wives, like boxing, use rude language or women flirt with men, nurture children and like cooking and sewing etc. It makes sense so far but when we assume a Driving a car module, a Using a VCR module or a Playing hiphop module how could Stone Age humans know about cars and other modern equipment? The answer is that they could not, which renders the modularity mind theory of EP futile. Driving a car or playing hiphop require learning and with the modularity mind there cannot be a such thing because according to the theory all the modules are separate and evolved about 40 000 years ago. If this is the case, and our minds are similar to our Stone Age ancestors, there cannot be learning because of natural selection and selfish genes modules are isolated in genotype. They struggle with each other to reach only their own goals in surviving species. For instance, there cannot be collaboration between a Language module and a How to be the king of the hill module because of the competitive genes. (Malik, 2000.)

7) In conclusion, the theory claims that the relevant information for behaviour is already present in our heads. This is of course impossible like neurobiologist Kenan Malik (ibid.) criticises EP. For this reason the culture or the mind cannot be thought to be composed of memes either. This is because it would mean analogues pre-knowledge of phenomena and issues that were not even invited in pre-historic times and would reduce the human existence to only its body dimension: a mere physical object like particles of an atom. EP assumes that the goals of these modules or memes are purely biological, to ensure the continuum of species. However, the human mind can also have social goals like Malik (ibid.) argues which enables the creativeness and prevents the mind from being a mere information processor.


Alanne, Sami (2000). The holistic image of man [online]. Sandane: Nordic Journal of Music Therapy. Available from: forumdevelopingminds.html#alanne021000 [accessed 9 April. 2001].

Alanne, Sami (2001a). Music, language and the relevancy of theories [online].Sandane: Nordic Journal of Music Therapy.forumdevelopingminds.html#Alanne050201[accessed 29 March 2001].

Alanne, Sami (2001b). Musiikkipsykoterapia tarkasteltuna vaihespesifisen teorian ja filosofisen analyysin näkökulmista. [Music psychotherapy considered in the phase specific theory and philosophical analysis point of views]. University of Jyväskylä, Department of Musicology. Master`s thesis. Available from:

Dover, Gabriel (2001). Anti-Dawkings. In Rose, Hilary & Rose, Steven (Eds.). Alas, poor Darwing. Arguments against evolutionary psychology. London: Vintage.

Gould, Stephen Jay (2001). More things in heaven and earth. In Rose, Hilary & Rose, Steven (Eds.). Alas, poor Darwing. Arguments against evolutionary psychology. London: Vintage.

Heidegger, Martin (1935/36/1998). Taideteoksen alkuperä. [The origin of art work]. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Taide.

Jencks, Charles (2001). EP, phone home. In Rose, Hilary & Rose, Steven (Eds.). Alas, poor Darwing. Arguments against evolutionary psychology. London: Vintage.

Kennair, Leif Edward Ottesen (2000). Myths of dualism and the brain that does not function [online]. Sandane: Nordic Journal of Music Therapy. Available from: forumdevelopingminds.html#kennair250900 [accesed5 November 2001].

Kennair, Leif Edward Ottesen (2001). Origins – Investigations into biological human musical nature. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, Vol. 10, no 1, pp. 54-64.

Malik, Kenan (2000). Man, beast and zombie. What science can and cannot tell us about human nature. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Moreno, Joseph (1999). Orpheus in hell: music and therapy in the holocaust. The Arts in Psychotherapy, Vol. 26, no 1, pp. 3-14.

November 28, 2001; Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair:

Evolutionary Psychology and Prejudice – An Attempt at Answering Alanne

1. I will attempt to answer Alanne’s latest critique – a critique of my essay and review (Kennair, 2001) of “Origins of Music” (Wallin, Merker & Brown, 2000). Numbers refer to Alanne’s numbered paragraphs.

2. Alanne (1) claims that my argumentation leads to dualism. I think I am able to understand this if dualism is seen as a metaphor where any division between that of the mind and that of the body is dualism – but the division of theory and empirical data is not dualism in my conceptual framework. I refer to the essay, and believe that if I have not made too much of a muddle of what I intended to convey, then the reader ought to understand my position, and also gather that I am not advocating dualism or even presenting what I believe to be a new or even sophisticated theory of science.

3. I am also supposed to be willing to reject holistic concepts of humans… I cannot believe that I have done so – ever. I would advise anyone to attempt to perform legal reductions, though, in order to solve problems that demand reduction of complexity – but I do advocate the implementation of valid and relevant levels of analysis. Thus, if one has the necessary information available and a more “holistic” approach makes sense then this is not something to be rejected.

4. Alanne (2,3) then attempts to approach the question of origins of music, and whether these are in biology or not. He refers to my simple claim that we need our biology to exist and without this existence music would not exist. I think I need to phrase this point more clearly: Without the specific biology of our mind, we could still exist, but music might not. That is: many minds are possible, maybe even without the ability for music – thus the biology of our specific musical minds makes music possible. The rest of this paragraph seems to confuse origins (or “the biological basis”) of music in an individual here and now and music as different phenomena, rather than what “Origins” was about – that is the evolutionary origins, the forces and precursors that built the mind that is capable of music in the first place.

5. When Alanne eventually does consider the evolution of the musical mind (4) he offers little knowledge of the work that was reviewed. The relevant reading is not the critique by Jencks – rather Alanne should read the reviewed book, and read Millers’s work (2000). This would be prerequisite to arguing against EP… actually within EP music has only been looked at in a popular scientific approach by Steven Pinker (1997) – Miller is not exactly mainstream EP. EP has so far not focused much on music.

6. These first three paragraphs came under the title “Where does EP phone when it phones home?” This is borrowed from Charles Jenck’s title in “Alas, Poor Darwin”. Now, is EP a friendly and misunderstood little alien, persecuted due to prejudice and attacked because of fear of the foreign? I find this reinterpretation to be quite cute.

7. Alanne continues under the heading “Aaaaa… Opening the clock” which is also a good title… That is exactly what EP is about – as is all science, is it not?

8. Alanne (5) implies that the above is grounds for concluding that EP is based on an “obsolete and badly targeted philosophy of science”. One thing is that he, with no research or investigation, makes his own theory of the evolution of music, but to target an international research, academic and intellectual project as “obsolete” might look better if one actually presented a coherent argument to back up such extreme claims.

9. Alanne continues: “I think music therapists and others should know that even the cornerstones of the EP, the modular mind and the selfish gene, consist of flaws that cannot be even supported by modern biology” (sic). I take it that this would be interesting if it were true… is there reason to believe it to be true? No. Not at all. If it were true, would the biological community not point it out? And would not the argumentation be based upon biological science rather than postmodern critique? I hope everyone checks Alanne’s multiple references – many of which refer to the book “Alas, Poor Darwin”. Now, there are many positive reviews of this book (see http://www.i-sis.org/i-sisnews6.htm for an in-house (Open University that is) positive review). On the other hand – this is a highly controversial book – more political than scientific, the lack of evidence that the contributors actually have read EP literature is quite shocking. (I suggest a tour of the “evolutionary psychology” discussion group at www.yahoogroups.com for different comments of the book “Alas, Poor Darwin” – we have been discussing it there for a good while, so search far back in the archives – a review of Jencks may be found at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evolutionary-psychology/message/8965 and my comments on the lack of science and focus on rhetoric is available at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evolutionary-psychology/message/8976). Also, and more importantly, within mainstream biological science the biology EP is founded on is accepted as mainstream (see Ridley, 1996).

10. Dawkins (1981) does not claim that genes have a will (See Alanne [5]). The name “selfish gene” is probably the most misunderstood concept the last three decades – I am surprised how long such a simple concept can be misunderstood, even if the wording seems strange. The theory is mainstream evolutionary biology – pronounced by anyone apart from Dawkins it would be accepted without discussion.

11. “Function” has since Williams (1966) been the hallmark of adaptation – exaptation as a concept is therefore a muddled concept of function but no adaptation as proposed by Gould & Vrba (1982) and Gould (1991). I recommend reading mainstream biological theory on this point, like Ridley (1996) – Kennair (1998) also provides a small discussion. The main point being that talking about genetic drift “shaping” anything with “function” is counter-conceptual – rather genetic drift may result in structures that have no function, because if they had function they would be adaptations and thus selected for. Instead they may be spandrels or exaptations – and they may have effect. But I mentioned this in the essay. Actually, once one understands what adaptation, function, genetic drift and exaptation means the sentence: “Evolution can produce a new biological function […] by […] neutral drift which uses exaptations” becomes quite meaningless – and at least as faulty as the continuously misunderstood “selfish gene”, without the caveats of Dawkins… Drift is a chance event that changes gene frequencies despite any function/ adaptations – all intentionality/ design in such a sentence is out of place. Also, “natural selection” causes “adaptation”, it does not apply adaptation. To describe modern evolutionary theory properly one probably has to study the field, at least to a certain degree. Finding examples that show that Alanne’s critique is misleading is not hard – e.g. Tooby and Cosmides at: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Debate/CEP_Gould.html.

12. In paragraph (6) Alanne makes two major mistakes. First, he believes the modular mind needs car-driving modules or hiphop-dancing modules to be consistent and explain modern behaviour. I hope he understands that such a simple error could not be made – obviously he must consider that his opponent has not made such a mistake as to claim that modern behaviour is impossible… No EP suggests there are such modules – the hypothetical modules would either be adaptations that are processing modern cues as if they were cues in the environment our ancestors evolved in, or they are exaptations or spandrels – co-opted to perform novel tasks. Second, and this is a mistake people have to stop making – he seems to not believe that EP is compatible with modern learning psychology. Is there any psychologist alive today that could claim that we do not learn?! Within EP several authors discuss learning and environmental influence, most notably Tooby and Cosmides (1992). Here the concept of learning, and the naive invocation of the concept to explain psychological phenomena that need further explanation is criticised – but the phenomena of learning (whatever this means in specific cases) is accepted as real enough.

13. To conclude, Alanne (7) claims the following: “the theory claims that the relevant information for behaviour is already present in our heads.” This is almost correct. Alanne seems to believe that this means that ALL the relevant information is genetically coded – which is an obvious mistake. Learning is important. I repeat: learning is important. The fact that one CAN LEARN is due to information being present in our head. How we learn, what we learn, etc. is due to information being present in our head. How we indeed perceive the stimuli that we learn from, and not least the fact that we indeed are able to perceive our environment is due to information being present in our head. This is the only possible solution of the frame problem. But all information is not present in our head – mostly the present information is sets of rules for processing the environmental information. And the reason we have these sets of rules is that one anticipates that environmental information is relevant.

14. The last sentence about EP Alanne presents is: “EP assumes that the goals of these modules or memes are purely biological, to ensure the continuum of species.” First, memes have never been a part of EP – rather they are a concept used within the language of many intellectuals and academics, some of which are not evolutionary or biologically oriented. There is even an academic field that studies memes – memetics. Memetics is not a part of mainstream EP. Second, memes are from Dawkins first definition of the concept defined as NOT having biological goals – that was the point introducing memes (Dawkins, 1976). Thus the inclusion of memes in the sentence is a mistake. Second, and this is very important, modules do not have goals – they may have function, if they are adaptations, but they need not have function. Thus you will not see more EPs lining up in front of sperm-banks… (Pinker, 1997).

15. The book, “Alas, Poor Darwin” is full of misrepresentations, many so obviously wrong that anyone who has read EP finds the project lacking academic value. This is not new – contributors to the book have a history of misrepresentation (most notably Stephen Rose), and I have personally found these misrepresentations (memes?) repeated in other sources without having been checked. Steven Pinker (1997) presents some of these. Misunderstandings that are simply cleared up by repeating once again what was said earlier is also necessary at times for contributors to “Alas, Poor Darwin” – like when Dawkins (1981) has to explain what a selfish gene is to Mary Midgley, who probably could have read this herself in the original sources. The problem with this tactic is that it is poor scholarship.

16. Buss et al. (1998) present a rather good list of misunderstandings of EP, with clarifying explanations – I warmly recommend this article.

My conclusion is quite simple: If Alanne wants to discuss EP he will have to read EP.

Non Internet references:

Buss, D. M., Haselton, M. G., Shackleford, T. K., Bleske, A. L., & Wakefield, J. C. (1998). Adaptations, exaptations, and spandrels. American Psychologist, 53, 533-548.

Dawkins, R. (1976/1989). The selfish gene (New ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1981). In defence of selfish genes. Philosophy, 56, 556-573.

Gould, S. J. (1991). Exaptation: A crucial tool for an evolutionary psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 47(3), 43-65.

Gould, S. J., & Vrba, E. (1982). Exaptation- a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology, 8(1), 4-15.

Kennair, L. E. O. (1998). Evolutionary psychology: an emerging integrative meta-theory for psychological science and practice. Thesis/ Hovedoppgave. Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen.

Kennair, L. E. O. (2001). Origins – Investigations into biological human musical nature. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, Vol. 10, no 1, pp. 54-64.

Miller, G. (2001). The Mating Mind. London: Vintage.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Ridley, M. (1996). Evolution (2nd ed.). Boston: Blackwell Scientific.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 19-136). New York: Oxford University Press.

Wallin, N.L., Merker, B., & Brown, S. (Eds.). (2000). The Origins of Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Williams, G. C. (1966). Adaptation and Natural Selection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

November 30, 2001; Greg Panfile:

Subtle Musical Effects and the Environment: an intuitive, historical,
practical approach

(1)Existing cultures taken as a whole have taken a great deal of liberty in the matters of scale/mode and melody/harmony, from simple pentatonic music up to more modern atonal stuff and everywhere in between. Microtonal Variations are rampant in some cultures such as India and Arabia, where there are essentially more than twelve possible “notes” in an octave, but seemingly due to human perceptual limitations these tend to cluster in certain spots in the scale; primarily the third and seventh. The core mathematical basis laid by Pythagoras seems to have penetrated just about everywhere that civilizations have been contiguous in time and space, such that our modern Western notions, especially the “classical” ones that predate whole tone Debussy and atonal Schoenberg etc. all seem to come from Greek Calculations picked up by Arabians and thence left in Spain to enter the West through France. Given the long evolutionary trial and error basis for this, it would seem almost impossible to innovate on it in a way that the human ear would find pleasing. The mathematical ratios that determine, for example, the perfect fourths and fifths off of a root note are based on core whole number ratios of vibrations using low integers, there seems to be something hardwired in a very strange way around this.

(2)My interest in this area, one that I spend far too little time on, revolves around four general topics that I feel are neglected and of some significant potential:

  1. What if any subtle effects microtonal variations may or may not have on human perceptions… for example, was something lost when music, especially keyboards, became well tempered and no longer precisely followed the old Pythagorean formulas in favor of a split-the-difference levelling of pitches that made it easier to play in keyboards in all keys (i. e. does some subconscious part of the human complex respond differently to a G sharp than an A flat, though the difference may be imperceptible to the internal dialogue, at least for those not talented or trained enough to notice)?
  2. Is there any somewhat predictable, scientifically comprehensible relationship between the effect of a piece of music and the following variables: the “nature” of the perceiver, sort of what “type” of person is listening, however classified; the environmental factors (time of year, time of day, ionization of the atmosphere, whatever); the choice of scale/mode, melody/harmony, timing; the color of the instrumentation, the choice for example of a breath driven rather than plucked quality? Ancient Greek and some Arabian/Andalusian and Indian writings suggest that on some folk level at least, a systematic approach to this issue was endemic to the basic forms upon which “our” music is based; that is, at a certain point in a classical Greek play, to convey a certain emotion, one should choose mode X; or in the other two cases, the time of day and year plus the emotion or other “content” would determine what scale/raga should be used, and the timings of the notes. Perhaps related to this may be some elemental view of instrumentation, where percussive instruments can be considered earthy, breath driven ones airy, plucked strings watery, bowed things fiery. Most ensembles used to perform music seem to feature some combination of these, and there is much intuitive/empirical evidence if one looks at the subject matter and titles of certain pieces, and the choice of which instruments take the melodic lead and play which parts, that some rough correspondence along these lines is operative.
  3. Related to the notion of microtonality but different and perhaps of interest and importance is the effect on humans of noises, vibrations, that are outside the range of our conscious hearing. It has been established, for example, that both dolphins and dogs hear and general pitches above our ability to perceive them as sounds, and that elephants communicate in ranges below our abilities to perceive sound. What if any is the effect of these noises on people, are there other examples, and how if at all could this be predicted or used in any way?
  4. What “modern,” quantified information, for example in terms of the heart rate, the tempo of the more successful disco records, and data gathered by organizations like Muzak who essentially profit by programming mood through sound, could be found and combined with anything related to the above two topics to form a sort of comprehensive, state of the art “rulebook” for a “science of music.”

(3)This area also seems to combine, where there is any reasonable anecdotal or other evidence, the obvious and predictable with the palpably counterintuitive. That is, the relationship between beat and bass and the evocation of physical responses on the one hand is clearly part of the appeal of disco and dance music and to some extent validates the dire perceptions of anti-rock Fifties high school principals in cheesy black and white movies; and examples like the fife and drum accompaniment to marching troops and the somewhat Pavlovian associated effect of calming and tuning the group, or the use by Hitler of martial music and loudspeakers to manipulate crowds, all make sense intuitively and emotionally. Same goes for the use of percussion to rally crowds at sports events, or the rarely mentioned and somewhat bizarre sexual behavior of young girls at early Beatle concerts.

(4)Running somewhat counter to this and therefore of perhaps more interest are notions explored by some rock bands, where they found (this is based on readings about both the Mamas and the Papas and the Grateful Dead) that by gradually accelerating the tempo from song to song over the course of a set of a dozen or so, they could raise the crowd to a near-riot fever pitch regardless of the subject matter; the lyrics could be about peace and love or whatever but it was the beat driving the “humors” or whatever in the crowd. Another piece of research involved, with seasonal appropriateness, the use of Christmas carols. People exposed to tapes of these seasonal, positive, life-affirming songs assigned longer and harsher prison terms to imaginary criminals than those in the control group who did not hear such music; in this case, the lyrics clearly had no effect, it would seem the arousal of emotion was somewhat generalized.

(5)A mention should be made of the special case of birds. Much anecdotal folk evidence would seem to indicate there is a special cross species relationship between humans and these creatures when it comes to music. It may be that our notions of pitch and what sounds right were actually formed by the sonic landscape created by these creatures. I have certainly noticed a number of times, and I think there is plenty of confirmation for this in all sorts of places, that birds are absolutely able to detect and harmonize with the pitch of recorded and live human musical performances. Perhaps it is because they determined the pitches in the first place, our perceptions are attuned to theirs. They obviously use it as a sort of communicative language among themselves, even across species, if anecdotes about crows are to be believed and there is plenty of evidence for it. Lastly, I have read that while birds learn their particular species song from their fellows, if raised in isolation from their own kind and then placed in the appropriate environment, they deduce their own song by sort of hearing what is missing and filling in. It is as if they don’t know what instrument they play or what their part is, but they know what L’Apres-Midi d’une Faune sounds like as a whole, so when there is no flute part they start playing it. Perhaps some similar motivation to create what should be there, inspired by the musicality of this very old species (or is it a genus, a phylum, etc.) underlies the perceptions of Pythagoras and just about everyone; are we to some extent filling in the missing birds whenever we play, is what we think sounds right at all dependent on that formula?

(6)Human perceptions have evolved to accept some of the environmental input more or instead of other; we can’t see ultraviolet or infrared, we can’t hear the low pitches of elephants or the high ones of dolphins. We can, however, hear in great detail very subtle sounds in a certain pitch Range and that seems to relate to the matter of our friends the birds, who Presumably were here very much longer than we and evolved their pitch-based means of communication for their own reasons. Anecdotal evidence suggests that birds are able to sort of predict natural phenomena like earthquakes and storms, by sensory apparatus that we presumably do not have; so one can make the argument that being able to hear bird noises and discriminate very subtly about their pitch and tone contains valuable information for humans. On a sort of Jungian level the bird is associated with wisdom, the soul, special perception; the Christian Holy Ghost is a bird, not a fox or a dog or a horse or a pig or a cat, all very intelligent animals closely associated with humans and somewhat more domesticated; similarly, in Rumi’s famous tale the trapped perceptive organ is a bird, and none other, and of course in all sorts of poetic and literary contexts the stimulation of special perception and connection to reality inspired by birds/song is a very universal theme; there may be a reason peace is a dove and not, say, a sheep. The flight of birds was a well documented means of divination in ancient Greek times and to this day the folk saying persists that someone found out a certain crucial piece of information because “a little bird told me.” One could therefore say that to some extent, it is possible, that the effects and evolutionary value of music originate in a fairly clear and practical manner from environmental factors such as those posited here, and the results can be read almost like a fossil record on a number of cultural planes today.

© 2000/2001: Nordic Journal of Music Therapy
(last updated November 30,, 2001 by Rune Rolvsjord)