Evolutionary Origins of Music - Why More Intelligent People Like Classical Music

The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn't Always the Smart One - Satoshi Kanazawa 2012

Evolutionary Origins of Music
Why More Intelligent People Like Classical Music

In comparison to evolutionary origins and functions of language and art, anthropologists and archeologists have paid scant attention to the origin of music. In his book The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body,4 the cognitive archeologist Steven Mithen offers a novel theory of the evolution of music. Mithen argues that language and music had a common precursor—called musilanguage5—which later developed into two separate systems of music and language.

There are two distinct perspectives on the evolution of language. The compositional approach6 suggests that words came before sentences. A lexicon of words that referred to specific entities like “meat,” “fire,” and “hunt” emerged first, and were later combined into phrases, and then into sentences. Grammar emerged at the end to dictate how words could be combined into sentences.

In contrast, the holistic approach7 proposes that sentences came before words. It suggests that the precursor to human language was a communication system composed of messages in the form of arbitrary strings of sounds rather than words. Each individual utterance or sequence of sounds was associated with a specific meaning. These utterances were later broken up into words, which could then be recombined to create further utterances.

Mithen favors the holistic approach. As evidence, he points to the fact that all nonhuman primate utterances, such as vervet monkeys’ alarm calls, rhythmic chatters of geladas, duets of pair-bonded gibbons, and pant-hoots of chimpanzees, are holistic and indivisible.8 In other words, nonhuman primates do not have words, even though they have languages and their utterances as a whole convey specific meanings and emotions. Some primatologists disagree, however, and point out, in support of the compositional approach, that Diana and Campbell's monkey calls have both syntactic and semantic rules, which can be used to combine elements (“words”) to produce further utterances.9 The debate on the origin of human language between the compositional and holistic approaches is far from closed.

Humans and Monkeys Can Communicate with Each Other

Here's something very interesting. Studies demonstrate that meanings and emotions of primate utterances may be shared by different primate species. For example, when macaque vocalizations that are made in specific social contexts as expressions of contentment, pleading, dominance, anger, and fear are recorded and then played back, Finnish children and adults are able to interpret accurately what the expressed emotions are.10 In other words, humans can understand what monkeys mean when they speak!

Another study shows that words spoken by Finnish and English speakers in the social contexts of contentment, pleading, dominance, anger, and fear have the same acoustic waveforms as the macaque vocalizations made in the corresponding contexts.11 It is as though humans and macaques may be able to communicate with each other through the use of holistic utterances and messages.

Mithen contends that human proto-language was holistic, manipulative (it was designed to induce desired emotions and behavior in other individuals), multi-modal (it involved not only vocal utterances but also gesture and dance), musical (the utterances had distinct pitches, rhythms, and melodies), and mimetic (conscious and intentional). This proto-language eventually evolved into two systems of communication: music to express emotions, and language to transmit information.

Figure 10.1 Mithen's view on the evolution of music and language


To demonstrate the common evolutionary origin of music and language, Mithen surveyed a large number of clinical cases of individuals with amusia (the absence of musical abilities while retaining some linguistic abilities) and aphasia (the absence of linguistic abilities while retaining some musical abilities).12 These case studies largely show that music and language are based on discrete modules in the brain; some of these are separate and dedicated to one or the other while others are shared.

Songs Are Evolutionarily Familiar, but Instrumental Music Is Evolutionarily Novel

If Mithen is right, if music and language share a common evolutionary origin in holistic, musical utterances designed to convey messages, one possible implication is that music, in its evolutionary origin, was songs that individuals sang to express their desires and emotions, in an attempt to induce desired emotions and behavior in others. In other words, music in its evolutionary origin was always vocal and never purely instrumental. Purely instrumental music, unaccompanied by singing, may therefore be evolutionarily novel.

It may be instructive to note in this context that Blackfoot Indians have a word for “song” but not for “instrumental music.”13 The language of the Pirahã in the Amazon forest in Brazil may be an extant example of a musilanguage which Mithen envisions as the precursor to the modern language and music.14 While the Pirahã language does have words, it has the fewest number of vowels (three) and consonants (seven for women, eight for men) of all known human languages. “The Pirahã people communicate almost as much by singing, whistling, and humming as they do using consonants and vowels. Pirahã prosody is very rich, with a well-documented five-way weight distinction between syllable types.”15

The former professional musician and current academic linguist, as well as the originator of the holistic approach to the evolutionary origin of language, Alison Wray notes: “To my taste, western classical music (as indeed most other musical traditions worldwide) is different in kind [from musical expressions in evolutionary history]. Its production is, for a start, subject to a heavy burden of learning that few master. There is no naturally facilitated access to the comprehension (let alone creation) of the kinds of melodies, harmonies and rhythms found in the works of Bach or Schoenberg: no equivalent—for music of this kind—of first language acquisition.”16 In other words, according to Wray, classical music of Bach, Schoenberg, and others is evolutionarily novel, partly, I contend, because it is largely or entirely instrumental.

Consistent with Wray's assertion, a far greater proportion of the general population can (and spontaneously do) sing songs than play musical instruments. For example, the incidence of tone-deafness in the United Kingdom is estimated to be about 4—5%.17 In other words, 95% of the population can sing adequately (and some of the tone-deaf people nonetheless often do sing). The proportion of the general population who play musical instruments adequately is nowhere near as high. Further, in many cases of playing musical instruments (such as the guitar or the piano), it is often accompanied by singing.

In the context of the Intelligence Paradox, then, Mithen's theory of the evolutionary origins of music suggests that more intelligent individuals are more likely to appreciate purely instrumental music than less intelligent individuals because such music is evolutionarily novel. In contrast, general intelligence has no effect on the appreciation of vocal music. From this perspective, more intelligent people may appreciate classical music more because it is largely or entirely instrumental. And more intelligent people should prefer other types of instrumental music as well.