In one way or another, music is present in almost every sphere of our lives . It can, for example, be inserted in a scene from a horror movie to increase tension and distress, or it can be used during a fitness class to get your assistants to follow the right rhythm.
On the other hand, in any social event that is worthwhile, some melody cannot be missing, even if it is in the background. From the famous wedding march of Richard Wagner at a wedding to the bands and singer-songwriters that set the mood in the nightclubs, musicality is always present.
Individuals in all human societies can perceive musicality and be emotionally sensitive to sound (Amodeo, 2014). It is easy for anyone to know when a song pleases them, makes them sad or even euphoric. And, like many other things present in our lives, we accept the existence of music as something natural. However, analyzed from a scientific point of view, the ability to create and enjoy music is something quite complex and has attracted the attention of researchers from many different fields.
Music could help survival
For a few decades now, scientists investigating evolution have set out to find the origin of music in the biological history of human beings . This perspective is based on the theory of natural selection, affirming that it is the needs imposed by the environment that model the design of all species, since the individuals that have the best adaptations (physiological or psychological) at each moment will survive.
These beneficial traits arise from various genetic mutations, which, if they are positive for survival, are more likely to be passed on from generation to generation. In the case of human beings, the pressure of natural selection has affected the structure and functions of the brain over thousands of years, with the design that allowed for more functional behaviour surviving.
However, our species is much more complex. Although natural selection has shaped the biological design of the organism, it is culture and what we learn throughout life that ends up defining who we are .
With these ideas in mind, many ethologists, neuroscientists, musicologists and biologists agree that there was a time in history when music helped our ancestors survive in a harsh and hostile environment. In a review of the subject, Martín Amodeo (2014) states that the ability to appreciate sound art may even have played an essential role in the emergence of the human species. These statements may come as a surprise since, at present, the use of music is apparently playful and not a matter of life or death, fortunately.
When did the music come up?
Musicality would be prior to the appearance of art and language , the latter two being almost exclusively owned by Homo sapiens. Hominids before humans would not have the mental capacity necessary to elaborate a complex language, having to stick to a pre-linguistic communication system based on sounds that changed rhythm and melody. In turn, they accompanied these sounds with gestures and movements, representing as a whole simple meanings about the emotions they wanted to convey to their companions (Mithen, 2005). Although there was still a long way to go to reach the present level, music and verbal language would have their primitive starting point here.
However, although music and verbal language have a common origin, there is a big difference between them. The sounds we assign to words bear no relation to their meaning in real life. For example, the word “dog” is an abstract concept that has been attributed to this mammal at random throughout culture. The advantage of language would be that certain sounds can refer to very precise propositions. On the contrary, the sounds of music would be in a certain way natural and it could be said that: “music seems to mean what it sounds” (Cross, 2010) although the meaning of this sole is ambiguous and cannot be expressed with exact words.
In this regard, researchers from the University of Sussex (Fritz et. al, 2009) conducted a cross-cultural study to support this thesis. In their research, they studied the recognition of three basic emotions (happiness, sadness and fear) present in various Western songs by members of the African Mafa tribe, who had never had contact with other cultures and, of course, had never heard the songs presented to them. The Mafas recognized the songs as happy, sad or fear provoking, so it seems that these basic emotions can also be recognized and expressed through music.
In summary, one of the main functions of music, in its origins, could be the induction of moods in other people (Cross, 2010), which can serve to try to modify the behaviour of others based on certain objectives.
We carry the music inside us since we are born
Another of the pillars of contemporary music can be found in the mother-child relationship. Ian Cross, professor of Music and Science and researcher at the University of Cambridge, has studied the age of acquisition by babies of all the faculties that allow for musical perception, concluding that before the first year of life they have already developed these capacities to the level of an adult. The development of verbal language, on the contrary, will be more delayed in time.
To cope with this, the child’s parents resort to a peculiar form of communication. As described by Amodeo (2014), when a mother or father speaks to a baby they do so differently than when they establish an adult conversation. When talking to the newborn while rocking in a rhythmic way, a higher than normal voice is used, using repetitive patterns, somewhat exaggerated intonations and very marked melodic curves. This form of expression, which would be an innate language between the child and the mother, would help establish a very deep emotional connection between the two. Parents who had this capacity in hostile times would see the care of their descendants facilitated since, for example, they could calm the crying of a child, avoiding that it could attract predators. Thus, those with this pre-musical ability would be more likely to have their genes and characteristics survive and be propagated over time.
Martín Amodeo maintains that the rhythmic movements and singular vocalizations that the progenitor performed would give rise to singing and music. Furthermore, the ability of babies to grasp this would be maintained throughout their lives and would allow them, in adulthood, to feel emotions when listening to a certain combination of sounds, for example, in the form of a musical composition. This mechanism of mother-child interaction is common to all cultures and is therefore considered universal and innate.
Music makes us feel more united
There are also theories based on the social function of music, since it would favour the cohesion of the group . For ancient humans, cooperation and solidarity in a hostile environment was key to survival. A pleasant group activity such as the production and enjoyment of music would cause the individual to secrete a high amount of endorphins, something that would occur jointly if the melody is heard by several people at the same time. This coordination, by allowing the music to transmit basic feelings and emotions, would make it possible to obtain a “generalized emotional state in all the members of a group” (Amodeo, 2014).
Various studies affirm that group interaction through music favors empathy, consolidates the identity of the community, facilitates integration into it and, as a consequence, maintains its stability (Amodeo, 2014). A cohesive group through activities such as music would therefore see its survival facilitated as it would promote cooperation between large groups of people.
Applying it also to our days, the beauty of music when enjoyed in a group would be based on two factors. On the one hand, there is a biological factor that allows us to elicit shared emotions when faced with, for example, the same song . This favours the feeling of mutual filiation (Cross, 2010). The second factor is based on the ambiguity of the music. Thanks to our complex cognitive capacities, human beings have the ability to attribute meaning to what they hear based on their personal experience. Because of this, in addition to promoting basic emotions, music allows each person to give a personal interpretation to what they hear, adjusting it to their current state.
Music practice improves our cognitive abilities
The last factor that seems to have helped the development of music as such a complex cultural factor is its ability to influence other cognitive skills. Like almost any skill that is learned, music training modifies the brain in its functions and structure .
In addition, there is a solid foundation that indicates that musical training has a positive influence on other domains such as spatial reasoning, mathematics or linguistics (Amodeo, 2014).
Similar in other species
Finally, it should be mentioned that animals such as belugas and many birds have followed similar evolutionary processes. Although the main function of song in many birds (and in some marine mammals) is to communicate states or to try to influence other animals (for instance, in courtship through song or to mark territory), it seems that they sometimes sing just for fun. Furthermore, some birds keep an aesthetic sense and try to make compositions that, analyzed musically, follow certain rules .
In conclusion, since music seems to be something as natural as life itself, knowledge of it should be encouraged from childhood, even though it has unfortunately lost weight in the current educational system. It stimulates our senses, it relaxes us, it makes us vibrate and it unites us as a species, so that those who catalogue it as the greatest heritage we have are not far removed from reality.
- Amodeo, M.R. (2014). Origin of Music as an Adaptive Trait in the Human. Revista Argentina de Ciencias del Comportamiento, 6(1), 49-59.
- Cross, I. (2010). Music in culture and evolution. Epistemus, 1(1), 9-19.
- Fritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A. & Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal recognition of three basic emotions in music. Current biology, 19(7), 573-576.
- Mithen, S.J. (2005). Los Neandertales cantantes: Los orígenes de la música, el lenguaje, la mente y el cuerpo. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.