In a music appreciation course took, the professor said, "People need
music." As a freshman, I was a little skeptical of that statement, but
if this article, from today's Wall Street Journal is correct, my instructor
was spot on. I wonder if music helped Cro Magnan man prevail over
Caveman Crooners May Have Helped Early Humans Survive
March 31, 2006
In Steven Mithen's imagination, the small band of Neanderthals
gathered 50,000 years ago around the caves of Le Moustier, in
what is now the Dordogne region of France, were butchering
carcasses, scraping skins, shaping ax heads -- and singing.
One of the fur-clad men started it, a rhythmic sound with rising
and falling pitch, and others picked it up, indicating their
willingness to cooperate both in the moment and in the future,
when the group would have to hunt or fend off predators. The
music promoted "a sense of we-ness, of being together in the
same situation facing the same problems," suggests Prof. Mithen,
an archaeologist at England's Reading University. Music, he
says, creates "a social rather than a merely individual identity."
And that may solve a longstanding mystery.
Music gives biologists fits. Its ubiquity in human cultures,
and strong evidence that the brain comes preloaded with musical
circuits, suggest that music is as much a product of human
evolution as, say, thumbs. But that raises the question of what
music is for. Back in 1871, Darwin speculated that human music,
like bird songs, attracts mates. Or, as he put it, prelinguistic
human ancestors tried "to charm each other with musical notes
Some scientists today share that view. "Music was shaped by
sexual selection to function mostly as a courtship display,"
Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, argued in a
2001 paper. But like Darwin, he bases that conclusion on the
belief that music has "no identifiable survival benefits." If
a trait doesn't help creatures survive, then it can persist
generation after generation only if it helps them reproduce.
Studies in neuroscience and anthropology, however, suggest
that music did help human ancestors survive, particularly before
language. In "The Singing Neanderthals," which Harvard University
Press is publishing today, Prof. Mithen weaves those studies
into an intriguing argument that "language may have been built
on the neural underpinnings of music."
He starts with evidence that music is not merely a side effect
of intelligence and language, as some argue. Instead, recent
discoveries suggest that music lays sole claim to specific neural
real estate. Consider musical savants. Although learning-disabled
or retarded, they have astounding musical abilities. One savant
could hardly speak or understand words, yet he played flawlessly
a simple piano melody from memory despite hearing it only once.
In an encore, he added left-hand chords and transposed it into
a minor key.
"Music," says Prof. Mithen, "can exist within the brain in the
absence of language," a sign that the two evolved independently.
And since language impairment does not wipe out musical ability,
the latter "must have a longer evolutionary history."
In the opposite of musical savantism, people with "amusia" can't
perceive changes in rhythm, identify melodies they've heard
before or recognize changes in pitch. Since they have normal
hearing and language, the problem must lie in brain circuits
that are music-specific.
More evidence that the brain has dedicated, inborn musical
circuits is that even babies have musical preferences, finds
Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto. They listen longer
to perfect fifths and perfect fourths, and look pained by minor
If music is indeed an innate, stand-alone adaptation, then
evolution could have nursed it along over the eons only if it
helped early humans survive. It did so, Prof. Mithen suggests,
because "if music is about anything, it is about expressing and
Particular notes elicit the same emotions from most people,
regardless of culture, studies suggest. A major third (prominent
in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy") sounds happy; a minor third (as in
the gloomy first movements of Mahler's Fifth) provokes feelings
of sadness and even doom. A major seventh expresses aspiration.
The absence of a third seems unresolved, loose, as if hanging,
adds jazz guitarist Michael Rood, 17 years old.
The fact that listeners hear the same emotion in a given musical
score is something a Neanderthal crooner might have exploited.
Music can manipulate people's emotional states (think of liturgical
music, martial music or workplace music). Happy people are more
cooperative and creative. By fostering cooperation and creativity
among bands of early, prelanguage human ancestors, music would
have given them a survival edge. "If you can manipulate other
people's emotions," says Prof. Mithen, "you have an advantage."
Music also promotes social bonding, which was crucial when humans
were more often hunted than hunter and finding food was no walk
on the savannah. Proto-music "became a communication system" for
"the expression of emotion and the forging of group identities,"
argues Prof. Mithen.
Because music has grammar-like qualities such as recursion, it
might have served an even greater function. With music in the
brain, early humans had the neural foundation for the development
of what most distinguishes us from other animals: symbolic thought