- 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
- 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 and rhythm."
- 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 Friday, 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
- 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 thirds.
- 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 inducing emotion."
- 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 and