The origin of music and its implications in our lives

One way or another, music is present in almost every sphere of our life.. It can, for example, be inserted into a scene from a horror movie to increase tension and anxiety, or it can be used during a fitness class to keep your participants in the right rhythm.

On the other hand, in any celebrated social event, a melody cannot be missing, even if it is in the background. From the famous wedding march of Richard wagner when marrying the bands and songwriters that surround nightclubs, musicality is always present.

Individuals in all human societies can perceive musicality and be emotionally sensitive to sound (Amodeo, 2014). It’s easy for anyone to know when a song appeals to them, causes them sadness or even euphoria. And, like many other things 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 quite complex and has attracted the attention of researchers from many different fields.

    Music may have helped survival

    In recent decades, scientists studying evolution have sought to find the origin of music in the biological history of humans. This perspective starts from the theory of natural selection, asserting that it is the needs imposed by the environment that shape the design of all species, as individuals with the best adaptations (physiological or psychological) will survive at all times.

    These beneficial traits come from various genetic mutations which, if positive for survival, will be more likely to be passed down from generation to generation. In the case of humans, the pressure of natural selection has affected the structure and function of the brain for thousands of years, surviving conception that allowed for more functional behaviors.

    However, our species is much more complex. Although natural selection has shaped the biological conception of the body, it is culture and what we learn throughout life that ultimately defines who we are.

    Given these ideas, 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) argues 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 because, at the present time, the use of music is apparently playful and, thankfully, does not involve a matter of life and death.

    When was music born?

    Musicality would predate the emergence of art and language, Being these last two almost exclusive property of Homo sapiens. Prehuman hominids would not have the mental capacity to develop complex language, being forced 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, together representing simple meanings about the emotions they wanted to convey to their peers (Mithen, 2005). Although there is still a long way to go to reach the present level of history, 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 the two. The sounds we attribute to words have nothing to do with their meaning in real life. For example, the word “dog” is an abstract concept that has been assigned to this mammal at random by culture. The advantage of language would be that certain sounds can refer to very precise propositions. On the contrary, the sounds of the music would be somehow natural and one could say that: “the music seems to mean what it looks like” (Cross, 2010) although the meaning of this alone 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 in support of 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 listened to the songs presented to them. The mafas recognized the songs as happy, sad or scary, so it seems that these basic emotions can also be recognized and expressed through music.

    To summarize, one of the main functions of music, at its origins, could be the induction of moods in other people (Cross, 2010), which can be used to try to modify the behavior of others based on goals.

    We carry music inside since we were born

    Another pillar of current music may be in the mother-daughter relationship. Ian Cross, professor of music and science and researcher at the University of Cambridge, studied the age of acquisition by infants of all the faculties which allow musical perception, concluding that before the first year of life , they have already developed these skills to an adult level. The development of verbal language, on the other hand, will be more dilated over time.

    To cope with this, the child’s parents resort to a special form of communication. As Amodeo (2014) describes, when a mother or father talks to a baby, they do so differently than when they establish an adult conversation. When talking to the newborn now that they are left in the rhythmic cradle, a sharper-than-normal voice is used, using repetitive patterns, slightly exaggerated intonations, and very marked melodic curves. This way of expressing oneself, which would be an innate language between the child and the mother, would help to establish a very deep emotional connection between the two. Parents who, in hostile times, had this ability would have an easier time caring for their offspring because, for example, they could calm a child’s crying, preventing it from attracting predators. Therefore, those who have this pre-musical ability would be more likely to have their genes and traits survive and spread over time.

    Martín Amodeo maintains that the rhythmic movements and singular vocalizations performed by the parent would give rise to song and music. In addition, the ability of babies to grasp this would be maintained throughout life and allow them, in adulthood, to experience emotions by listening to a certain combination of sounds, for example in the form of a musical composition. This mother-child interaction mechanism is common to all cultures, so it is considered universal and innate.

    Music makes us feel more united

    There are also theories based on the social function of music, as it would promote group cohesion.. For ancient humans, cooperation and solidarity in a hostile environment was essential for survival. Pleasant group activity such as producing and enjoying music would cause the individual to secrete a large amount of endorphins, which would occur jointly if the melody was heard by several people at the same time. This coordination, by allowing the music to convey basic feelings and emotions, would allow a “generalized emotional state in all members of a group” (Amodeo, 2014).

    Several studies affirm that group interaction through music promotes empathy, consolidates the identity of the community, facilitates its integration and, therefore, maintains its stability (Amodeo, 2014). A cohesive group through activities such as music, would therefore facilitate their survival because it would promote cooperation between large groups of people.

    Also applying in our time, the beauty of music when enjoyed in a group would be supported by two factors. On the one hand, there is a biological factor that allows us to arouse shared emotions in the face of, say, a single song. This promotes a feeling of mutual affiliation (Cross, 2010). The second factor is based on the ambiguity of the music. Through our complex cognitive abilities, human beings have the ability to assign meanings to what they feel based on their personal experience. For this reason, in addition to promoting basic emotions, music allows each person to give a personal interpretation to what they are feeling, adjusting it to their current state.

    Musical practice improves our cognitive abilities

    The last factor that seems to have contributed to the development of music as such a complex cultural factor is its ability to influence other cognitive skills. Like almost any skill you learn, musical training changes the brain in its functions and structure.

    In addition, there is a solid basis which indicates that music training has a positive influence in other areas such as spatial reasoning, mathematics or linguistics (Amodeo, 2014).

    Similar in other species

    Finally, it should be mentioned that animals like beluga whales and many birds have gone through similar evolutionary processes. Although the primary function of song in many birds (and some marine mammals) is to communicate states or attempt to influence other animals (for example, in procession by song or to mark territory) , it seems that sometimes they only sing for fun. . Outraged, some birds keep an aesthetic sense and try to make compositions which, musically analyzed, follow certain rules.


    In conclusion, since music seems to be something as natural as life itself, its knowledge should be fostered from childhood, even though it has unfortunately lost weight in the current educational system. It stimulates our senses, relaxes us, makes us vibrate and unites us as a species, so that those who categorize it as the greatest heritage we have are not far from reality.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Amodeo, MR (2014). Origin of music as an adaptive trait in humans. Argentine Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 6 (1), 49-59.
    • Cross, I. (2010). Music in culture and evolution. Episteme, 1 (1), 9-19.
    • Fritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A. and Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal recognition of three fundamental emotions in music. Current Biology, 19 (7), 573-576.
    • Mithen, SJ (2005). Neanderthal song: the origins of music, language, mind and body. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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