Earliest Flute

Music has been a part of human culture for as long as anyone can tell. But how long is that exactly? The earliest musical instruments found (Aurignacian flutes) date back 40000 years, so one could think that ‘there you go, you have your answer’. But is it this simple? Unlike many other forms of art, music doesn’t necessarily need instruments or any object for that matter to be performed (that would otherwise leave some archaeological traces), which makes it very hard to answer this question. Fortunately, it is not necessary to rely solely on archaeological findings to approach this problem, as one could think of music as a trait that we developed along the way of our evolution, just like language. And if we think about this problem this way, we can immediately start looking in the animal kingdom for clues about the origins of our own music by studying the different sounds they produce. But before going into that, we should probably try to define what music really is.

Defining “music”

First and foremost one should not fall into the pitfall of using modern, European-style music as a basis for definition, as it is not only relatively new, but also doesn’t cover all types of music. So how to approach this problem? One might think that turning to other cultures might give us some extra insight how to define music, and it does, but not necessarily how one expects. Studies revealed that even though pretty much any culture had/has a concept of music, by far not all of them had/have a word that could directly be translated as “music”. Some cultures have words just for some types of music, but there are extreme cases where no word at all exists for it. This means that the general idea of music is not that general at all, but rather is a highly cultural thing. In practice, all this simply means that if something might sound as music to a person from one culture, it could easily appear as noise to a person from another, so giving a universal definition for music might not even be possible.

One must try to define it nonetheless, and musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez came quite close: “…there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be”, he said. “Just as music is whatever people choose to recognize as such, noise is whatever is recognized as disturbing, unpleasant, or both”. Composer Edgard Varèse probably describes this phenomenon even better: “To stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise”. In his view for instance, music is nothing but “organized noises”. Despite the fact that there are many other attempts to describe music, I personally think the above cited approaches are general enough not to restrict anyone too much when trying to discuss the evolution of human music further, as one must be very open minded in this regard not to overlook some crucial clues.

Animals with “music”

As a proper approach for music has now been established, it is time to drift back to the original question and the clues animal sounds can provide. One good way to use animal sounds as a source of answers regarding human music is to understand the intent behind these sounds. Why are they produced in the first place? Thanks to the impressive amount of research trying to identify, distinguish and classify different animal sounds, it is now known that most of these sounds are intended to signal something specific, like emotional state, food location, impending danger, type of danger, etc., meaning that these sounds have symbolic content. There are other types of animal sounds however, those without symbolic content but full of affective content instead. These are not meant to signal specific things, but rather are used for finding each other, courting, showing group belonging, showing general fitness etc. One cannot go further without seeing the similarities between the intent of these latter type of non-symbolic animal sounds and human music, as both are used for similar purposes.

But how abundant are these sounds in nature? Well, it would seem that by far not all species are known to have both types, so the question arises why did birds, apes, whales, etc. then develop such non-symbolic sounds, while a lot of others species didn’t? Sounds seemingly not indicating anything in specific and as such used in non-critical situations easily give away the position of the animal to predators, so from an evolutionary perspective using these seems not favorable. Their evident existence however indicates that the benefits of having such sounds somehow outweigh the added risk of being detected. Let us imagine the mating season of birds. The male with the most diverse and loud song will find a mate with a higher probability, while males with quiet and “boring” songs are not likely to find anyone, meaning there is a positive selection towards good singers. But why is this happening exactly? From the point of view of female birds it might easily seem that the more diverse and loud the song is, the more fit the male individual is, hence they are more preferred by them.

So do apes have something comparable to bird songs? It seems that some of apes’ pant-hooting could be interpreted as songs, as both bird and ape songs show similar attributes like having a definite structure, are decomposable to basic building blocks, have no definite meaning, and finally these are generally not born with. Of course, it is hard to accept ape pant-hooting as music, since it is rather simplistic with small overall diversity and nobody knows how elaborate these are. Bird songs on the other hand are far more advanced and perhaps more elaborate. Birds are known to learn songs from other birds, but instead of simply copying the song, it is broken down into a pool of small distinguishable pieces, which are then recomposed into a new song. Furthermore, birds are also known to evolve these songs by adding their own “personality” into it by changing the loudness of pieces, adding new own pieces, etc., not unlike human music. This complexity however, is not found in ape songs, which clearly indicates that birds are better at songs than apes, and for the above mentioned reasons ape pant-hooting cannot be classified more than “protomusic”.

Neurological backround of music

All evidence found so far thus indicates, that in the form of pant-hooting, the first signs of human music evolved way before the Homo genus appeared (2.8M years). However, as it has already been discussed, these pant-hoots are musically rather primitive, so the appearance of advanced music must have happened sometime after the advent of the Homo genus. But is it possible to narrow down this rather large time frame? To answer this question, one must understand the neurological background of music. It is known, that the human brain is highly lateralized, meaning that different tasks are processed in different hemispheres of the brain. Language and music comprehension for example were found to be processed in the left and right hemisphere, respectively. Interestingly, despite the lateralization, brain imaging results for instance could be interpreted that both music and language comprehension are part of the same large, distributed and very complicated neurological system, where reception and production of these share the same cortices to varying degree. Both music and language engages the frontal lobe to keep the idea in mind until produced, while for longer retention both utilize the temporal and parietal cortices. Motor and premotor cortices were also found to be partially shared for production.

Lobes of brain

As language and music seems to be neurologically so intertwined, it would be reasonable to start looking in archaeological records for changes in these parts of the brain of early Homo to assess when did they achieve the structure and size as they exist in modern humans. That point in time would probably also give us the answer to the original question about the age of human music. The earliest changes in the areas responsible for language and music appeared at about two million years ago, where additionally to the general increase of the brain, major rearrangements were observable in the frontal lobes of early Homo (Homo rudolfensis). Changes in these parts of the brain seemed to continue up until several hundreds of thousands of years ago, when early Homo sapiens from that period despite having modern brain size, still did not appear to have fully modern prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, which both are utilized for language and music. At this point it seems reasonable to believe that “modern” music and language then must have developed sometime after the aforementioned period, but earlier than 40000 years ago, making both of them a relatively new development despite their very long evolution.

(Some) conclusions

Unfortunately, despite all effort, giving a more precise time period for the development of human music does not seem to be possible at this point, unless some new archaeological evidence emerges either in a form of instruments or skulls sometime in the future. Until this happens, the only thing one can do is to contemplate why something (with today’s standards) as trivial as music and language took so much time to develop? One possible short answer to this question is because our perception of language and music is simply obscured by our own knowledge of them, and thus we cannot anymore see the complexity and hardship of the task needed to compose a sentence or musical piece. However interesting this discussion may be, it is outside the scope of this manuscript, but interested readers are welcome to read another post of mine titled “Language learning and the things it teaches – Part 1: Perception (or why native speakers don’t see the obvious…)”, which partially covers this topic. Until then, thanks for reading!

P.S.: During the writing of this manuscript, the book “The Origins of Music” by Nils L. Wallin was of great help, so any interested reader is encouraged to read it for a much more comprehensive discussion of the topic!