The evolution of music

This post is a guest contribution from James Gaines, who lives in Seattle, Washington and holds a Bachelors in Biology from the University of Puget Sound. James writes about natural history at The Glyptodon and is part of a fiction group at now we have to go to the hospital. He’s currently looking into science journalism graduate programs.

If you’d like to write a guest post for Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, email Jeremy.

“Since music is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man.” –Claude Levi-Strauss (1970)

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The Divje Babe bone is old, tens of thousands of years old, a shade less than a foot long and somewhat ugly. Its surface is mottled and rough. It is obviously the fragment of a larger piece – cracks run down its length and the ends have been snapped off. The incompleteness of the thing seems enhanced by two holes in the middle of the bone’s length. But these holes are different. They stare out like eyes, identical in size, perfectly centered, and perfectly artificial. It takes you a moment, but then you see.

It’s a flute – 42,000 years old.

Music is one of the few social constructs that truly permeates human culture, and reasons for this have fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries. Even Darwin himself wrote on the subject, speculating about whether and how natural selection could explain it. Today, there seem to be three major ideas behind why music evolved. These are not the only ones, but are the most prevalent.

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