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)


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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Friday coffee break

Musical coffee

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From CJ: The New Yorker covers recent work on genetic evidence that ancient humans knocked boots with Neanderthals. So to speak.

Once the Neanderthal genome is complete, scientists will be able to lay it gene by gene—indeed, base by base—against the human, and see where they diverge. At that point, Pääbo believes, an answer to the age-old question will finally be at hand. Neanderthals were very closely related to modern humans—so closely that we shared our prehistoric beds with them—and yet clearly they were nothumans. Somewhere among the genetic disparities must lie the mutation or, more probably, mutations that define us. Pääbo already has a team scanning the two genomes, drawing up lists of likely candidates.

From Devin: A new study analyzes cross-cultural variation in musical styles using a method analogous to the way biologists analyze genetic variation among and within populations.

We attempt here for the first time to quantify both components of cultural diversity by applying the AMOVA [Analysis of MOlecular VAriance] model to music. By employing this approach with 421 traditional songs from 16 Austronesian-speaking populations, we show that the vast majority of musical variability is due to differences within populations rather than differences between. This demonstrates a striking parallel to the structure of genetic diversity in humans. A neighbour-net analysis of pairwise population musical divergence shows a large amount of reticulation, indicating the pervasive occurrence of borrowing and/or convergent evolution of musical features across populations.

(Devin also notes that this sounds rather like Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music.)

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