Music and monkeys

1 minute read

BBC Earth is running a story by Colin Barras looking at the origins of music in ancient humans and possible perceptual preadaptation to music in other primates, with the awkward headline: “Did early humans, or even animals, invent music?” The piece is really a linkfest that includes a sentence or two on a broad range of recent studies, from Atapuerca hyoid bones to Upper Paleolithic flutes and monkey rhythm:

Why would the monkeys have this ability when they don’t seem to use it in the wild? “I don’t have an easy answer for that,” says Ravignani. He is now studying the musical talents of other primates, beginning by giving captive chimps access to a custom-built electronic drum machine. “I want to investigate to what extent their natural drumming resembles ours, and see what kind of musical patterns chimpanzees can imitate.”

This line of research has been active for a long time. I wrote about it in 2006: “Monkey music mixmasters”

So maybe studying these reactions in monkeys is question-begging. The real question is what about the human mind makes music compelling or attractive for people? We can say that whatever that is, these primates either don't have it or differ from humans sufficiently to make them not react the same way as humans to human music. But then, humans react quite differently to different brands of human music, in a way that is clearly culturally influenced if not completely culturally determined (and the balance between these alternatives is indeterminate).

Music has emerged in every human culture in one way or another, with musical instruments, rhythms, and tone sequences independently invented again and again. We do have a musical urge, as a species.

Those different musical traditions reflect an evolutionary heritage. Maybe that musical ability is a fortuitous side effect of other traits (such as language). Some anthropologists argue that music would have been an advantage to ancient humans by helping cement social relationships, or by serving as a mode of competition for mates. But like other kinds of cultural sophistication, what we make of music today can be far more elaborate than the forms that may have existed in our distant ancestors. That makes it very difficult to test hypotheses about musical origins.