Musical Origins

A friend commented on a post on human origins and the oldest flute in the world a few days ago – she wondered about the impact of music on human evolution (or vice-versa), and it got me wondering about it too.  I’ve done some very cursory looking on the subject, and there is, unsurprisingly, a variety of information available, most of it speculation.

Art Ludwig has a small site dedicated to music and the brain –  he points out that Darwin thought music to be an adaptation that has to do with human mating, whereas Steven Pinker, a more modern researcher into neuroscience and evolution, believes it to be more or less a cultural manifestation of language; Pinker sees no evidence for a specialized function of music in the human organism.  Ludwig disagrees and likes the mating idea.  I like Pinker and have yet to have him take a position that I didn’t come around to, but I know very little about this subject so I shall reserve judgment.

My Brain Notes is a site by Sarah Neena-Koch, who seems to be looking for reasons to believe in Intelligent Design.  She cites John Allman’s 2000 book Evolving Brains, wherein he writes, “Functional imaging experiments done in human subjects have also demonstrated that the hand representation [in the brain] expands as a result of performing complex finger movements. The expansion of the hand representation can be observed following short-term training, but it is most notable in Braille readers and in musicians who play stringed instruments. These findings demonstrating the role of experience build upon Hughlings Jackson’s original observation: the finer the degree of control and use of a muscle, the larger its representation in the cortex.”

But I’m finding no direct brain areas for music of the type that have been identified for speech, where Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, for example, are two distinct regions of the brain shown to be of significance in language processing.  Many studies on the brain and tying individual human capabilities to their neural antecedents look at injuries to the brain (aphasia).  There is anecdotal data of aphasiacs being impacted in their ability to appreciate specific dimensions of music, but there appears to be very little that is predictable about it.

So at the end of the day that’s a “we don’t know.”  I’m not too surprised about that, and I look forward to learning more.

Thanks for reading.



  1. […] I have written before about Pinker’s perspective and the research surrounding music and its evolution in the human organism.  I look forward to learning more about Sacks’ insights – I’ve just downloaded Musicophilia to my Kindle and will report out on it when I’m done. […]

  2. […] have language – these adaptations must be good for something.  Noted neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker, for example, has called music “auditory cheesecake,” assuming it to be an outgrowth of the […]

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