Evolution of Music

Is music just there for pleasure, or does it have a role to fulfil? We spoke to Dr Ian Cross...
25 February 2008

Interview with 

Dr Ian Cross, University of Cambridge


Ian - Hello.

Helen - Ian's been researching the definition of music as well as the evolutionary origin of where music came from. I guess my first question, Ian, is if we had to define music what is it?

Wolfgang Amadeus MozartIan - Well it's probably not the sound of Mozart on a CD or the sound of AC/DC on a CD. It's not just sound, it's action. It's probably not just sound of action but also interaction. We find that more in traditional cultures than we find it in the West. We tend to find it very easy to think of music just as sound, something you listen to for purely pleasurable purposes. In many other cultures, even the West it really does a lot of different jobs.

Helen - What kind of jobs does music do?

Ian - Well, very simply you listen to a piece of music - why are you listening to a piece of music at that particular time? Probably to regulate your own affective state; to change your mood. It's doing something there. You, let's say, sing in a choir. How is singing in a choir, particularly if you don't have much of a voice (and there are many people who sing in choirs who don't have much of a voice), so why are they singing? Because of a sense; of a way that music has of enhancing affiliation; of allowing a sense of community to emerge in a non-conflictual situation.  

Helen - Is there a big difference between listening to music and creating music? I would say the moods that music can make you feel and listening to different types of music. You listen to very get-up-and-go music in the morning or quite quiet, lovely, mellow music in the evening to wind yourself down. Is there a difference between the performing and the listening, do you think?

Ancient Gnawa MusiciansIan - There is in our culture and there is in many other cultures but there are many cultures where people do and listen to music. There's no real distinction between the two. You just are musical in the way that you'll have language you have musicality. Some people are good at it, some people aren't. Everyone's got it and uses it to receive and to create, to produce.

Helen - The music and language seem to be a very similar thing. I take it language came first and we then had music. Is music a very ancient thing. I take it it's been around in human societies for a very long time.

Ian - Certainly in our culture it would seem to make sense that yes, we had language doing a proper job first and then we've got music coming along and ligging on the back of language. Actually, music is probably doing stuff that we needed at the same time as we needed language in terms of enabling a fluidity of direction. Particularly,  managing situations of social uncertainty where no one's quite sure what's going on. The situation's on the edge. If people start saying something and talking about the determinants, the structure of the situation to each other it could get out of hand. Music in that context, in that situation seems to act as a kind of lubricant to allow people to interact fluidly and easily without getting into conflict with each other.

Chris - What about a war dance then?

Ian - Well, that's great. You've got a bunch of people, all of whom are doing the same thing. As a group activity it's oriented towards the destruction of another group but it's still a group activity.

Chris - Which do we think came first then? Do we think that language came first and then the music cropped up or do you think that people started making musical sounds and then developed that into something we now call language.

Batwa dancers at Buhoma in UgandaIan - I think people started making social sounds. Those social sounds eventually partial out roughly, I think, when we get to Homo sapiens a couple of hundred thousand years ago into what we might now think of as music and language which I would think of as complementary components of the human communicative toolkit.

Helen - If we take a global view of music and the wonderful varieties there must be out there of different types of music. Do we all think the same sorts of sounds are nice or are there different interpretations on what is a beautiful sound in different parts of the world.

Ian - Extremely so. If we'd like to play a little clip of Ndroje balendro.

Sample of Ndroje balendro music

Chris - I think there's an easier way that the Americans could have got Noriega out, you know.

Helen - It sounds like a traffic jam. What's going on there? Tell us about that.

Ian - Well, you have a group of Central African Pygmies each with a little bark horn. Each one can only play one note so each person is only playing one note. What you have is hocketing, antiphonal performance: on person, then another and another and another.

Helen - Like hand bells?

Ian - A bit like hand bells. You've got to be right on the button. Of course the tuning of them is nothing like we'd anticipate with tuning.

Helen - There must have been hundreds of them. How many were there? Dozens and dozens, it sounds like.

Ian - No, it was probably about seven.

Helen - Only seven?

Ian - Yep.

Helen - That's quite amazing. Have we got another clip? Which one have we got, Chris?

Sample of Wanga music

DidgeridooChris - I'm going to be honest and say I reckon that's probably Antipodean. Is it, Ian?

Ian - As it happens, yes. It's from the northern territories and is an example of Wonga which is music, history, law and education. All of those things. It's not just something you listen to because you think it's nice, although there's someone out there who probably does think it's nice.

Helen - They tell stories and all those kinds of things as well?

Ian - Yeah and specify property rights. What we think of as music in that context is fulfilling a range of functions that we would assign in our culture to the judiciary and the police.

Chris - We have a lawyer for that but is it because it helps you to remember? If you put something to music does it mean you're more likely to get all the bits right because you know how the tune goes? We seem to be very good at remembering how tunes go but sometimes remembering all the intricate details can be difficult.

Ian - Yeah. That's true. The other advantage of using music is that you can dispense with lawyers.


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