College Quarterly
Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2
Reviews The Origins of Music
Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker & Steven Brown, eds.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Music, it is commonly said, is a universal language. Though anthropologists differ on the matter, a persuasive case can be made for the notion that music and language are evolutionary adaptations that share a common communications ancestor called, lacking a better term, “musilanguage.” From this root, music may have specialized in sounds carrying emotive meaning, whereas language emphasized referential meaning. This, at any rate, is the theory advanced by neuroscientist Steve Brown, one of the editors and among twenty-eight contributors to this fascinating volume on a topic that is certainly deserving of universal interest.

The articles contained in this anthology are written by experts in a number of disciplines from anthropology to zoology. The aim in all cases, however, is to advance the scientific understanding of the origins, evolution and functions of music from what is best called a biomusicological perspective. At stake are such issues as the relationship between biological and cultural factors in analyzing both the phylogeny and the ontogeny of human musical behaviour.

I truly hope that I have not put off potential readers of this anthology by introducing scientific terms early on, for the fact is that the contributors to this volume write in a manner that is wholly engaging and accessible to those lacking a background in neuroscience. In doing so, they open up a domain of inquiry in the best possible way; they write clearly, but without condescension about knowledge in their various specialties. Thus, the authors deal with specific topics from the neural basis of bird songs to speculations about human sexual selection in the evolution of human music in a manner that allows readers with neither biological credentials nor even a predilection toward science to become delighted and enthralled with the ideas and the supporting research that are presented here.

After an extremely helpful introduction by the editors in which the editors’ major premises are set out and explained, the book proceeds to cover four main subject areas. First, it addresses vocalization in animals with particular reference to birds, but also to the lower primates (gibbons) and the cetaceans (humpback whales). Second, the focus shifts to human evolution, and we are treated to explications of the process of human brain development that made music possible as well as to revelations about the emergence of musical practice in, for example, an absorbing account of what may be the oldest musical instrument yet discovered a “bone flute” from the middle Paleolithic age (ca. 40,000 years ago). Next, the social components of musical evolution are explored with special attention given to music’s role in social bonding and particularly in the mother-infant relationship. Finally, attention is given to so-called “universals.” Much as Noam Chomsky has centred the attention of linguists on an “innate capacity” for language within our species (we need not “learn” it, we are “born with” it and need only fill in the sounds our societies have selected to make words), so we are invited to consider whether the evident universality of tone, rhythm and repetition across time and space betokens similarly innate capacities for music. The editors then append a rather moving page-and-a-half tribute to music and to life. They invite us to contemplate the meaning of music in our lives. Simply put, they tell us that we need to know how music originated if we are to understand music and to understand ourselves, for we are among the singing species, and musicality is part of our core definition. Music, they say, is “so ubiquitous and so important that human culture just would not be human culture without it.”

Some may complain that they do not enjoy “analyzing” everything, or who protest that attempting to conceptualize, hypothesize and finally understand something “artistic” from the perspective of cold, hard science undermines and demeans what should only be appreciated aesthetically. This, however, is grotesque philistinism in reverse. As represented in The Origins of Music, biomusicology retraces evolutionary development and, in a sense, returns to our common roots by reuniting music and language and enhancing our awareness of the rich human capacity and potential for both.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <>.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology