the songs and dances of contemporary hunter-gatherer peoples serve them at both the individual and the group levels. They draw the tribal members together, creating a common knowledge and purpose. They excite passion for action. They are mnemonic, stirring and adding to the memory of information that serves the tribal purpose. Not least, knowledge of the songs and dances gives power to those within the tribe who know them best.
To create and perform music is a human instinct. It is one of the true universals of our species. To take an extreme example, the neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel points to the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazilian Amazon: “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance, in the form of songs.”
Patel has referred to music as a “transformative technology.” To the same degree as literacy and language itself, it has changed the way people see the world. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of the brain, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. Music is powerful in its impact on human feeling and on the interpretation of events. It is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms.
Music is closely linked to language in mental development and in some ways appears to be derived from language. The discrimination patterns of melodic ups and downs are similar. But whereas language acquisition in children is fast and largely autonomous, music is acquired more slowly and depends on substantial teaching and practice. There is, moreover, a distinct critical period for learning language during which skills are picked up swiftly and with ease, whereas no such sensitive period is yet known for music. Still, both language and music are syntactical, being arranged as discrete elements—words, notes, and chords. Among persons with congenital defects in perception of music (composing 2 to 4 percent of the population), some 30 percent also suffer disability in pitch contour, a property shared in parallel manner with speech.
Altogether, there is reason to believe that music is a newcomer in human evolution. It might well have arisen as a spin-off of speech. Yet, to assume that much is not also to conclude that music is merely a cultural elaboration of speech. It has at least one feature not shared with speech—beat, which in addition can be synchronized from song to dance.
It is tempting to think that the neural processing of language served a preadaptation to music, and that once music originated it proved sufficiently advantageous to acquire its own genetic predisposition. This is a subject that will greatly reward deeper additional research, including the synthesis of elements from anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.