Music, cognition, culture, and evolution

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2001 Jun:930:28-42. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05723.x.


We seem able to define the biological foundations for our musicality within a clear and unitary framework, yet music itself does not appear so clearly definable. Music is different things and does different things in different cultures; the bundles of elements and functions that are music for any given culture may overlap minimally with those of another culture, even for those cultures where "music" constitutes a discrete and identifiable category of human activity in its own right. The dynamics of culture, of music as cultural praxis, are neither necessarily reducible, nor easily relatable, to the dynamics of our biologies. Yet music appears to be a universal human competence. Recent evolutionary theory, however, affords a means for exploring things biological and cultural within a framework in which they are at least commensurable. The adoption of this perspective shifts the focus of the search for the foundations of music away from the mature and particular expression of music within a specific culture or situation and on to the human capacity for musicality. This paper will survey recent research that examines that capacity and its evolutionary origins in the light of a definition of music that embraces music's multifariousness. It will be suggested that music, like speech, is a product of both our biologies and our social interactions; that music is a necessary and integral dimension of human development; and that music may have played a central role in the evolution of the modern human mind.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cognition*
  • Culture*
  • Humans
  • Music*