The biology and evolution of music: a comparative perspective

Cognition. 2006 May;100(1):173-215. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2005.11.009. Epub 2006 Jan 17.


Studies of the biology of music (as of language) are highly interdisciplinary and demand the integration of diverse strands of evidence. In this paper, I present a comparative perspective on the biology and evolution of music, stressing the value of comparisons both with human language, and with those animal communication systems traditionally termed "song". A comparison of the "design features" of music with those of language reveals substantial overlap, along with some important differences. Most of these differences appear to stem from semantic, rather than structural, factors, suggesting a shared formal core of music and language. I next review various animal communication systems that appear related to human music, either by analogy (bird and whale "song") or potential homology (great ape bimanual drumming). A crucial comparative distinction is between learned, complex signals (like language, music and birdsong) and unlearned signals (like laughter, ape calls, or bird calls). While human vocalizations clearly build upon an acoustic and emotional foundation shared with other primates and mammals, vocal learning has evolved independently in our species since our divergence with chimpanzees. The convergent evolution of vocal learning in other species offers a powerful window into psychological and neural constraints influencing the evolution of complex signaling systems (including both song and speech), while ape drumming presents a fascinating potential homology with human instrumental music. I next discuss the archeological data relevant to music evolution, concluding on the basis of prehistoric bone flutes that instrumental music is at least 40,000 years old, and perhaps much older. I end with a brief review of adaptive functions proposed for music, concluding that no one selective force (e.g., sexual selection) is adequate to explaining all aspects of human music. I suggest that questions about the past function of music are unlikely to be answered definitively and are thus a poor choice as a research focus for biomusicology. In contrast, a comparative approach to music promises rich dividends for our future understanding of the biology and evolution of music.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication
  • Animals
  • Archaeology
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Birds
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Mammals
  • Music*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Sociobiology*