The origins of music in auditory scene analysis and the roles of evolution and culture in musical creation

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 Mar 19;370(1664):20140089. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0089.


Whether music was an evolutionary adaptation that conferred survival advantages or a cultural creation has generated much debate. Consistent with an evolutionary hypothesis, music is unique to humans, emerges early in development and is universal across societies. However, the adaptive benefit of music is far from obvious. Music is highly flexible, generative and changes rapidly over time, consistent with a cultural creation hypothesis. In this paper, it is proposed that much of musical pitch and timing structure adapted to preexisting features of auditory processing that evolved for auditory scene analysis (ASA). Thus, music may have emerged initially as a cultural creation made possible by preexisting adaptations for ASA. However, some aspects of music, such as its emotional and social power, may have subsequently proved beneficial for survival and led to adaptations that enhanced musical behaviour. Ontogenetic and phylogenetic evidence is considered in this regard. In particular, enhanced auditory-motor pathways in humans that enable movement entrainment to music and consequent increases in social cohesion, and pathways enabling music to affect reward centres in the brain should be investigated as possible musical adaptations. It is concluded that the origins of music are complex and probably involved exaptation, cultural creation and evolutionary adaptation.

Keywords: auditory scene analysis; entrainment; evolution; metre; music; pitch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Culture*
  • Hearing*
  • Humans
  • Music*