Is There a Music Gene?

ByABC News
January 31, 2001, 2:55 PM

N E W   Y O R K, July 17 -- We hear it everywhere: in shopping malls, concert halls, carpools and cathedrals.

Even when there is none playing, we often hear it inside our heads. Because music occupies so much of our lives, could it have played an important role in the development of the species?

Some scientists have recently proposed that music may have been an evolutionary adaptation, like upright walking or spoken language, that arose early in human history and helped the species survive.

Of course its utter speculation, says David Huron, a professor of music at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

Culture vs. Instinct

Most experts still assume music was a cultural invention, like cave painting or writing, that humans invented to make their lives easier or more pleasant.

Yet Huron and many of his colleagues wonder if music might have biological roots. The music gene would have arisen tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, and conferred an evolutionary advantage on those who possessed it. Natural selection would have nurtured the gift of music, favoring those who possessed it with more offspring who were themselves more likely to reproduce.

There are several things about music that suggest it has biological roots:

For one thing, music is ubiquitous. From the tribal dances of the Amazon to the frenetic raves of Amsterdam, every culture makes music an essential part of its rituals. You simply cant find people who dont sing, chant or beat on drums.

That music is everywhere suggests it arose early in the history of the species, before humans scattered across the globe and developed manifold cultures. In fact, concrete evidence of musics antiquity exists in the form of a carved bone flute found recently in a cave in Slovenia. The Divje babe flute, as musicologists call it, is the oldest known musical instrument. It dates back 40,000 years, to a time when Europe and much of North America were mantled in ice, and humans lived side by side with Neanderthals.

Wired For Song

If the oldest instruments existed 40,000 years ago, then vocal music probably goes back twice as far, Huron speculates perhaps even to the dawn of the species.