Is music universal?

This neuroscience is perhaps an important clue as to the evolution of music. Perhaps it is part of the evolution of language, which includes prosody. But we also have to ask (and not just assume) – did music evolve out of language, or did language evolve out of music? While clearly they evolved together, there is good reason to think that music evolutionarily predated language. Our ancestors, partly as evidence by extant primates, likely communicated with howls and hoots, to augment gestures and facial expression, even before they had anything resembling words or language. Being able to read the emotion of a tribe member was critical to survival. Were they excited because they just found a tree full of fruit, or because they just spotted a predator hunting them? And so emotions became tightly encoding in tone and pitch. It is likely that only later were words added to enhance this communication.

It is also likely that the first musical instrument was the human voice. Singing is both music and language, and is essentially an enhanced form of communication where the prosody is emphasized and intensified. Singing and music likely became an important mechanism of group cohesion, of shared culture, and part of a shared language and story. This perhaps is similar to poetry, which is a creatively enhanced version of speech.

Music, of course, incorporates other elements, such as rhythm, which neurologically relates to our cerebellar function, the ability to discern timing and pacing. Music can also “hack in” to this programming in the brain, feeding our penchant for regular timing and pattern recognition, while also hacking into the connection between prosody and emotion.