The world’s oldest musical instrument is a 60,000-year-old flute made by a Neanderthal from the left thighbone of a young cave bear. Both Neanderthals and cave bears are now long extinct, but music, with all its underlying concepts and aesthetics, lives on with our species.
While music is huge nowadays and the likeliest thing people across the world will list as their ‘favorite’, the humble origins of music are not at all understood, being the subject of debate among scholars. But there are some ideas as to how and why music appeared.
One widely-accepted theory is that music may have evolved as a form of emotional expression or communication. According to this theory, music may have originated as a way for early humans to express their feelings and emotions, such as joy, sadness, or anguish. Over time, music may have evolved to become a more sophisticated form of communication, allowing people to share complex ideas and emotions through sound.
A new study out this week supports this notion. Researchers at the University of Oregon found that subjects who were the most skillful at interpreting other people’s emotional states were also equally skilled at assessing emotions conveyed by various songs.
Zachary Wallmark, a musicologist who doubles as a cognitive scientist at the University of Oregon, was drawn to the theory of how music and empathy basically serve the same role, facilitating social connection through a vehicle of emotional expression. But rather than asking people how empathetic they were, Wallmark and colleagues designed a novel study in which they showed participants videos of people talking about some emotionally charged episode in their lives. They also played piano music that was specifically composed to convey a certain emotional story.
The interpretations of the participants were then directly compared to the videotaped people’s and the musicians’ own responses. Those who could identify other people’s emotions the best, or whom you might call the most empathetic participants, were equally accurate at assessing the emotions conveyed by the music.
“If music evolved to help us navigate our social environment, and music is first and foremost a social behavior, then we would expect there’d be some sort of shared neural processes underlying both,” Wallmark said, who is now working on a new research sponsored by the Grammy Foundation in which his team will scan the brains of people to see the same neural circuits are activated by empathy and music.
Overall, the origins of music are complex and difficult to determine with any certainty. What is clearer, however, is that music has played an important role in human history and continues to be a powerful force in shaping human culture and society to this day.