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What makes us musical animals

06 July 2012 Universiteit van Amsterdam (UVA)

In a forthcoming issue of Topics in Cognitive Science researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) argue that at least two, seemingly trivial musical skills can be considered fundamental to the evolution of music: relative pitch – the skill to recognise a melody independent of its pitch level – and beat induction – the skill to pick up regularity (the beat) from a varying rhythm. Both are considered cognitive mechanisms that are essential to perceive, make and appreciate music, and, as such, could be argued to be conditional to the origin of music.

While it recently became quite popular to address the study of the origins of music from an evolutionary perspective, there is still little agreement on the idea that music is in fact an adaptation, that it influenced our survival, or that it made us sexually more attractive. Music appears to be of little use. It doesn’t quell our hunger, nor do we live a day longer because of it. So why argue that music is an adaptation? There are even researchers who claim that studying the evolution of cognition is virtually impossible (Lewontin, 1998; Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009).

Distinguishing between music and musicality

The alternative that Henkjan Honing and Annemie Ploeger of the UvA propose is, first, to distinguish between the notion of ‘music’ and ‘musicality’, with musicality being defined as a natural, spontaneously developing trait based on and constrained by our cognitive system, and music as a social and cultural construct based on that very musicality. And secondly, to collect accumulative evidence from a variety of sources (e.g., psychological, physiological, genetic, phylogenetic, and cross-cultural evidence) to be able to show that a specific cognitive trait is indeed an adaptation.

Both relative pitch and beat induction are suggested as primary candidates for such cognitive traits, musical skills that are considered trivial by most humans, but that turn out to be quite special in the rest of the animal world.

Once these fundamental cognitive mechanisms are identified, it becomes possible to see how these might have evolved. In short: the study of the evolution of music cognition is conditional on a characterisation of the basic mechanisms that make up musicality.

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