The Origins of Music: We Play Music Because We Are Social Beings

How can it be that we are able to hear something and instantly recognize and categorize it as “music”? This is because music is a product of our culture and biology on equal footing with language.

By Amanda Valbøll Jensen (Translated from Danish by John O’Sullivan)

Everything around us produces sound: The car driving down the street, the the hoot of the owl, the rain against the window, the phone ringing in your pocket. But music is something very particular to us; it is not simply the sounds we hear when we are taking a walk.

Music sounds different when we leave our own cultural sphere, yet we still recognize it as music. Why? Evolutionary psychology has taken it upon itself to find the answer. Evolutionary psychology deals with human needs and the patterns of human behaviour, and it investigates how things like literature, language and music have developed throughout the world. Have they evolved from our own biological instincts and needs? Or are they the product of human culture?

Music is a product of our social nature

Biologically, humans are social creatures who need each other to survive, which is what led to the phenomenon we know as culture. Our culture is constantly evolving, and at the same time it dictates who we are when we’re together.

Put simply, culture arose because humans need to be social.

At the same time, our brains have evolved as well. Along with the biological need to be social, we have developed the ability to communicate with each other and the facilities to be creative. Music stems from creativity and from our facilities for being musical. It gives us the option of understand each other and expressing ourselves through something which is more than words.

When we play music or sing together, creative communities arise which influence the rules by which we socialize. Music gives us a whole new language with which to communicate, and sometimes it allows us to communicate in ways where words fail us. In this way it can be said that we congregate around the music.

Music is also instinctual

Separate from culture, there are also some human instincts which affect our daily lives. They affect all the choices we make. Along with our culture, these instincts shape our social behaviour. These deep human instincts are what drive us to eat and drink every day, sleep at night, and have sex to reproduce. The basic needs which allow us to continue living. Our social instincts drive us to make friends and expand our personal flock with people who look like ourselves.

But which instincts drive us to play and listen to music? There actually aren’t any. Music is not directly related to our survival. So how come it has become such a large part of our daily lives? It is fascinating to think about.

Music is akin to language

In many ways, music is akin to language.

Both music and language are created through the body, either through the mouth or through movements (for example when we play instruments). Music and language are both composed of sound. In fact, there are a lot of commonalities between music and language. It is therefore also likely that music and language developed concurrently, and have a common place of origin.

When? Well, that we do not know. But we do recognize some essential sounds from the animal kingdom which point towards where music has it’s origin.

Scientists point to warning signals as a precursor to language

The majority of species have used their voices to communicate when danger is imminent.

Scientists believe that the very first words were derived from reactions to stimuli such as pain or surprise, imitation of other species, reproduction of the sounds of objects falling, gesticulations with the tongue, etc. This indicates that the voice could have been used to ‘sing’ and make sounds before the actual advent of what we today might refer to as singing. The precursor to music and language is an old being indeed. Music seems to have evolved concurrently with humans. But why?

Because we are social beings who need it. It is quite fascinating that biological needs have formed the basic for the creation of music.

Coming up…

The next article in this series will deal with sexual selection. Put bluntly, it is a theory which, much like survival of the fittest, strives to explain how some traits and phenomena have survived since the dawn of man. Do they actually contribute to our survival, or are they purely for pleasure?

Read the next article and learn more about the genesis and significance of music.


Bickerton, Derek. 2001. ”Can Biomusicology Learn from Language Evolution Studies?” i The Origins of Music. Red. Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker og Steven Brown. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England, 153-163.

Carroll, Joseph. 1998. ‘Literary Study and Evolutionary Theory: A Review Essay.’ Human Nature, 9: 3, 273-292. Walter de Gruyter, Inc., New York.

Wallin, Nils L., Merker, Björn, & Steven Brown. 2001. The Origins of Music. (Red.) The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England.

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