Monday, January 21, 2013

Can the origins of music be studied at all?

What was the role of music in the evolutionary history of human beings? And is it possible at all, you might wonder, to study this empirically, given the fact that neither music nor musicality fossilises?* So, better forget about it?

One potential strategy to address this question is to focus on the cognitive traits that could have contributed to the origins of music and musicality (cf. Honing & Ploeger, 2012) and see in how far we share these with other animals.

While there has been quite some critique on this idea – i.e. the apparent impossibility of studying the evolution of complex cognitive processes such as intelligence (Lewontin, 1998; Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009)–, a bottom-up approach, in which one looks for the basic mechanisms that combine into a complex cognitive trait – in our case musicality –, seems an alternative and potentially fruitful way to proceed.

While it is not uncommon to see certain cognitive functions as typically human (such as language), it could well be that there are more species than just humans that have the proper predispositions for music to emerge, species that share with us one or more basic mechanisms that make up musicality. The mere fact that music did not emerge in some species is no evidence that the trait of musicality is absent. In that sense a ‘bottom-up perspective’ (cf. de Waal & Ferrari, 2010) that focuses on the constituent capacities underlying a larger cognitive trait, in our case musicality, is a feasible alternative strategy to follow.

So, instead of studying a complex cognitive trait (such as intelligence) in this approach one explores the basic processes that make up that trait. And in the case at hand: instead of asking which species are musical, the question becomes: how does musicality actually work? What are the necessary ingredients of musicality, and how did these evolve?

It's these questions that will be the focus of the Distinguished Lorentz Fellowship in the coming year at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies and the topic of an international workshop at the Lorentz Center. I'm looking forward to it!

*N.B. the oldest music-related artifact currently known is dated ca. 43,000 old, quite meaningless on an evolutionary scale of million of years. Bolhuis, J., & Wynne, C. (2009). Can evolution explain how minds work? Nature, 458 (7240), 832-833 DOI: 10.1038/458832a

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., & Ploeger, A. (2012). Cognition and the Evolution of Music: Pitfalls and Prospects Topics in Cognitive Science, 4 (4), 513-524 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01210.x Lewontin, R.C. (1998). The evolution of cognition: Questions we will never answer. In D. Scarborough & S. Sternberg (Eds.), Methods, models, and conceptual issues: An invitation to cognitive science, Vol. 4 (pp. 107-132). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. de Waal, F., & Ferrari, P. (2010). Towards a bottom-up perspective on animal and human cognition Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14 (5), 201-207 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2010.03.003

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