Get social with us!
  • › Why do we sing? Book available!


    Why do you sing? 
    Some of the reasons why people sing include:

    • expressing what you feel
    • making yourself feel better
    • communicating with others
    • marking rituals and events
    • being creative musically
    • making something with others

    But perhaps there is something even more fundamental. Steven Mithen in his book Singing Neanderthals suggests that song and dance came before language. Mithen posits that music-making is a fundamental aspect of the human condition, encoded into the human genome during the evolutionary history of our species. 

    This book is available in free PDF form at

    Non-evolutionary explanations for the origin of music have probably existed for thousands of years—many cultures have considered music to be a gift of the gods or of a particular god. But evolutionarily-informed hypotheses concerning music are rare. Why? To be sure, “music” is complex, but then so is speech, whose evolutionary origins and trajectory have been the subject of theory and lively debate for decades. The observation that everyone learns to talk, whereas musical talent is rare, is true only for music in modern societies: we don't require everyone who talks to be a master orator. In small-scale societies people sing and dance as readily and competently as they converse.

    So why is musical behavior universal? What could be its adaptive value? And just what is music anyway? Like speech, it is not one identifiable cognitive capacity but is constituted of multiple separate components. Pitch recognition varies from “tone deaf” to “perfect” and influences abilities for musical memory, discrimination of melodies, awareness of changing harmony, and even the ability to keep time. Other components of music include perception of contour or melody, phrasing, pulse, meter, and rhythm, along with sensitivities to timbre and the dynamics of tempo and auditory volume. Often disregarded are additional important abilities to synchronize and take turns. Individuals vary in endowment of these various features and individual cultures' musics vary in the importance given to a particular feature. Music is both “passive” and “active”: it is both recognized and produced.

    And this is only the “nature” of music. In order to begin to think profitably about its biology one needs to be familiar with a daunting array of specialist subjects.

    • evolutionary theory;
    • human evolution (including early environments, ways of life, and social life)
    • paleoarchaeology (the archaeological and fossil evidence for linguistic and musical capacity and their phylogenetic development);
    • anatomy of the brain and body (the ear and audition, the vocal tract and vocalization; the location of musical abilities in the brain);
    • neurobiology of musical cognition and emotion (how listening and vocal production develop and are computed; evidence of mental modules for components of music as evinced in musical savants or in persons with deficits caused by brain injury; how we recognize music, what we recognize, and how it makes us feel; brain chemistry and neuroanatomy of music and musical states);
    • origin and evolution of language (the similarities and differences between music and language; gestural vs. oral theories of origin; semantics, syntax, prosody);
    • music-like communication systems in other animals (including whales, birds, and especially non-human primates) and arguments pro and con their relevance to human communication;
    • developmental psychology of musical and linguistic behavior in infants and young children;
    • ethnomusicology (the range of musical behavior in a variety of human societies with differing ways of life; how music is conceptualized and used in non-Western groups);
    • the art and practice of music itself.

    Also relevant are findings from music therapy and psychology of music, including the psychology of musical emotion.

    Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory at Reading University in England and author of provocative books and papers about human cognition and behavior, has armed himself with impressive knowledge in most of these subjects and boldly tackled the difficult subject of the origin and adaptive value of human music. Whether or not one is convinced by his concluding hypothesis, The Singing Neanderthals is a treasure trove of information and analysis relevant to understanding the evolution of music. Anyone who subsequently proposes another hypothesis cannot neglect the knowledge and questions set forth by Mithen nor can his conclusions be ignored, based as they are on careful consideration and synthesis of this vast range of specialist material. The footnotes alone provide an education in important relevant ideas about the evolution of music and much else.

    The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, Steven Mithen . London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005. ISBN: 0-297-64317-7. 

    Harvard University Press writes: 

    The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind: this is where Steven Mithen began, drawing together strands from archaeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience—and, of course, musicology—to explain why we are so compelled to make and hear music. But music could not be explained without addressing language, and could not be accounted for without understanding the evolution of the human body and mind. Thus Mithen arrived at the wildly ambitious project that unfolds in this book: an exploration of music as a fundamental aspect of the human condition, encoded into the human genome during the evolutionary history of our species.

    Music is the language of emotion, common wisdom tells us. In The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen introduces us to the science that might support such popular notions. With equal parts scientific rigor and charm, he marshals current evidence about social organization, tool and weapon technologies, hunting and scavenging strategies, habits and brain capacity of all our hominid ancestors, from australopithecines to Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals to Homo sapiens—and comes up with a scenario for a shared musical and linguistic heritage. Along the way he weaves a tapestry of cognitive and expressive worlds--alive with vocalized sound, communal mimicry, sexual display, and rhythmic movement—of various species.

    The result is a fascinating work—and a succinct riposte to those, like Steven Pinker, who have dismissed music as a functionless evolutionary byproduct.