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How Did Music Evolve in Humans? the link with bipedalism

Updated on August 12, 2011

In an earlier article, I argued that music was what distinguished humans from animals. In this hub, I now give a possible explanation as to how music might have evolved.

A Taste of Dominant Evolutionary Psychology Views About Music

What if birds could not sing or chirp, or engage in what humans deem as musical behaviors? They would be brutally handicapped in ways humans would not be if singing or music were removed from the human repertoire of behaviors or experiences. One evolutionary view of music by Steve Pinker is that music is “auditory cheesecake”, a by-product of other complex evolutionary developments without adaptive functions, which I find too narrow-minded to buy. The most compelling research to debunk this is found in a study done on rats which discovered that constant white noise exposure severely impaired their auditory cortex development, suggesting the importance of music for normal hearing development (Xu et al, 2010).

Darwin’s take on music incorporates the next 2 theories - A second view is that music possesses real survival value fashioned by natural selection principles, just like other cognitive abilities (Wallenstein, 2009). Another view is that music evolved by sexual selection instead of natural selection (Kivy, 1959), where the former increases mating and reproduction success while the latter increases survival. I attempt to weave the strengths of these theories together to form a cogent explanation of how music may have evolved.


Bipedalism – Walking Past the Point of No Anatomical Return

One component integral to producing sound and music is the anatomy of our bodies, as our body is our musical instrument. Bipedalism is the watershed event in human evolution, leading to remarkable developments that made singing and music possible when humans evolved to walk on two legs unlike other primates. The sensorimotor demands of bipedalism required larger brains (relative to body size) and more complex nervous systems. Aiello (1996) suggested that intelligence and language might have been byproducts of a bigger brain. Bipedalism marked the beginnings of singing as more sophisticated vocalizations emerged as the larynx now sat deeper down the throat compared to other primates – whether it be due to strong selection pressures of language or incidental repositioning resulting from bipedalism (Mithen, 2006).


The vocal cords in humans are more membranous than the thick cartilaginous larynx and vocals cords of primates – who need more chest stablization than humans as they rely on their arms for climbing and getting around. This explains why humans can produce more sound variety and gentler vocalizations compared to other primates. Additionally, musical impact of bipedalism can also be traced to a change in facial and dental structure that created greater capacity for humans to express, provoke and exchange emotions.

The Tangible and Intangible Musical Impact of Bipedalism

Bipedalism gave humans a greater capacity for rhythm - a key musical aspect. Mental mechanisms responsible for the rhythmic coordination of muscle groups provided good rhythm to preserve a steady pace while walking and running. Although scientific understanding is not sufficiently advanced, music therapists and medical professionals successfully use rhythm to help special needs and rehabilitating clients with mental and movement difficulties (Mithen, 2006). It is interesting to note the relationship between music and motion, where John Sloboda argues, “music is the embodiment of the physical world in motion” (Mithen, 2006). Interestingly, it is no coincidence that Western musical terms describing the tempo (speed) of music are lento, andante, corrente, which translate to “slow”, “walking” and “running” respectively.

The impact of rhythm and music cannot be underestimated, especially in religious or cultural rituals. Celebrations are characterized by rhythmic music, and studies show that oxytocin (social bonding hormone) is released not only when people sing together (Grape, et al, 2003), but during ritual performance (Levitin, 2008). Songs about Friendship (Levitin, 2008) are about social cohesion, which include war songs and protest songs. In the past, tribes fought enemies using drums to coordinate movements, and terrorize enemies. Undeniably, the role rhythm plays today is still evident in institutions like the military, and in social bonding activities such as sports and dance.

With the anatomical changes in humans, rhythmic humming or grunts soon turned more melodious. Scientists believe that the nature of human communities caused humans to take advantage of any channel to maintain and nurture social bonds using emotions (Freeman, 2001). Levitin (2008) wrote how singing songs of joy, love and comfort enable emotional exchange, expression and regulation to occur within and between individuals. Everyone can attests to how their favorite music lifts their mood and gets them through mundane tasks; scientists show that music listening releases endorphins and oxytoxin, stimulating the very pleasure and reward centers in our brain that light up during sex (Blood & Zatorre, 2001). David Huron studied how sad songs provide an imaginary camaraderie in suffering and deceive our brain into releasing prolactin, which produce a tranquilizing effect in us (Levitin, 2008). Through natural selection, our human emotions exist to help us live in communities where social solidarity determines our survival.

When bipedalism freed our hands to carry things, gesticulation during speech and singing also evolved as alongside the development of emotions. Geoffrey Beattie (2004) discovered that cross culturally, humans used a similar repertoire of gestures whatever their language and Mc Neil confirmed how gestures played a complementary role to human communication (Mithen, 2006). This could have also freed our hands to play musical instruments (a classical example being the drum), or conduct or dance, a natural and spontaneous musical response when people automatically tap along to music. In European countries such as Finland there is a strong music culture of singing and body percussion – where people tap innovative accompanying rhythms on different parts of their bodies as they sing.

This onslaught of new evolutions helped humans to communicate more effectively using body language and vocalization. Mithen (2006) suggests that when earlier humans explored different terrain, imitating the sound and movement of animals and nature became a valuable skill, especially during hunting trips. An example is how Huambisa rainforest people give onomatopoeic like names to birds (Berlin & O’Neil, 1981). In fact, linguists have shown how language could have originated from music like expressions, when humans innately associate certain sounds with physical characteristics of animals (Mithen, 2006).


Besides being a channel of emotional and informational communication enhanced by bipedalism, music making had very practical and utilitarian applications. Children learn songs about the numbers and the alphabet, and religious songs like hymns are embedded with theological doctrine. In the past, humans would have sung about farming, hunting, tribal history, superstitions – as music made a perfect vessel for knowledge encoding and transmission, especially before writing was developed (Levitin, 2009). A famous example is how ancient Hebrews memorized the Torah (first 5 books in the Bible) in chant and song before transcribing it 1000 years later (Levitin, 2009). Scientists have shown how learning (not confined to music) changes our brain structures, and in musicians such changes even have physical manifestations facilitate music making and all its peripheral processes. (Munte, Altenmuller & Jancke, 2002).

With so much at stake, wouldn’t there be an insatiable desire for a partner with exceptional musicality since music has survival and reproductive value? But would this instigate jealousy among other less talented individuals? My personal opinion is that while we theorize about music, and recognize those with musical gifts, the reality is that musical tastes, expressions and experiences are so broad that there is room for all. Besides, the collective advantages of music in terms of fitness and cognitive ability outweigh the social costs of losing the primary and secondary benefits a musical individual can contribute to the whole.



Humans engage in an entire slew of musical activities such as singing, dancing, playing instruments, whistling, humming… with all sorts of purposes that include expressing emotions, sharing ideas, unleashing creativity, finding pleasure or a mate, creating beauty… Indeed, music making reflects one’s fitness and cognitive ability; there are direct survival benefits for humans who could engage music, leading to the natural selection and the perpetuation of musical abilities in these individuals.  

Although human music may share similar adaptive functions with ‘musical’ behavior in animals, it is the intentions (survival-related or whimsical) behind music-making and the evolutionary origins triggered by bipedalism that has shaped human music to become such a powerful force that defines us as humans.  



Beattie, G. (2004). Visible Thought: The New Psychology of Body Language . New York: Routledge.

Berlin, B., & O’ Neil, J. (1981). The pervasiveness of onomatopoeia in aguaruna and huambisa bird names. Journal Ethnobiological , 1 , 238 - 261.

Blood, A. J. & Zatorre, R. J. (2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 98, 11818–11823

Dutton, D. (2010). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution . New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Freeman, W. (2001). A Neurobiological Role of Music in Social Bonding. The Origins of Music (pp. 411-422). London: The Mit Press.

Grape, C., Sandgren, M., Hansson, L., & Theorell, T. (2003). Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson.. Integrative Physiological Behavioral Science , 1 , 65-74.

Kivy, P. (1959). Charles Darwin on Music. Journal of the American Musicological Society , 12 , 42-48.

Levitin, D. J. (2008). The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature . gba: Dutton Adult.

Mithen, S. (2007). The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body . Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Munte, T. F., Altenmuller, E., & Jancke, L. (2002). The musician's brain as a model of neuroplasticity. Nature , 3 , 473-478.

Wallenstein, G. (2008). The Pleasure Instinct: Why We Crave Adventure, Chocolate, Pheromones, and Music . New York, NY: Wiley.

Xu, J., Yu, L., Zhang, J., & Sun, X. (2010). Early Continuous White Noise Exposure Alters Auditory Spatial Sensitivity and Expression of GAD65 and GABAA Receptor Subunits in Rat Auditory Cortex . Cerebral Cortex , 20 , 804-812. Xu, J., Yu, L., Zhang, J., & Sun, X. (2010). Early Continuous White Noise Exposure Alters Auditory Spatial Sensitivity and Expression of GAD65 and GABAA Receptor Subunits in Rat Auditory Cortex . Cerebral Cortex , 20 , 804-812.


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    • Charlotte B Plum profile imageAUTHOR

      Charlotte B Plum 

      7 years ago

      Dear rose johny,

      I do agree with you that music is instilled in every human being - and it is something that we respond to so naturally that I amazes me so much. Thank you so much for reading and dropping by!

    • profile image

      rose johny 

      7 years ago

      the link between music and life is so clearly explained that after reading this i kind of think that music is instilled in every human being to certain level

    • Charlotte B Plum profile imageAUTHOR

      Charlotte B Plum 

      8 years ago

      Thank you so much Seeker7, you are such an encouragement, you really made my day!

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      8 years ago from Fife, Scotland


      What a fascinating hub!! I really loved this - the research and writing are impeccable. Look forward to reading more of your hubs!! I know you have been around for 4 weeks, but welcome to Hub Pages anyway and thanks for sharing this interesting article.


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