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Rhythm, Music, and Evolution

It has been such a long time since I wrote something just for fun. I hope my non-academic English is not too bad. My academic English usually has very good reviewers. People that I admire and I am thankful for spending time correcting and giving suggestions to my writing. Anyway, it is not the case of my personal blog, in which I just write whatever I want, in any way I want. Posso até escrever em Português uma frase agora.

I was reading a nice paper yesterday. It is about the intersection of the two things that I am deeply interested, or I love. Music and evolutionary biology. Music is something so deeply appreciated by every culture in every part of the world that it has always been puzzling biologists (including me). Some renowned scientists say that to make and appreciate music in the way that we do is an autapomorphy - using the jargon - for the humanity. In other words, it is a characteristic that is unique to humans and it distinguishes us from ours closely related relatives. Anyway, it has a history, that trait, which could help us to understand ourselves. Where does it come from? Why do I like music? I am listening to music now. And I was listening to it when I was reading the paper.

The paper is in the section called “unsolved mystery”, which gives us not so much hope about a convincing explanation. But it is indeed interesting, and it proposes interesting hypotheses. He focuses on the beat, the rhythm – the central feature of music. Every music has a tempo, a beat; and it is good for a drummer to realize it. He argues about two main hypotheses to try to give a historical perspective to the evolution of rhythm.

First, it is a Darwin's idea, the great intuitive theoretician. In his book the “Descent of Man”, Darwin tries to give an explanation about the ubiquity of music. According to the paper, Darwin says that the basic ability of rhythm is something shared by animals. It is a basic characteristic of the brain function. It might be an ancient characteristic, only developed in a stronger degree in our developed brain. To follow a pulse, or a beat, would be something widespread in animals. Indeed, the tempo is very important in the behavior of animals. In many cases there are synchronized movements that vary from capturing preys to displaying courtships. Nonetheless, making music is not widespread in animals. Maybe that is not the answer. But, anyway, it is a very good idea.

The other hypothesis is also appealing. The author argues that making music would be linked with the capacity of vocal learning. If a species is able to have complex vocal abilities, it could follow a beat in a similar way that we, humans, do. That’s the hypothesis that the author proposes, although he is saying that it is not definitive. As evidence in favor of his vocal learning hypothesis, he has a good experiment with a charismatic bird. Parrots showed that they could follow a beat in a predictive way, similar to us. Such ability is rare, and even the great apes (the primates closely related to us) demonstrated difficulties to predict a pulse. There is a video on youtube really funny. The parrot is dancing Michael Jackson. It looks like he is really enjoying the music.

Also, there is a video of the study that they actually performed; it was published in the journal “Current Biology”. It is funny what scientists do to search for a bit of understanding of what is going on around us.

Well… The parrot has complex vocal abilities and, therefore, it could follow a beat. That’s what the author is saying.

Musicality might be a by-product of the acquaintance of complex vocal learning.

There are two good ideas, two hypotheses competing for a good place in the textbooks. The mystery is still unsolved. More data and research are needed. To find new answers and ask new questions.

Still, I like the idea of a by-product. And it was in my mind before I actually read the paper. The appreciation for music, such a thing so important in our lives today (or at least in my life), might have been a by-product of vocal learning and the development of the language and melody - or even just of the brain size. It is interesting how evolution works sometimes. Language and vocalization have, without any doubt, a huge adaptive claim. Past trends would favor the pathways of a complex vocalization, either or both through natural and/or sexual selection. As a result, we have music, this amazing gift, which is so important for many lives today. Maybe not as adaptive as just to say “Hi”, but definitely enlightening, which brings joy and understanding to our lives.

Link for the paper is here.

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