Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Musicality in human evolution, archaeology and ethnography

Iain Morley: The prehistory of music: human evolution, archaeology, and the origins of musicality.
Oxford University Press
Oxford, 2013
(Link) Oxford University Press
(Link) Amazon

Anton Killin
Biol Philos
DOI 10.1007/s10539-014-9438-y
Received: 19 February 2014 / Accepted: 21 February 2014
author contact by email:  anton.killin@vuw.ac.nz


This essay reviews Iain Morley’s The Prehistory of Music, an up-to-date and authoritative overview of recent research on evolution and cognition of musicality from an interdisciplinary viewpoint. Given the diversity of the project explored, integration of evidence from multiple fields is particularly pressing, required for any novel evolutionary account to be persuasive, and for the project’s continued progress. Moreover, Morley convincingly demonstrates that there is much more to understanding musicality than is supposed by some theorists. I outline Morley’s review of the archaeological and ethnographic literature, and then go on to critique his assessment of philosophical and evolutionary theories, offering some alternative perspectives that might better benefit his project.


A prospering interdisciplinary research project has emerged over the last three decades comprising the work of a diverse array of theorists on evolution and cognition of music. This includes anthropologists, archaeologists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, musicologists, evolutionary biologists and psychologists, among others (see e.g. Bannan 2012; Wallin et al. 2000). Iain Morley’s The Prehistory of Music is a comprehensive and sophisticated outline of the present state of play by a leading authority. Morley examines recent developments in several scientific fields, and critically engages with research in philosophy and evolutionary theory. Although experts may gain little empirical insight concerning their own field, the charm of this book is in its interdisciplinary approach. Morley emphasizes connections between areas of research and links theories with potential evidential support. The text is geared seamlessly to academics, students, and general readership; its accessible style and keen exposition will no doubt garner enthusiasm for the project.

First, what is music and musicality? On Morley’s conception, very briefly, ‘music’ targets the cultural thing or set of cultural things of relevance; ‘musicality’ encompasses the biological aspects that enable the cultural thing(s) to be produced and appreciated (p. 5).1 This way of distinguishing music from musicality is not uncommon, though it is open to criticism. If the cultural and biological features of music/musicality co-evolved, attempts to artificially split them may be problematic.

As hinted above, Morley has a methodological message: understanding musicality is an interdisciplinary project. The book can also be seen as an attempt to refute the view that musicality is superfluous to understanding human nature. In other words, it is wrong to assume that music’s cross-cultural ubiquity and value have little to do with our evolved biology and psychology. Much of this takes place through chapters 5–10, which comprise an extensive overview foregrounding the complexity of music’s underlying capacities, dipping into palaeoanthropology, developmental psychology, musical cognition, neuroscience, and so on. Morley considers the evolution of hominin vocalisation and audition, relationships between music and language cognition, differences in musical cognition between trained musicians and other folk, innate versus learned musical capacities, links between vocalisation and gesture, entrainment to external pulse, whether the brain has a ‘music module’, and so on. Morley’s commentary throughout is generally very sensible and I have little critical to say about these chapters here; the text is lucid, informative and I recommend it to any interested readers. The take home message is that several ingredients of our musicality may be very old; that perhaps the biological preconditions for compound vocalisation including singing, for instance, were in place by Homo ergaster (of course this is not to claim that singing or music is so old).

However, nor is music relatively recent. I begin by summarising Morley’s discussions of archaeology and ethnomusicology (chapters 2–4). Morley argues that musical traditions predate the emergence of known Upper Palaeolithic musical instruments; given the sophistication of the latter, rightly so. Morley looks to the musics of hunter-gatherer societies ‘‘to examine and illustrate a wider diversity of the musical behaviours that exist’’ (p. 12), to survey the nature and functions of their music, their instrumentation and materials. The music of Morley’s target groups heavily relies on the voice, with mostly percussive instrumentation. This is not to give a crude ‘ethnographic analogy’, but rather to demonstrate a variety of ways of being musical with resources that might not fossilise or that require little modification.

I then turn to Morley’s critique of philosophical and evolutionary hypotheses, respectively. In chapter 10, Morley considers the work of philosopher Stephen Davies, a defender of the ‘contour theory’ of music’s expressiveness. Although Morley offers several criticisms of that view, I suspect that they miss their mark.  Moreover, Morley’s alternative is not clearly articulated. In any case, this particular focus strikes me as misplaced because Davies’ argument is contextualised in aesthetics and the art music of the West, not music or musicality broadly considered. I briefly propose a different direction for theorising about musical emotional expression that may be more fruitful for Morley’s project.

Finally, I review Morley’s take on the origin and evolution of music/musicality debate (chapter 11).  There is already an extensive evolutionary literature on musicality and its purported ‘proper’ functions. Morley does not subscribe to any novel theory of musicality’s evolution, but rather extricates oft-conflated distinctions and evolutionary pressures, painting as clear a picture of the origins and evolution of music/musicality debate as there has been. Morley espouses a five-part framework of co-evolutionary pressures which supplants some standard yet simplistic theorising about music. Yet it may not be rich enough still: I tentatively suggest that taking a niche construction perspective explicitly might provide an upgrade to the framework. Moreover, it is not yet put into action; Morley has given us the blueprint for his model, but not yet used it to test scenarios for plausibility against evidence or to support a particular theory, hybrid or otherwise.

Music archaeology

Prehistoric musical instruments and sound-producers identified by Morley include bird-bone and ivory flutes, whistles (pierced reindeer-foreleg phalanges), purported bullroarers and rasps, and various forms of struck percussion (including strikemarked lithic and bone sources). Morley argues that the earliest known musical instruments (c. 40 kya) could not represent the earliest musical traditions, contra some theorists who have focused on the purported artsy and symbolic explosion of ‘behavioural modernity’ around that time. His analysis is accompanied by extensive inventories of prehistoric instruments, a useful adjunct resource.

To date there are 104 undisputed prehistoric flutes (p. 35)—direct evidence of Upper Palaeolithic musical activity. A number of flutes revealed in the Swabian Jura range in southwestern Germany (specifically, the caves Hohle Fels, Vogelherd and Geißenkloesterle), are dated 36–40 kya (Higham et al. 2012). Most of the Swabian Jura flutes are modified bird-bone, predominantly vulture ulna and radius bones. Two swan-bone flutes were discovered in Geißenkloesterle.  Another find at Isturitz, France constitutes a large sample of around twenty bird-bone flutes. Their ages vary from 32–35 to 11–17 kya (d’Errico et al. 2003).

One of the oldest known undisputed flutes is from Holhe Fels, made from a griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) radius, 21.8 cm long, 0.8 cm diameter. The proximal end of the bone has been manually adjusted (a V-shaped hollow area has been carved) so as to better function as a mouthpiece. The body of the flute has been scraped smooth and fingerholes inserted ‘‘by thinning the surface of the bone, creating a cratered depression in which the finger can sit and make an airtight seal, and piercing a hole in the centre of this depression’’ (p. 42). Horizontal incisions near the flute’s fingerholes suggest that measurements were made in order to position the holes (Conard et al. 2009). This may suggest that the flute was created with a pitch/scale standard in mind.

The Swabian Jura also revealed mammoth-ivory flute fragments, the oldest dated also from roughly 40 kya (p. 50). Greater skill, precision work and effort is required to produce ivory flutes (let alone acquire the raw material), so it is no surprise that there are far fewer ivory than bird-bone flutes in the archaeological record. Vulture and swan radius and ulna are naturally hollow and an appropriate size; ivory is oversized, layered, and tougher to work. To produce a flute, a section of ivory must be sawn to the correct length, it must then be sawn in half along its length, the core lamellae must be removed, and then the two halves of the flute must be refitted and bound together with a bonding substance which must create an airtight seal in order for the pipe to produce a sound. (p. 50)

Given the greater demands on working ivory into an item that is in many ways only equal to its bird-bone counterpart, Morley assumes that its use as a raw material was considered significant and valuable (p. 51). In any case it certainly bespeaks the sophistication and maturity of musical technologies at this time.

Reconstruction experiments of Swabian Jura flutes exhibit a wide range of tones and establish them as ‘‘fully developed musical instruments and not just whistles or pipes’’ (Conard and Malina 2008, p. 14). Although the oldest known, they could not have been among the very first flutes given their sophistication and design. We can safely presume that the creators and performers of these Aurignacian flutes knew what they were doing—they were not mere neophytes. The upshot: it is not plausible that 40 kya marks a transition from no musical traditions to musical traditions.

So, then, why do a fair number of flutes suddenly appear only from 40 kya? Is it due to a contingency of resources available and preservation? Or did something more significant happen? Morley conjectures that the prevalence of vulture-bone flutes ‘‘betrays a ‘special relationship’’’ between carrion birds and ancient hunters (p. 87). Moreover, Mary Stiner and colleagues have argued that avian fauna became crucial subsistence resources in the Upper Palaeolithic (Stiner et al. 2000; see also Cassoli and Tagliacozzo 1997). Vultures are large birds, common in some environments, and not threatening to prehistoric hunters. They would have provided excellent resources besides bones for musical instruments. Their bones are long, hollow, sturdy and light, so they were especially suitable raw material for flutes, and the discovery of this fact may be responsible for the sudden emergence of flutes in the archaeological record. In other words, if we are seeing a ‘revolution’ here, it is probably in the resources used (pp. 97, 323). Note that flute materials are not restricted to bone and ivory—bamboo, cane and wooden flutes appear widely in the ethnographic record, crafted from easily worked materials that are unlikely to fossilise. Flutes made from these or similar materials very plausibly could have predated bird-bone and ivory flutes and indeed co-existed with them.

Even if we discovered them, we may not recognise very early musical instruments as such. For instance, Kuhn and Stiner (1998) identify a modified ungulate bone, c. 32–35 kya, reminiscent of rasps in some traditional musical cultures, though its function as a musical artefact is speculative. (Morley argues that use-wear analysis, which has been hitherto neglected, might shed much welcome light on the presently murky status of purported rasps, bullroarers, and the like. This seems right.) Other ancient instruments may have been made from reeds, tree bark, animal skins or other ephemeral resources, as found in the ethnographic record.

There are lots of ways to be musical with natural objects that require minimal modification—consider conch shells, bison horns, hollow logs, stalactites and stalagmites (still part of musical traditions in Indonesia for example), and clapsticks of various sizes, shapes and density of wood. Furthermore, the voice is our very own in-built, natural musical instrument, and is the main focus of much traditional music. Morley reviews the ethnographic record to substantiate these suspicions and demonstrate the variety of music cross-culturally.

Music in hunter-gatherer society

Morley focuses on music in foraging societies rather than world cultures broadly construed. The mobile hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies of his target Native American, African Pygmy, Australian Aborigine, and North American Arctic groups mean that their traditional practices are not the result of agricultural lifeways. These groups occupy diverse environmental and ecological niches and their lineages are temporally as well as geographically widely displaced.

The Blackfoot and Sioux tribes of the American Plains, to briefly summarise one of Morley’s case studies, are nomadic antelope and bison hunters. Their music is monophonic song (i.e. a single melodic line) accompanied by the likes of drums, rattles, rasps and bullroarers. Music pervades their religious activities, social dancing, war dances and puberty rites (p. 17). Many songs utilise vocables rather than words. Music used in connection with symbolic activities is generally not symbolic or propositional, but rather contributes to the context emotionally (McAllester 1996). However, some songs are more symbolic: Blackfoot sun dances are thought to entreat health, wellbeing and affluence (‘Sun says to sing’, p. 18).  Others are iconic, for instance a ‘bleating calf’ song used in a characteristic Blackfoot hunting strategy (rounding up a herd at the top of a cliff face and forcing them over, leaving gravity to do the rest; Kehoe 1999). Blackfoot and Sioux instruments include rattles made from cocoons, gourds, turtle shells and deer hooves, split wooden sticks, cocoon leg- and ankle-bracelet rattles, wooden rasps, bullroarers, drums (stretched skin membrane over wooden frame), wooden and birdbone whistles, and elder-wood flutes. Very few are the kinds of artefacts likely to fossilise.

Of course, hunter-gatherer societies are not models for prehistoric Homo. The point is that, despite great variability in musical style, hunter-gatherer music is predominantly vocal, with body percussion and percussive instrumentation constructed from organic, ephemeral resources. Morley’s case studies demonstrate musical traditions and practices that we would not expect to see preserved archaeologically. Both mother-infant lullaby and group-based music feature significantly. Group-based music is typically not performed by elite specialists for a passive audience (as per Western music), but is a communal affair. Only a little melodic instrumentation is evident (e.g. flutes), which represent only small slices of the musical traditions.

Furthermore, these studies confirm that music need not always be ‘symbolic’, so there is no need to presume that it comes after symbolism and abstract thought—human characteristics thought by some theorists to have come online relatively recently, contemporaneously with ‘behavioural modernity’/‘the great leap forward’.

Our ancestors have long been competent artefact producers and users (McPherron et al. 2010). Complex javelin-like tools, for instance, appear from 400 kya (Thieme 1997). Yet many of the musical instruments described above require little modification, much less than the Upper Palaeolithic vulture radius and mammoth ivory flutes, appearing from (merely) 40 kya. Musical instruments, in other words, could be much older, representing a long tradition of resource modification that ultimately gave rise to the flutes preserved. How much older, however, remains to be argued.

Appealing to comparative ethnomusicology foregrounds an issue within music academia. Comparative studies of the world’s musical traditions shed light on the wide cultural variation of music, as well as inter- and intra-cultural similarities and the prospects for discovering universals. Since the second half of the twentieth century, however, ethnomusicologists have tended to focus on musical analysis in terms of political, social, cultural, economic, or gender theories, poststructuralism and postmodernism, power relations, pedagogy, and theories of meaning. Morley’s interests add weight to the call for a return to the comparative study of traditional musics (see e.g. Savage and Brown 2013; Traˆn Quang and Bannan 2012).

[The remainder of this paper discusses "music, emotion and expressivity" and the "origins and evolution of music/expressivity".]

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