Steven Jan on Music and/as Evolution

our authors Dec 6, 2022

The philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that the theory of evolution by natural selection, crystallised by Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century, is a ‘universal acid’: it describes an algorithm so powerful and all-encompassing that nothing can resist it. Everything in the universe, be it physical, chemical, biological, psychological or socio-cultural, is vulnerable to its paradigm-dissolving power, to the ‘Universal Darwinism’ through whose veins universal acid courses. Inspired by this notion, I have attempted to use evolution as a lens through which to view one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity: our deeply ingrained tendency, across all races, creeds and cultures, to make and respond to music.

To address this issue, I have sought to make a distinction between musicality and music. Musicality is our innate capacity to respond to music – to hear it, to produce it by means of singing and the use of instruments, and to respond physically, emotionally and intellectually to it. Music is the product of the capacity for musicality – it is the processes or products that result from our ability to structure pitch and rhythm in organised and meaningful ways, some of which are evanescent while others are preserved for centuries in our canonic repertoires.

Dennett’s universal acid, understood in terms of his ‘variation-replication-selection (VRS) algorithm’, the three key elements of Darwinian evolution – has the power to reformulate our understanding of musicality and music. As the title of the book – Music in Evolution and Evolution in Music – indicates, there is a dichotomy between the evolution of the substrates of musicality, and the evolution of music itself. The former is a complex problem in evolutionary biology, the solution to which, in a crude summary, is that what we might regard as musicality is a bundle of structural and behavioural attributes and competences – several of which do not even appear to have initially evolved ‘for’ musicality – that came together because they were useful in various ways for our survival, directly or indirectly. The latter, a less accepted notion, is that music is itself subject to evolutionary processes, changing over time in ways that go beyond the merely figurative and metaphorical.

To outline this argument, I begin (Chapter 1) with an outline of the fundamentals of evolutionary theory, seeking to distinguish between the Darwinism of the VRS algorithm and certain earlier theories, most notably Lamarckism, the latter proposing a different, and surely incorrect, mechanism. I also cover some issues, such as taxonomy, that, while orientated in biology (nature), also have the capacity to illuminate culture (nurture). I then turn to the evolution of musicality in humans (Chapter 2), considering how the ability to structure sound is likely to have afforded survival (‘aptive’) benefits to our species in terms of rhythmically underpinned group cohesion, mate selection and retention, and infant nurture. ‘Structured sound’ is also a rough approximation of language, minus the semantic element that is nevertheless also present to varying degrees in music; and this chapter starts to draw connections between music and language that are explored further in later chapters. Moving to evolution in and of music (Chapter 3), I apply Richard Dawkins’ theory of memetics (which I explored in my earlier book, The Memetics of Music: A Neo-Darwinian View of Musical Structure and Culture), to changes in musical materials and styles over time. In particular, I consider the implications of regarding music as built up of myriad memes, or ‘musemes’ – short fragments of rhythm and melody, and/or of harmony – each with its own ‘selfish’ desires to survive and be replicated, and each capable of building complex multilevelled recursive-hierarchic structures of sound.

Having acknowledged above that much discussion of evolution in music is metaphorical, I then turn (Chapter 4) to explore the ways in which evolutionary thought, Lamarckian and Darwinian, has affected scholarly discourses on music, in both music historiography and in music theory and analysis. I see these traditions – often built upon life- and species-history models from biology – as themselves (‘verbal-conceptual’) memes, or (verbal-conceptual) ‘memeplexes’, subject to evolutionary pressures over time. The distinction between musicality and music facilitates the application of ideas from Chapters 2 and 3 to non-human animals (Chapter 5). Here, certain species of bird and cetacean are shown to have the capacity, via pattern-imitation, to sustain their own form of musemes, which I term ‘sonemes’, and thus to engender their own music-linguistic cultures. Perhaps most fascinating in this connection are the songs of the Marsh Warbler, a bird that assimilates sonemes from the songs of alien species as it undertakes its migration from the UK to the southern regions of Africa; and those of the Humpback Whale, these being intricately structured in ways that are closely reminiscent of the hierarchic organisation of human musics. As ‘non-carbon-based animals’, computers have been programmed to generate music, and some of these systems model, explicitly or implicitly, evolutionary processes (Chapter 6). Clearly not yet at the level of human-generated music in terms of imagination and power, computer-generated music nevertheless suggests a future in which, perhaps, machines might speak to other machines in a complex symbolic dialogue that we might regard as post-musical and post-linguistic. One of the most fundamental problems in our ontology and epistemology, consciousness, is not solved in this book (Chapter 7); but it is nevertheless applied, somewhat informally, to the evolution of music. In particular, consciousness, as a form of rapid evolution, is equated with the evolution of music. In particular, consciousness is related to changes in systems of musical organisation such as tonality, as a form of ‘slow consciousness’. As an extension of this idea, the presence of music on the internet, as one among many forms of replicated electronic information, is understood in terms of Susan Blackmore’s notion of the ‘treme’, or third-level replicator (genes and memes being first- and second-level replicators, respectively). The internet itself is understood as a form of global consciousness driven by quasi-musical impulses; and as a macrocosm of the small-scale distributed systems exemplified by, for example, the octopus’s multi-centre nervous system and the ‘wood wide web’ that links trees in a living internet by means of myriad fungal ‘wires’.

This short overview is a mere bagatelle compared to the necessarily Wagnerian scale of the book. Even so, I only scratch the surface of the subject of music and/as evolution in Music in Evolution and Evolution in Music (and I raise as many questions as I answer), not least because the subject is so vast and complex; because dealing with it is an interdisciplinary enterprise; and because there are very many ways that evolution impinges upon musicality and music. Is a précis of this overview's précis possible? If so, it is that musical patterns, musemes, tend to be memorised if they are memorable. This tautology (as applicable to memes as it is to genes) underpins the hypothesis that musemes are very powerful: they compete with each other to occupy the precious resources of human and digital memory capacity; they manipulate genes to serve their own selfish advantage (if Blackmore's theory of ‘memetic drive’, covered in Chapter 3, is true); and, by this manipulation, they shaped our species physically and cognitively and thereby afforded humans the survival advantages that enabled us to triumph over our hominin rivals.

Steven Jan is the author of Music in Evolution and Evolution in Music. This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in all available print and ebook formats here.

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