Monkey-Human Ancestors Got Music 30 Million Years Ago


Music skills evolved at least 30 million years ago in the common ancestor of humans and monkeys, according to a new study that could help explain why chimpanzees drum on tree roots and monkey calls sound like singing.

The study, published in the latest issue of Biology Letters, also suggests an answer to this chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, language or music? The answer appears to be music.

"Musical behaviors would constitute a first step towards phonological patterning, and therefore language," lead author Andrea Ravignani told Discovery News.

For the study, Ravignani, a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna's Department of Cognitive Biology, and his colleagues focused on an ability known as "dependency detection." This has to do with recognizing relationships between syllables, words and musical notes. For example, once we hear a certain pattern like Do-Re-Mi, we listen for it again. Hearing something like Do-Re-Fa sounds wrong because it violates the expected pattern.

Written By: Jennifer Viegas
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  1. One of my most favourite life experiences was jamming with some gibbons.
    Our dog would insist on accompanying me whenever I played the piano.
    I think it was here, but there was an article about prairie dog language and their large vocabulary and ability to describe people.

    There are types of brain damage that leave people able to sing song lyrics but not speak.

  2. Cool article. I would quibble just a bit with the conclusion though. What humans mean by music is a complex behavior that probably isn’t the result of one adaptation. The capability that these animals demonstrated, to differentiate between different musical patterns, is certainly necessary but probably not sufficient to explain the full range of behaviors associated with creating and enjoying human music.

  3. In reply to #3 by Skeptic:

    In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

    What humans mean by music is a complex behavior…

    Have you listened to much rap ‘music’?

    is there a version of godwins law for measuring how long before a discussion on music has a post where music is put in scare quotes to denote a person’s dislike of a specific genre? 😉

    Rap music is a fair example of complex musical behaviour. In traditional music the voice is used as a tuned instrument but in beat poetry and rap it becomes a percussive instrument and relies on the backing music to compensate for this. Not all rappers can sing but then not all drummers can play piano.

    The technical skill is a linguistic one as each syllable can only represent one beat whereas tuned singing allows the singer to extend a single syllable over more than one note making it less restrictive. As an extreme example you have plainchant where one syllable can become a whole line of musical notes. The quality of “flow” is what matters to rappers, and for that it helps to be especially good with language.

    Rhythm is possibly the one common factor in all human music. Melody in western music is restricted to 11 semitones in each octave whereas other traditional types of music use more that to a western-trained ear can sound discordant. All musical types though recognise in melody, natural harmonics which are in themselves an example of simple mathematical ratios of frequency.

    Fundamentally, music is all about frequency, in sound waves and beats. What’s common to all human music is the rhythms work very well with bi-pedal walking, running or mating rituals. As such the hardest music to listen to is music with uneven time signatures (except 3:4 time but I’d say that’s essentially 2:2 time with a beat to slow the process down). Some musos just about get away with it, for example “Money” by Pink Floyd at 7:4 time but it doesn’t get the floor filled until the guitar break in 4:4 time. This is where I’d most likely put scare quotes on “music”; can you walk/run/dance to it..?

    What I would like to see more investigation in is how different animals react to different types of rhythm and how this correlates to their own natural gait. Thinking about Roedy’s gibbons for example, I wonder if they can relate to bipedal music because they get about so efficiently on 2 arms?

    • In reply to #4 by SaganTheCat:

      In reply to #3 by Skeptic:

      Have you listened to much rap ‘music’?

      is there a version of godwins law for measuring how long before a discussion on music has a post where music is put in scare quotes to denote a person’s dislike of a specific genre? 😉

      “Rap Music” is an oxymoron as far as I’m concerned. “Performance Art” without a doubt… but “eine kleine nichtmusik”.


    • In reply to #5 by Rosbif:

      Do Re Fa sounds wrong?

      That’s C D and F. If the D is a minor that makes some pretty good tunes. Eg This song was originally C Dm F:

      Do Re Fa, I assume is referring to single natural notes with the Fa being a bit unexpected. Dm is a chord and needs at least 3 natural notes playes together

      but since you mentioned D minor, it’s a good excuse to mention one of my favorite quotes about music

      Yeah, well, it’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy that I’m doing in D… minor, which I always find is really the saddest of all keys, really, I don’t know why. It makes people weep instantly

      Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap

  4. I read recently that orangutans prefer silence to any genre of human music.

    CBC radio plays a great variety of music. Most of it I find unpleasant. I wonder how anyone could like it — usually extremely repetitive. There is one group called Tribe Red that scream. I refer to it as cat torturing music.

    All music could be thought of a just a series of amplitude samplings (as for WAV file format). What makes some patterns pleasing and others obnoxious?

    I find the folk music of Africa very pleasing. I wondered if this had anything to do with everyone else became a nomad for a while. The music of the Pacific Northwest is some of the most primitive. I wonder if that had to do with the fact they came over from Asia relatively recently.

    • In reply to #8 by Light Wave:

      Drumming started way before mammals……in Ant nests the queen can drum out a beat…sending a signal to the hive….

      Aren’t ants a colony rather than a hive? But setting aside my iresistable need to be pedantic that is the point I was making. That human music isn’t just one thing we can define via one adaptation. It’s like language in that way. If we ever do understand what the adaptations were that made it possible there won’t be just one. Also like language the way humans use music is unique but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t precursors to it in many other animals.

  5. Think of it – never a man-made sound, then Mozart!” ~ ‘Out of Africa’. The lead character places a gramophone near a group of baboons. One baboon walks by it, a string is pulled to engage, from a distance.

    Monkey calls sounds like singing

    Would any “man-made” music sound alien to a critter, considering music is based on math, frequencies, i.e. all natural laws of physics.


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