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Anthropological Concepts: Origins of Music

Musical instruments

What are the origins of music? Music is a cultural universal (just like body art), which means that it is found in all cultures around the world.  Music also goes way back in human history–the oldest known musical instrument is a carved bone flute found in a Neanderthal cave in Slovenia that is over 43,000 years old! The oldest song ever found was written in cuneiform on a clay tablet. It included the musical notation and the words of a love song, and is 4,000 years old! So music has been a part of human life since very early times. 

Origin of music. Image of men drumming

But, why do we have music at all? What are the origins of music? One theory is that music may have had some kind of evolutionary advantage. Music may have been adaptive in some way that improved people’s chances of living and having children, who then grew up and continued the family line. For example, maybe mothers who sang music to their babies had an easier time keeping their babies quiet, since the sound of a crying baby could attract predators. Then there would be a higher chance that the baby would make it to adulthood and have babies of his or her own. 

Image of a Native American playing a wooden flute

Another theory to explain why we have music is that maybe humans needed to communicate over long distances. Music carries further than just talking, so maybe it developed as a way for people to call to each other. Other ideas about the origin of music include that maybe music was a way to show off to potential mates (like how it is with birds), used to frighten off unfriendly neighbors, or used to unify a society.

Origins of Music. Image of a wooden xylophone

Many cultures have their own explanation for why we have music. Usually the explanation is that the gods gave music to the people. For example, the Blackfoot believe that music was given to people to help them with their problems. As another example, a South American Indian culture believes that music came from supernatural beings, to help us create an orderly society. It’s not just these two cultures who have connected music and religion–all cultures use music in their religion, so maybe music began as a way of talking to the gods.

For a humorous look at the origins of music, check out this YouTube video:

Want to Learn More?

Do you want to learn more about Anthropology and music? Check out my Udemy course, “Exploring The Arts Through Cultural Anthropology.”

Thanks for reading!