Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Which Came First: Music or Language?

A theory that language evolved as a subset of music.

Which came first: language or music? Traditionally, music has been considered an evolutionary by-product of language. Language, after all, is one of the few skills we have that makes us uniquely human. Thus it has the more important evolutionary role. Music is just "auditory cheesecake." Unimportant. Pretty little fluff. A misunderstood by-product.

But this tradition is changing. Researchers and authors like Daniel Levitin, Michael Thaut, Ian Cross, Silvia Bencivello, and David Huron are challenging our views of music's role as an evolutionary adaptation. They have suggested—and provided preliminary evidence for—the theory that music is not an unnecessary by-product, but is instead a critical and core function of our brain. Consider the following:

  • The modern human brain came into being 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence—cave drawings, artistic weaponry, sculpures—that are as old as 70,000 years. The oldest musical instrument, a bone flute dated at 40,000 years old, was discovered in Germany a few years ago. It's not a large leap to think that singing emerged before more sophisticated wind playing. This archaeological evidence provides support for the idea that artistry, creativity, and music were a part of our ancestors' lives as the modern human brain was developing.
  • One core feature of evolution is "survival of the fittest," that the genes of those who lived long enough and reproduced were the ones that got passed down. And those who survived were those who were good at problem-solving. They figured out ways to live through cold winters and avoid the tigers. Being creative helps one problem-solve, which in our example helps one survive and leads to the idea that it's the creative brains that got passed down from our ancestors.
  • Evolutionary development is often considered to mirror child development. Singing, dancing, and playing are important ways through which all children learn cognitive, language, social, and emotional skills. Perhaps it is through singing, dancing, and playing that early humans developed their cognitive, language, social, and emotional skills as well.

These are some of the ideas, evidence, and theories being considered to help explain the evolutionary purpose of music. There may now be another piece to the puzzle—a theoretical piece, anyway. Researchers at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) are theorizing that, when it comes to music, language, and evolution, we've got it all backwards.

Music did not emerge as a result of the emergence and development of language. Music came FIRST. The language part came later.

Pulling together evidence from infant development, language acquisition, and music cognition, the authors explored the roles of and interactions between music and language. This led them to hypothesize that language is better thought of as a special type of music. The music developed first and provides the foundation—from an evolutionary and a developmental standpoint—for language acquisition.

When it comes to the adaptive role and purpose of music, there is still a lot to learn. The evidence is not yet strong. But clues continue to emerge that each contribute to our understanding of the adaptive role this "auditory cheesecake" called music has in our lives.

If you are interested in reading more about the connection between music and evolution, I recommend the following books:

  • This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin.
  • The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music, edited by Isabelle Peretz and Robert Zatorre (pay particular attention to Chapters 4 and 5).
  • Rhythm, Music, and the Brain, by Michael Thaut.
  • Why We Like Music, by Silvia Bencivello.
More from Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today