How old is music? Why ask?

Raymond MacDonald, an eminent music psychologist, asserts a widespread belief: “We are all musical. Every human being has a biological, social, and cultural guarantee of musicianship.” Music “is a universal behavior,” writes ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking agrees: “Every known human society has what trained musicologists would recognize as music.” Is there any evidence that supports these views? If so, is it reasonable to say that music teaching and learning—in the most fundamental, non-formal and informal senses—has existed for an extremely long period of time?

Some archeologists believe that the oldest musical artifacts are stone percussion instruments found in Sweden, southern Africa, Kenya, Vietnam, China, and the Bolivian Andes, all of which are at least 40,000 years old. Others scholars say: “the earliest unambiguously musical artifacts identified to date are bone and mammoth-tusk ivory pipes dated to around 40,000 BP [40,000 calendar years ago, during the interval of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition] found at Hohle Fels in southern Germany.” But Ian Cross, a distinguished Professor of Music at Cambridge University, draws on more recent research, which indicates that the German ivory pipes predate “almost all known visual art, and in any case a capacity for musicality (most likely vocal) would predate the construction of a sophisticated musical artifact such as a pipe, probably by a considerable period.

The Divje Babe flute, made from the femur bone of an extinct European bear, was uncovered in a Neanderthal burial site in Slovenia. Although some archeologists question whether the Divje Babe is really a flute, others believe it is and cite evidence that it’s somewhere around 45,000 and 82,000 years old. If it’s authentic, this Neanderthal instrument would be remarkable because it strongly suggests that music making is not only a universal characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens (the technical term for modern human beings), but “music making may be a characteristic of the entire genus Homo.”

In early American, African, and Polynesian cultures, researchers document that rattles, drums, and other percussive instruments were part of the fabric of every day life (see MM2, Chapter 3). This strongly suggests that music-like activities were already part of the social-cultural practices of our ancient human ancestors before they moved out of their original African habitats. And even before any instruments were made and played, it’s reasonable to argue (as David Huron, Ian Cross, and other scholars do) that some kind of music-like vocalizing or “singing” existed 150,000 to 250,000 years ago. All this evidence (see MM2, Chapter 3) supports a major conclusion: “the great antiquity of music satisfies the most basic requirement for any evolutionary argument. Evolu­tion proceeds at a very slow pace, so nearly all adaptations must be extremely old. Music making satisfies this condition.

What does this say about the values of music making and listening, and, therefore, the values of music teaching and learning in the most fundamental senses? It seems fair to say that human beings haven’t been making and listening to music for thousands of years to raise math and reading scores.

Many scholars, including Laurel Trainor, Susan Hallam, and Robert Zatorre, use a massive amount of research from a wide range of fields to argue that music making and listening are immediate, embodied, and visceral experiences. These experiences provided our ancestors with the means to negotiate change together, as communities, and maintain essential group bonds and social practices. So music acted then, and acts today, as “an affiliative and non-conflictual means of interaction.” As ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl says, one of music’s functions across cultures is “to support the integrity of individual social groups.” Implicit in the latter is the fact that music is a communicative medium and has a significant role in “minimizing within-group conflict [and] … in collaboratively establishing a degree of social equilibrium.” Put another way, music qualifies as an adaptive human trait because musical actions are “optimal for the management of situations of social uncertainty [and] … collaboratively establishing a degree of social equilibrium.”

But also, as we know from contemporary research in music psychology and neuroscience, all kinds of music can arouse and express a wide-range of positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and a sense of personal meaningfulness. If anyone doubts that these experiences were not possible for early humans to feel, then a very recent field of research called bioarcheology provides considerable evidence to the contrary.

One take away message is this: Today, music making in small and large groups, in styles of all kinds, can—if taught and learned effectively and ethically—provide the same essential values that sustained and motivated our ancestors: social bonding, social wellness, positive emotional experiences, and human flourishing of many kinds (see MM2, Chapters 1 and 2).