Where It All Began

Gary Tomlinson, professor of musicPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Gary Tomlinson is one of the most acclaimed researchers in his field of musicology, having earned kudos and awards for works ranging from a philosophical history of the opera form to a groundbreaking analysis of the music of the Incas and Aztecs.

But never has Tomlinson taken on a project quite like the one he’s working on now—a project in which he aims to answer one of the most fundamental questions in human history: Where does music come from?

“This project is in fact about the origins of music,” says Tomlinson, Annenberg Professor in the Humanities. “By that, I mean, really, the origins of the various cognitive capacities that Homo sapiens has for making music. And that goes back, as you may imagine, far beyond the arrival of Homo sapiens as a species. Certainly, a million years back you can trace interesting beginnings of these capacities. So tentatively, I am planning on titling the book, ‘One Million Years of Music.’”

As his varied publications suggest, Tomlinson has never shied from a challenge. Indeed, while writing his most recent book, about New World music, Tomlinson actually went out and learned to speak Aztec (he still has a working knowledge of the language today). But even he admits this latest project is a daunting one.

“There are very few musicologists dealing with this issue,” Tomlinson says. “We tend to deal with music for which we have scores—music of the past 500 years. So what is this I’m working on? It is paleo-musicology? But I will say, outside of musicology, this is a question where we’re seeing a growing number of people interested. You can’t open a newspaper without seeing something about the origins of music. It’s getting to be a very hot topic. So I’m sure that it’s the case that any well-thought out view of this question is going to generate some kind of response from people—not only from musicologists, and not even mostly from musicologists, but from other fields like paleo-anthropology and cognitive psychology, too."

Q. When it comes to a project like this, where do you even begin?
A.
Well, good question. Where do you start? I started by educating myself to the work that paleo-anthropologists have been doing, and primatologists, cognitive psychologists, language acquisitions researchers, linguists. There are a number of fields that have something to bring to bear on this question, not only in regard to cognitive capacities for music making, but there’s also been research out there for the last 25 years about the origins of language. That’s become a very hot topic—the origins of culture, the origins of religion, the origins of language, the origins of ethical capacities, all of these things are being researched in very interesting ways at this point. So we can bring to the table today all kinds of evidence that we couldn’t have 50 years ago or even 20 years ago in some cases. But at the same time, this is an age-old question. I mean, there isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t have a myth about where music came from. It’s a fascinating question, but we really have the capacity today to see it in a new and different way.

Q. How is the research going so far?
A.
In some ways I feel the project is just now getting off the ground for me. Someone may well ask, ‘What does a musicologist such as yourself—someone who has been working mostly in the European classical tradition and then branched off and worked with the Aztecs and Incas—what do you bring to the table that can help us in regard to this problem, the origins of music? What do you bring to the table that might add to what all of these other researchers from other fields are bringing?’ And of course what I would say is that I as a musicologist can bring a broader understanding of what musical capacities are in the first place. There’s a very famous statement by a very famous researcher named Steven Pinker. Well, a number of years ago, Pinker announced that he believed music was, as he called it, ‘auditory cheesecake’—simply an add-on, something that grew out of other human capacities. It was, in other words, the icing on the cake. But it’s very, very clear to many of us that this is nonsense, and comes from real lack of understanding as to what the musical capacities are in the brain.

Q. What are some of these ‘cognitive capacities’ you are talking about?
A.
Well, there is rhythmic entrainment, for example, whereby individual humans can quite self-consciously attune themselves to a particular periodic beat, or whereby groups of humans can attune themselves to the same periodic beat. This is a capacity that no other species has, and it’s extraordinary. It’s an amazing capacity, something that all humans are endowed with, except for a very few that have some kind of pathological issue. But this is something that is clearly hard-wired in some way, and it is used culturally in all kinds of ways. There’s something really fascinating there.

Q. Are the origins of language and music are somehow linked?
A.
There are interesting parallels between language and music. Both of them are what we call ‘computorial systems,’ which means, for instance, that you can take individual words and then make up larger sentences out of those words. And just a limited number of words can make up an infinite number of sentences. In a way that is not quite the same, but is certainly analogous, all musical systems are systems of discrete pitches. Whatever pitches they choose, any given octave, the scales that musical cultures use are a discrete number of pitches out of which they can build an infinite number of melodies.
So the question comes: Did this capacity of computorial thinking emerge both in language and music at the same time? Why did it emerge? How did that come about? The questions go on and one. What are the relations between music and spirituality, religion, metaphysics, afterlives, etc.? This is a relationship that seems to be ubiquitous, universal, widespread. If that’s true, when did that happen? Is the emergence of modern music tied to the emergence of spirituality in the species?

Q. What are the earliest traces of music among humans?
A.
I think we can be fairly confident, even from the fact that we have bone flutes that go back 40,000 years or so, that something musical was being made by Homo sapiens about 40,000 years ago. Out beyond that, the terrain gets very, very tricky very, very fast. If we go back 100,000 years, there’s no reason for us to have that confidence. If we go back to the Neanderthal, we have no good reason to think anything like human language or music making was quite in place there. So the question becomes, what are the individual cognitive capacities that are put together in modern human music making or language? What individual capacities might have already been in place with these earlier species? I think anybody who was going to tell you that Neanderthals were making music more or less the way we do would have a whole lot of trouble backing that up with any kind of meaningful evidence. If you go back even further, it becomes even trickier. But to say that the capacity of rhythmic entrainment, for instance, whereby a being can match oneself to the tapping of others—to say that may have existed prior to humans is not so far fetched at all.
The other side of this is that idea of 40,000 years on down—I’ve spent most of my professional life researching music of the last 500 or 600 years—and the big space there. A whole lot has happened in that time, but I’m very much convinced that in terms of human music-making defined in the broadest possible way, you’ve got to have a number of capacities that need to be built up, starting from nowhere, to make music—and then all the rest of the last 40,000 or last 30,000 or last 20,000 years is just the icing on the cake. In other words, the difference between Mozart and rap is insignificant compared to the differences between species without these capabilities and humans.

Q. Given that so many other researchers in so many other fields have come at this question in so many different ways, how exactly have you defined the scope and objective of your work? What do you want to eventually achieve?
A.
What I hope to bring to this is a more precise sense than what non-musicologists tend to bring as to what these precise cognitive capabilities or music making are. That’s one big thing. But of course, everyone shoots big. They all shoot for the stars and you sort of want to get the largest possible picture of how this thing came about. I think the only way to do that, finally—and this is the way some of the best work on origins of language is going these days—is to understand the steps by which a whole suite of cognitive capacities would be put together, out of which modern language and music making emerge.

Q. How challenging has this work been for you?
A.
It’s a steep learning curve. Certainly I’m working in a number of fields that I don’t usually work in. I don’t pretend to have a master of these fields, but I have been doing is educating myself in the areas that come to bear on the kinds of problems at are in this work. It’s been a very steep learning curve, but it’s been wonderfully exciting. And steep learning curves are kind of what researchers have to do. I’m not so extraordinary in this regard.

Q. Are there any really confounding questions related to this research?
A
. We don’t have a good sense of how far back we can trace language. We do have a growing sense of the kinds of behaviors that we might expect of a species that had a fully modern language, and the more we think about it, the more consensus grows that fully modern language is a capacity of Homo sapiens and not any other early hominid species. I believe also that the consensus is growing that fully modern music making is a capacity only of Homo sapiens. But then again, that doesn’t answer much, because Homo sapiens to the best of our knowledge, emerged 175,000 years ago from Africa, and the evidence we have makes us think that language and music only have been around for 40,000 years or less. We’ve got a big span there between 175,000 and 40,000 years ago—what’s going on with Homo sapiens during that time?

Q. Once music ‘arrived’ for humans, whenever that was, has there ever been a society without music?
A.
We have no record anywhere of a nonmusical or amusical society. It simply doesn’t exist. The best evidence we have is that music is as ubiquitous a capacity among humans as is language. Most linguists would agree with this statement, and most musicologists say it’s pretty obvious this is the case, too.

Originally published Jan. 10, 2008.

Originally published on January 10, 2008