Did Neanderthals Have Melody?

Where did this catchy beat come from? Why do we love music so much? Can you even imagine a world without your favorite songs? Just try! It makes life seem kind of bleak and melancholic, doesn’t it?

To answer these questions we have to go to the beginning of it all—back to the roots of humanity’s relationship with soothing sounds.

Music obviously has a history; we learn about Bach and Mozart from the 1700s, we read about gods and goddess strumming lyre harps in Greek mythology, and what about the little drummer boy? He brought a tune as a gift for Jesus. So, there must be a little melody within us right from birth, right?

The question is, as John Cusack asks so eloquently in High Fidelity, “what came first, the music or the misery?”

Well, scientists have only recently been discovering more about ancient music’s history–specifically, ancient Greek music. Dr. John Franklin, Associate Professor and Chair at The University of Vermont and expert in early Greek cultural and music archeology, tells BTRtoday that only about 30 years ago there weren’t even fragments of this musical culture that existed to us yet.

“Thirty years later we know more, perhaps far more, about ancient Greek music than medieval music,” he admits during an email exchange with BTRtoday. “I believe many musicians would find this very early frontier of musical history now opening fascinating and stimulating—it gives you a sense of how basic music is to human experience, and how important and even sacred [music is].”

Dr. Franklin explains that recently, within the 21st century, fragments of bone have been discovered, creating what many believe to be a flute that dates as far back to the upper Paleolithic period, which is around 30,000 BCE. Though some in the field are skeptical that it was used as a musical instrument, Dr. Franklin believes it was. He provides the example of the discovery in the Divje Babe cave in Slovenia, a known Neanderthal site, where one of these flute-shaped bone fragments was discovered. “Most scholars reject it as a musical instrument, but the round holes probably come from microbial activity around the edges of puncture holes made by carnivore teeth,” he explains. “These bones definitely imply melody of some kind, or anyway some early concepts of tonal organization.”

Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The earliest noted use of melody in humanity that the field can all agree on is from around 1300 BCE. A series of “dyads,” which means they are two-noted chords, where discovered. They may not be a complete melody per se, but presumably they were performed as one.

“I expect there has always been the usual range of purposes [for music],” he describes. “[For] entertainment, relaxation, therapeutic, comfort, and sacred reasons.”

Today, we use music for the same reasons. There’s music therapy, where patients learn to play an instrument, sing, or even listen to soothing music to combat what’s ailing them. Punk rock provides a good outlet for teens filled with angst and aggression. There are hymns sang in every religion and spiritual melodies that people dance to in order to connect with their god or gods. Concerts and musicals, too, will never go out of style, and people pay good money to be entertained by catchy melodies.

So does this mean that humanity has always been ingrained with the ability to create and use a melody?

Well, this is a subject that is actually still being studied. It’s an area of research that includes relating how the brain reacts to music. Dr. Daniel J. Levitin wrote in his book “This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” that when music is used to express a feeling or feelings that the performer’s emotional state must match the state of his or her brain.

“Although the studies haven’t been performed yet, I’m willing to bet that when B.B. King is playing the blues and when he is feeling the blues, the neural signatures are very similar,” Dr. Levitin writes. He adds that in studying this there will be hurdles in deciphering the motor commands of the brain, like listening and playing the instrument, to actually “head in hands” sitting in a chair and feeling down and choosing music to express this. He even believes that it’s possible for some of the listener’s brain to sometimes match that of the musician’s throughout the performance.

A 1920s Drag Ball, located in NYC’s Webster Hall. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

In Dr. Levitin’s book he even goes as far as to say that music could have possibly been what prepared pre-human ancestors for speech communication and “for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.” In other words, humans would not have been able to evolve into what we have become today if it weren’t for music.

So, from what has been discovered, is still being discovered, or is going to be discovered, you can depend on this: If you find yourself bored, tapping your pencil along to some unknown melody, or wake up with a random song stuck in your head, or even get the urge to make some weird noise because you’re beaming with happiness, anger, or fear, then that’s probably just because you’re human.