On the biology and evolution of music

William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


I suggest that the question of whether music is an adaptation has been overemphasized in recent discussions of the biology and evolution of music, because the subtleties of this question combine with our poor fossil record for musical abilities of extinct hominids to render many of the key facts necessary to answer it empirically inaccessible, for now and perhaps forever. Thus the "adaptation question" seems a poor choice as a defining issue for the new but rapidly growing field of biomusicology. This field will be better served if we treat this and similar evolutionary questions as "intuition pumps" to help generate testable hypotheses that spur further experimental work on living animals (in both laboratory and field) and humans. In addition to work on music perception, studies of production in animals such as songbirds and humpback whales will play an important role. Finally, I suggest that the distinction between culture and biology made by many in the field creates a false dichotomy: like birdsong learning, human musical ability is better treated as an "instinct to learns' with biological and cultural aspects intimately intertwined.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-88
Number of pages4
JournalMusic Perception
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2006


  • biomusicology
  • birdsong
  • comparative method
  • evolution of music
  • instinct to learn


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