February 14, 2020 | Jerry Bergman

Musical Response in Animals Proves Evolution

Breaking Discovery: Chimps Swaying to Music Proves Evolution! —

But Birds Sway to Music, Too, So Did We Evolve From Them?

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

New studies regularly are published in a feeble attempt to bridge the unbridgeable gap between humans and our putative common ancestor with the chimpanzees. A new study by two Japanese researchers is another example.[1] The importance of the study in the eyes of evolutionists is indicated by its publication in one of the most prestigious science journals in the field of science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The authors correctly observed that

Music and dance are universal across human culture and have an ancient history. One characteristic of music is its strong influence on movement. For example, an auditory beat induces rhythmic movement with positive emotions in humans from early developmental stages.[2]

This fact is well supported in the literature.[3] Also, it has been true far back in history, even as far back as the Neanderthals, some who produced good quality musical instruments.[4],[5] The researchers in this study investigated the theory that sound was also able to induce spontaneous rhythmic movement in chimpanzees as it does in humans. This result contradicted other studies which disputed the claim that chimps can spontaneously dance to music. The only species in this study found to entrain to music were various species of parrots.[6]

The goal of the PNAS study was to support evolution based on the theory that  “some biological foundation for dancing existed in the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees ∼6 million years ago. As such, this study supports the evolutionary origins of musicality.”[7] Specifically, the authors believe it supports the evolutionary origins of humans from a chimpanzee-like a primate. Furthermore, they concluded their “results suggest that pre-requisites for music and dance are deeply rooted and existed in the common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees, approximately 6 million years ago.”[8] Note that they use the term suggest, admitting that their conclusions are closer to speculative just-so stories than fact.

What They Actually Found

The Japanese researchers found “auditory beat induced rhythmic swaying and other rhythmic movements, with larger responses from male chimpanzees than female chimpanzees.” In contrast to humans both “random beat as well as regular beat induced rhythmic swaying.”[9] For humans, random beat tempo tends to produce unpleasant, even disquieting responses, that are for this reason labeled noise. The authors admitted that the “fact that rhythmic swaying was induced regardless of beat regularity may be a critical difference [of chimps] from humans.”[10] Another difference is, in humans musical ability emerges at a very early age and, like intelligence, varies enormously from essentially no ability to a level of ability found only in one out of a million persons, such as those rare persons labeled savants.[11] The authors admit that most animals lack music ability

although some birds, whales and other species are said to ‘sing’, song is absent in most primates, including the apes, and as such is almost surely not homologous to human music. Any music-related trait found in animals, such as a preference for some sounds over others, or a tendency to hear pitches an octave apart as similar, is thus likely to represent a more general-purpose mechanism. Similarities between human and nonhuman animals can thus indicate that a trait did not evolve for music.[12]

Another problem was the authors noted “some nonhuman animals also have an ability to entrain their body movement to an auditory rhythmic beat” including parrots and sea lions, which does not support the evolutionary paradigm because the talent does not show the progression that evolution expects, but it appears scattered, at least throughout vertebrates.

Lastly, a major problem was that the study used only two subjects, one male and one female chimp.[13] Given the enormous variation in musical ability in humans, we could expect similar variation in chimps, thus this study is, at best, a trial run to be used with much larger populations of chimps as well as other primates.

The Sounds of Nature

We would also expect that, not only circadian rhythms, but other such sounds that produce rhythm, such as chirping of frogs and crickets, or woodpeckers pecking and even rain, burbling brooks, breaking waves, the whistling of wind, or even walking produces a rhythm of sorts and some animals may respond to these rhythms. Biophony is the music created by organisms such as birds; geophony, the composition of non-biological sounds like wind, rain and thunder; and anthrophony, the conglomeration of noise produced by humans. They add up to a cacophony, a mix of sounds produced by the environment and humans which most humans find very irritating.

Discussion of the Japanese Study Results

One common evolutionary argument for the evolution of music is abilities, such as musical talent, are not directly related to survival, but rather evolved because they facilitated social bonding and, therefore, indirectly aided survival. Consequently, the origin of music can be explained by Darwinian evolution. Music, a topic Darwin mentioned over 80 times in his The Descent of Man, was one human behavior that “Charles Darwin was uncertain he could explain.”[14] In Darwin’s words, “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man … they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed. ”[15]

Darwin did, though, attempt to explain the origin of music in The Descent of Man as arising from the first prehuman females using their high-pitched female voices as musical instruments by which “we may infer that they first acquired musical powers in order to attract the other sex;” an interpretation that is still a very common explanation for the evolution of music.[16]

Parsimony postulates that selection would favor social bonding for the rewards of social bonding, and not for a highly indirect means of achieving this goal, such as selecting mates for their ability to produce certain sound sets that we call music—and it would appear that evolution would also select for the mental ability to value more easily-made sounds over those requiring significant, and relatively rare, talent as is true of most musical skills.

In other words, if evolutionary selection explained music talent, it would also select for a greater ability to enjoy the more common musical ability levels instead of the rare skills needed to produce a Mozart or Bach music-level quality. The fact that many animals can also be taught human skills, such as chimps learning some crude music and mechanical typing skills, does not argue against the over-design thesis in humans, but rather for the view that animals also exhibit evidence of over-design.


A study published in Nature over 12 years ago about the evolutionary origin of music is still very accurate. The study concluded  that speculation about music’s

possible adaptive functions has been popular since the time of Darwin, and shows few signs of resolution. Empirical approaches offer a promising alternative. There is no guarantee that a full account of music’s origins will ever emerge; in fact, that seems quite unlikely at present.[17]

Another researcher concluded the evolutionary explanation is problematic on other grounds, namely it

implies that any musical trait for which there is a preference will subsequently be selected for by sexual selection. To this, an important qualifier should be applied: by definition, selection, sexual or otherwise, for a particular trait can occur only if that trait can arise by mutation of a gene and can be inherited. [18]

A good summary of the hodgepodge theories of the evolution of music by a leading Cambridge University researcher is as follows:

Clearly, theories of how music may have evolved are divergent. For Pinker, music is a technology, ultimately dispensable, with no evolutionary significance. For Roederer, Sloboda, Brown and Hagen and Bryant, music may have had significant adaptive roles in selection at the group level, while for Miller, music may well have played a part in sexual selection. Nevertheless, all of these theories rely on what Huron has described as ‘the nebulous rubric music’. They provide no clear demarcation of what is intended by the term ‘music’.[19]

Thus speculation, assumption, and the wearing of Darwin glasses by which to view the world dominates science today, resulting in many erroneous conclusions. The simplest explanation is that only humans have the ability to produce what most of us regard as music, and this is another example of how we humans are a little lower than the angels as taught in the Judeo-Christian tradition taken from Genesis.


[1] Yuko Hattori and Masaki Tomonaga. 2019. Rhythmic swaying induced by sound in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). PNAS. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1910318116.
[2] Hattori and Tomonaga, 2019, p. 1.
[3] Mehr, S A., et al. 2019. Universality and diversity in human song. Science, 366, eaax0868, November 22.
[4] Mithen, Steven. 2007. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[5] Morley, I. 2013. The Prehistory of Music: Human Evolution, Archaeology, and the Origins of Musicality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 9, 34, 327.
[6]  Fitch, W. Tecumseh. Biology of Music: Another One Bites the Dust, Current Biology. 19(10): R404.
[7] Hattori and Tomonaga, 2019, p. 1.
[8] Hattori and Tomonaga, 2019, p. 1.
[9] Hattori and Tomonaga, 2019, p. 1; italics added.
[10]  Hattori and Tomonaga, 2019, p. 1; italics added.
[11] Shuter-Dyson, Rosamund. 1968. The Psychology of Musical Ability. London. UK: Methuen, p. 94.
[12] McDermott, Josh. 2008. The Evolution of Music. Nature, 453:287–288, May 15, p. 288.
[13] Hattori and Tomonaga, 2019, p. 1.
[14] Fisher, Helen E. 1982. The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior.  New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., p. 97.
[15] Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Vol. II, London, UK: John Murray, p. 333.
[16] Darwin, 1871, p 337.
[17] McDermott, 2008, p. 288.
[18] Cross, Ian and Iain Morley. 2009. The evolution of music: Theories, definitions and the nature of the evidence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Chapter 5 in Malloch, Stephen and Colwyn Trevarthen. (eds.). 2010. Communicative Musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 65.
[19] Ian and Morley, 2009, p. 65.

Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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