Evolution and music

A great many moons ago I put up a post with a (possibly laboured) analogy between memory and the fossil record. Prepare to be possibly enlightened with my next ‘great; brainwave – drawing parallels between music and evolution (and a little ecology).

Music doubtless started off very simply and grew more complex over time. Various styles developed and became more clearly defined (lineages emerging) initially perhaps with quite a lot of overlap (common ancestry and interbreeding still possible) but then became more and more different. Each developed new features (instruments, rhythms etc.) and perhaps even came to occupy specific ‘niches’ (dancing music, reflective music) though of course given time, any style can adapt to provide any kind of feeling or go back to its roots (reversions, convergence). Occasionally entire genres get lost (extinction) and certainly individual aspects get changed or lost or replaced (modification). But just because new things come along, doesn’t mean the old ones die – there is space for all (adaptation) and ideas can be shared (lateral gene transfer perhaps, or even mutualism). Over time, new ideas split off and can become different enough to warrant their own term (speciation). Some can become incredibly popular for a while (novelty and invasives) only to die back later, or dominate for huge periods of time. Certainly each generation influences the next (descent with modification) and adapts to the styles and interests of the day (selective pressures) and it’s hard to separate quite where one thing ends and another begins because ultimately it’s all part of one interconnected continuum and while we may have trouble piece together the dim and distant past, there are certainly excellent signs that ultimately everything is related to everything else.

4 Responses to “Evolution and music”


  1. 1 robertsloan2 22/10/2011 at 12:43 pm

    It’s a good analogy. It may also say something about how the human mind organizes information. I’m an artist, also familiar with the history of art. Every time you said music, I could have substituted “art” without changing the gist of your essay. I’m more familiar with artistic “taxa” than musical because I’m often curious about the lineage of my own work – it’s fun to trace back the particular styles that influence mine, especially if I didn’t like them for a long time and ultimately found enough exceptions or familiarity that I incorporate them.

    The main difference, the point the analogy breaks down is in interbreeding. There comes a point in art or music where interbreeding is always possible because it’s all created by human beings and any new experience can open the artist’s mind to a technique or style that was previously out of the question.

    For most of my life I loathed abstract nonrepresentational art. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve begun to comprehend its principles well enough to recategorize it – for one thing I realized that technically things like Celtic knotwork and mandalas were also nonrepresentational art or severely distorted representations. For another I began to see how the very earliest stages of planning a painting come out looking abstract and that it’s a good thing, the painting’s stronger for it. Which moved some abstracts into the personal mental category of “unfinished art.”

    Then I smiled and looked at your analogy again. I remembered how many times “primitive characteristics” come up in paleontological traditions, or basal characteristics.

    We handle and remember a lot more information in these sorting patterns. We make sense of it easier and learn more about the entire system that’s being studied. Everything is connected.

    When I think about our living avian dinosaurs, we have a lot in common with them. We appreciate their songs, their dances and their art – I sometimes wonder if a bower bird feels what I do finding a very intense turquoise or red, if he sometimes pays more attention to the joy of creation than the ultimate reason for his construction. In the dance, his attention is focused on her. In the structure, he may be completely focused on the process of creating it.

    Everything’s connected.

    • 2 Kilian Hekhuis 25/10/2011 at 9:27 am

      Yeah, that’s the first thing that I thought of as well: music is more like bacteria constantly swapping genes, though retaining their own characteristics. Cross-over is rather common musically, but impossible with higher organisms.

  2. 3 Mark Robinson 24/10/2011 at 3:38 am

    You forgot to mention that both music and evolution have an intelligent designer (well, not all music) and have been around for a just over 6,000 years!


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