Eine Kleine Neanderthal-Musik

I suffer a limited form of amusia. No, it’s not a fear of amusement, but rather lack of musical ability. I appreciate music very deeply, but I simply can’t make it. I’ve tried lessons and teachers end up turning away in exasperation. The embarrassing part about all this is that music is an integral part of religion – almost all forms of religion have their musical repertoire, and musicologists have demonstrated that the early human impulse to make music has a religious basis. I can only sit in the audience.

That's me on the left

I’m finally getting around to reading Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. A few years back I gave an academic paper suggesting that musical development could be an analog to religious development on a neurological level in the Bronze Age. Since I’m not a neuroscientist I have to rely on others to do the experimental side of the equation. Mithen serves this function nicely. When I read about music and the brain, which I do frequently, I am surprised that more scholars of religion haven’t picked up on this connection. Since music is frequently “background noise” today, many people casually assume that it is insubstantial, a whim. I look at it (listen to it) from a different angle. I seldom listen to background music – if music is playing, I pay attention to it, and something in my unprofessional brain says Mithen is often right on target.

Of course, religion and music is not the main thrust of The Singing Neanderthals, but rather the idea that music was formative for human cognition. Perhaps music even developed before speech. For me this is an important piece of a much larger puzzle: whence did religion arise? Like all inquiries that delve too deeply into the past, the answer is lost among ambiguous artifacts and ancient dust. And yet, those who know more about this than I do seem to be pointing in the direction that both religion and music have their origins in the pre-Homo sapiens stage of our evolution. I’m not surprised. I only wish I could play along.

4 thoughts on “Eine Kleine Neanderthal-Musik

  1. A buddy and I just got our own little complete-novice band going — the two of us. He on bass (never played) and me on guitar (a hacker). I will also add a little keyboard and flute.

    I love making music (albeit poorly) far more than listening to it. With most I know, it is the opposite.
    But then, I also like making theories more than criticizing those of others.


  2. Cameron

    i was taught by my uncle that speech came from te realization of musical connection between people and from thee the ever evolving min of the Neanderthal began to speak, not immediately of coarse. He taught anthropology at biola university and was fired for his”extreme views” on the subject.He died before all of this was of interest to me due to the fact that i was a little kid, but now i wish i could hear his FULL view on the matter.


    • Steve Wiggins

      This is an interesting idea, Cameron. Musicologists, particularly music therapists, often note the key significance that music has in human development. Did music pre-date speech? It is difficult to say, but does not seem unlikely.


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