In search of the origins of musicality

2 February 2015

Why do we have music? And what enables us to perceive, appreciate and make music? The search for a possible answer to these and other questions forms the backdrop to a soon-to-be released theme issue of Philosophical Transactions, which deals with the subject of musicality. An initiative of Henkjan Honing, professor of Music Cognition at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), this theme issue will see Honing and fellow researchers present their most important empirical results and offer a joint research agenda with which to identify the biological and cognitive basis of musicality.

Researchers have long been wary of the notion that music might have a biological basis. Music was originally viewed as a cultural artifact and as something that in evolutionary terms has existed for too short a period to have shaped human perception and cognition. The question is whether it is at all possible to gain insight into the evolution of cognition, and by extension music cognition. Sceptics argue that the necessary proof will never be found because cognition doesn't fossilise (i.e. it is impossible to obtain the requisite evidence).  

Music or musicality?

Honing, who is the driving force behind the theme issue, argues that the origin of musicality can most definitely be discovered by using a bottom-up approach in which one looks for the basic mechanisms that combine into a complex trait – in this case musicality. Honing: 'Many studies on the biological origin of music are centred on the question of how to define music. This raises the question, for example, whether birdsong and the song structure of humpback whales can be considered music. To address such issues effectively, however, it is important to distinguish between the notions of music and musicality. Musicality in all its complexity can be defined as a natural, spontaneously developing set of traits based on and constrained by our cognitive and biological system. Music in all its variety can be defined as a social and cultural construct based on that very musicality. This distinction allows us to search for the different constituent aspects that form the basis for the phenotype musicality.'

This bottom-up strategy serves as the starting point for a new research agenda that has been drawn up by Honing and a consortium of international experts from a wide range of disciplines, including musicology, computational cognition, anthropology and psychology. According to Honing, such a 'multicomponent' perspective on musicality will help to emphasise the latter's constituent capacities, development and neural cognitive specificity, and will throw light on the origins and evolution of musical behaviour.  

Bringing together global expertise

The forthcoming theme issue of Philosophical Transactions is a direct result of a Distinguished Lorentz Fellowship that was awarded to Honing last year by the Lorentz Center and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS). This fellowship allowed Honing to bring together over twenty internationally renowned experts from the fields of cognition, biology and musicality. The theme issue will contain 11 articles on topics such as the biological basis for individual differences in musicality, the origins of musicality across species, and the principles of structure building in music, language and animal song.   

The world's oldest scientific journal

As the world's longest-running scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – which this year celebrates its 350th anniversary – publishes high-quality theme issues on topics of current importance and general interest within the life sciences. Some of its most notable contributors have included Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and, more recently, Stephen Hawking.    

Publication details

Honing, H., ten Cate, C., Peretz, I., & Trehub, S. (2015): ‘Introduction: Without it no music. Biology, cognition and evolution of musicality’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370 (1664). Doi 10.1098/rstb.2014.0088.

Published by  University of Amsterdam