35. Is Music Genetic?

Infants before age one can distinguish whether particular chords contain a wrong note.

Research by Trehub, University of Toronto

Infants two days old demonstrate specific behavioral responses to music heard as fetuses.

Irish Journal of Psychology 12 (1991), 95ff

How old is music? Of the surviving ancient instruments, one of which, a 43,000 to 82,000 year old flute made from a bear bone, has holes cut to create a diatonic scale. The oldest instruments are all made from natural objects: flutes from branches, percussion from turtle shells and trumpet-types from conches. Since only the most primitive technology was necessary, such instruments could extend back to a very remote age.

In the cave paintings of Spain and France, the estimates of age for which vary from 10,000 to 90,000 years BC, we see pictures of musicians performing as part of an organized ritual. It has been observed that the most resonant caves have the most paintings.

Far older, c. 250,000 years BC, evolutionary changes in the skull occurred making possible modern speech. Before this was possible, all philologists agree that man communicated by vocal sounds. Since the basic five vowel sounds are genetically common to every language on earth, they were probably also the basic emotional sounds known to early man. Some of these sounds would have been fundamental for security and for recognizing a stranger at a time when no one wore clothes. The basic emotions are also universal and genetically carried forward in all men,

Charles Darwin was quite correct when he observed, “Music has a wonderful power … of recalling …those strong emotions which were felt during long-past ages.” It is beyond question that we carry genetic musical contributions from this early man, foremost among which are the melodic contours of our speaking voice and its tendency to rise when we are excited.

But music may be older still. Some modern research relative to the physiological nature of music leave open the possibility that sound may have influenced the development of the species. The French doctor, Alfred Tomatis, who studied the impact of chant in various societies has concluded that music is a kind of “food” for the brain, that “warms it up” for enhanced activity. There is a group of physicists, including Dr Hans Jenny of Switzerland, who are working with the vibrations of molecules in human organs, which has promise for medical cures by “tuning” the ill organs. A member of this group concludes that the species looks as it does due to the twin influences of this internal “harmony” and gravity.

Before that, the elements of music must have been present near the creation. The overtone series, of course, would have been heard by the first creature with ears. And one physicist, Richard Voss of the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, has found simple mathematical relationships which describe the rise and fall of pitches in a composition which are similar to natural patterns in the electrical patterns of brain cells, the fluctuations in sunspots and in the growing of tree rings. Whatever vibration stirred that original primordial “soup” and began the chain of evolution also began music.

“Why,” asks Aristotle, “do all men love music? Is it because we naturally rejoice in natural movements? This is shown by the fact that children rejoice in [rhythm and melody] as soon as they are born.”1

Aristotle also noticed that the ability to be a fine player was not related to [noble] birth or wealth.2

The earliest philosophers must also have observed the response of newly born infants to lullabies. From this observation alone the 1st century AD philosopher, Philodemus of Gadara, concluded music was both universal and genetic.

“We have an innate affinity with the Muses, one which does not have to be learned. This is clearly shown by the way infants are lulled to sleep with wordless singing.”3

Erasmus (1469–1536) also observed this response and, as a very rational man, was particularly fascinated that a lullaby could have this effect when the infants “have no idea what music is.”4

These early ideas are found again in a famous treatise, On the Sublime, by the first century AD philosopher, Longinus. He contends that the genetic elements of music which we arrive with at birth also prepare man for understanding more complex communications.

For does not the flute instill certain emotions into its hearers and as it were make them beside themselves and full of frenzy, and supplying a rhythmical movement constrain the listener to move rhythmically in accordance therewith and to conform himself to the melody, although he may be utterly ignorant of music?…

Are we not, then, to hold that composition (being a harmony of that language which is implanted by nature in man and which appeals not to the hearing only but to the soul itself), since it calls forth manifold shapes of words, thoughts, deeds, beauty, melody, all of them born at our birth and growing with our growth, and since by means of the blending and variation of its own tones it seeks to introduce into the minds of those who are present the emotion which affects the speaker and since it always brings the audience to share in it and by the building of phrase upon phrase raises a sublime and harmonious structure: are we not, I say, to hold that harmony by these selfsame means allures us and invariably disposes us to stateliness and dignity and elevation and every emotion which it contains within itself, gaining absolute mastery over our minds? But it is folly to dispute concerning matters which are generally admitted, since experience is proof sufficient.5

Several of the early Christian fathers also commented on the fact that music must be genetic. St John Chrysostom (c. 345 – 407 AD) wrote that music “is thoroughly innate to our mind.”6 St Augustine (354 – 430 AD) observed that the appreciation of fine performance is genetically present in the listener, not just the musician.

Augustine. How do you explain the fact that an ignorant crowd hisses off a flute player letting out futile sounds, and on the other hand applauds one who sings well, and finally that the more agreeably one sings the more fully and intensely it is moved? For it isn‘t possible to believe the crowd does all this by the art of music, is it?
Student. No.
Augustine. How then?
Student. I think it is done by nature giving everyone a sense of hearing by which such things are judged.
Augustine. You are right.7

The 14th century English writer, Chaucer, also believed that man comes with certain genetic information, which he attributed to the goddess of Nature, the “vicaire of the almyghty Lord.” In The Squire’s Tale, for example, he writes, “That Nature in youre principles hath set.”

Marsilio Ficino, the 15th century founder of the Florentine Academy, was a philosopher who was an active musician in his leisure, playing the lyre for his own relaxation, but also in concerts in the Medici palace. His combined interests in music and philosophy resulted in some very interesting conclusions on the virtues of music. Music, he believed, served man’s “spirit” in the same way medicine serves the body and theology the soul. In his view, what we call the genetic aspects of music were to him a memory in the soul of the divine music found in the mind of God and in the music of the spheres.8

The great Italian Renaissance theorist, Zarlino, agreed and thought it was the genetic memory of the music of angels which impels man to sing as a means of easing labor.

Many were of the opinion that in this life every soul is won by music, and, although the soul is imprisoned by the body, it still remembers and is conscious of the music of the heavens, forgetting every hard and annoying labor.9

We should not be surprised to find that Renaissance philosophers also pointed to Love as an example of an emotion which is natural to man. Giambattista Guarini (1538–1612), a diplomat in the courts of Florence and Urbino, for example, wrote,

[Love] is born with us, and it grows up as fast
As we do, Amarillis; ‘tis not writ,
Nor taught by masters — nature printed it
In human hearts with her own powerful hand.

The greatest French essay writer of the 16th century, Michel Montaigne (1533–1592) gave great credit to what Nature has provided and urged man to follow her teachings,

“You cannot extirpate the qualities we are originally born with: you can cover them over and you can hide them…. Just take a little look at what our own experience shows. Provided that he listen to himself there is no one who does not discover in himself a form entirely his own, a master-form which struggles against his education as well as against the storm of emotions which would gainsay it.10

Rene Descartes (1596–1650), in a letter to Pierre Chanut, French ambassador to Sweden, acknowledges the genetic nature of the emotions, but contends that the prenatal fetus has only four “passions”: joy, love, sadness and hatred. It was the unconscious retention of the confused prenatal emotions which complicated our judgments of the passions in later life, Descartes suggested.

Those four passions, I think, were the first we felt, and the only ones we felt before our birth. I think they were then only sensations or very confused thoughts, because the soul was so attached to matter that it could not do anything except receive impressions from the body…. Before birth love was caused only by suitable nourishment, which entered in abundance into the liver, heart, and lungs and produced an increase of heat: this is the reason why similar heat still always accompanies love, even though it comes from other very different causes…. The other bodily conditions which at the beginning of our life occurred with these four passions still accompany them. It is because of these confused sensations of our childhood, which continue connected to the rational thoughts by which we love what we judge worthy of love, that the nature of love is difficult for us to understand.11

The brilliant composer and theorist, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), was absorbed for years with the idea that man is born with a genetic pitch template. He was pondering observations which he had made along these lines in 1734, when he wrote,

In music the ear obeys only nature. It takes account of neither measure nor range. Instinct alone leads it. Whether a novice or the most experienced person in music, the moment one sings an improvisation, one ordinarily places the first tone in the middle register of the voice and then continues up, even though the voice range above or below this first tone is about equal; this is completely consistent with the resonance of any sounding body from which all emanating overtones are above its fundamental tone which one thinks one is hearing alone. On the other hand, inexperienced as one may be, one hardly ever fails, when improvising on an instrument, immediately to play, ever ascending, the perfect chord made up of the overtones of the sounding body, the major form of which is always preferred to the minor, unless the latter is suggested by some reminiscence.12

Twenty-five years later he was still struggling with this idea. He begins by discounting the ancient explanations based on faith and wonders why these early philosophers did not pursue natural rules, that is, understanding based on Nature.

The ancient writers found the relationships between sounds in divinely inspired order; they discoursed a great deal on that subject, and every reason they were able to advance evaporated like a wisp of smoke. Finally the geometricians and the philosophers became disheartened. Can it be true that up to the present time man has always been so enthralled by this single inspiration that it never occurred to anyone to seek the reason why, despite ourselves, we should be compelled to prefer certain intervals to others after certain sounds, especially after the first sound? Allow your natural feelings to operate in yourself with no preconceived expectation and then try to see if you can ever ascend a semitone after a given semitone, and whether you can do the same thing after two successive tones. Why was this suggested to me in this way? Whence this sensation? What could have given rise to this sensation in me, if it was not in the moment itself? It was necessary to test the effect of the sound, and from it three sounds would have been distinguished which form that enchanting harmony, and from there one would have proceeded with certainty, as I believe I have done.13

The French musician, Michel de Saint-Lambert, in his Les Principes du Clavecin of 1702, was certain that we carry genetically into birth specific information of a musical nature, in particular rhythm. After briefly mentioning some of the abilities needed in performance, he says,

Though this at first sight may appear a large order, it is nevertheless sure that this extreme accuracy in intonation and rhythm is a gift given to almost all men, like sight and speech. There are very few who do not sing and dance naturally; if it is not with the delicacy and correctness that Art has sought, it is at least with the correctness which Art dictates and which Art itself has derived from Nature. It is already a great asset for those who want to learn music or to play some instrument that they know they have discernment of the ear by nature, that is, the first and most important of these aptitudes.14

The French philosopher, Charles Batteaux (1713–1780), in reference to the innate character of music, believed it was melody which was genetic, quoting, without source, a Latin expression, “We are led to melody by natural instinct.”15

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), a brilliant mathematician, entered Leipzig University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at age 16 and two doctorates by age 21. Leibniz was a great believer of genetic knowledge in general, writing, for example, “Nothing can be taught us the idea of which is not already in our minds, as the matter out of which our thought is formed.”16

Leibniz’s most extensive writings on the general subject of genetic knowledge is found in his New Essays on Human Understanding (1704) which was written in refutation of John Locke’s (1632–1704) Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke had gone to some length to contend that man is born with no innate ideas. For him it was sufficient proof that there is no such thing as universal, genetic knowledge that one found no such things in children and idiots.

In the preface to his own work, Leibniz associates Locke with those who believed man is born a “blank slate,” whereas he finds a passage in the New Testament to prove this is not true.

Our differences are upon subjects of some importance. The question is to know whether the soul in itself is entirely empty as the tablets upon which as yet nothing has been written (tabula rasa) according to Aristotle, and the author of the Essay [Locke], and whether all that is traced thereon comes solely from the senses and from experience; or whether the soul contains originally the principles of many ideas and doctrines which external objects merely call up on occasion, as I believe with Plato, and even with the schoolmen, and with all those who interpret in this way the passage of St. Paul where he states that the law of God is written in the heart.17

In the preface to this Essay, Leibniz states “reflection is nothing else than attention to what is in us, and the senses do not give us what we already carry with us.” In two passages he seem to suggest that perhaps he was thinking of this with respect to music as well. In the first passage he speaks of the unconscious memory of music, in the context of a discussion of genetic knowledge,

It seems that our clever author claims that there is nothing virtual in us, and indeed nothing of which we are not always actually conscious; but he cannot take this rigorously, otherwise his opinion would be too paradoxical; since, moreover, acquired habits and the stores of our memory are not always perceived and do not even always come to our aid at need, although we often easily recall them to the mind upon some slight occasion which makes us remember them, just as we need only the beginning of a song to remember it.18

Leibniz also believed that the average man often dreamed of music, although if he were awake he would find it difficult to recreate this music. On the other hand, music heard live he thought seemed to create a “sympathetic echo in us.”19

John Dryden (1631–1700), who has been called the greatest literary man of his age, was buried next to Chaucer in Westminster Abbey. In the introduction of his translation of Ovid’s Epistles, he emphasizes the universality and genetic nature of the emotions, “all passions being inborn with us, we are almost equally judges when we are concerned in the representation of them.”20

Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), known simply as Shaftesbury, was a student of Locke and a wealthy and cultured gentleman. In a footnote in his Miscellaneous Reflections,21 Shaftesbury indicates he believes the emotions are genetic. But if the emotions are in some sense genetic, Shaftesbury still recognized an inequality in their strength among individual men. It is interesting that he uses music, which is the very expression of emotions, as a metaphor to describe his views on this subject.

Upon the whole, it may be said properly to be the same with the affections or passions in an animal constitution as with the strings of a musical instrument. If these, though in ever so just proportion one to another, are strained beyond a certain degree, it is more than the instrument will bear: the lute or lyre is abused, and its effect lost. On the other hand, if while some of the strings are duly strained, others are not wound up to their due proportion, then is the instrument still in disorder, and its part ill performed. The several species of creatures are like different sorts of instruments; and even in the same species of creatures (as in the same sort of instrument) one is not entirely like the other, nor will the same strings fit each. The same degree of strength which winds up one, and fits the several strings to a just harmony and consort, may in another burst both the strings and instrument itself. Thus men who have the liveliest sense, and are the easiest affected with pain or pleasure, have need of the strongest influence or force of other affections, such as tenderness, love, sociableness, compassion, in order to preserve a right balance within, and to maintain them in their duty, and in the just performance of their part, whilst others, who are of a cooler blood, or lower key, need not the same allay or counterpart, nor are made by Nature to feel those tender and endearing affections in so exquisite a degree.22

David Hume (1711–1776), born into a Scottish Presbyterian family, became one of the great representatives of the Enlightenment in philosophy. He knocked the foundation out from under Christianity, not to mention traditional metaphysics, of which he said “commit it to the flames, for it is nothing but sophistry and illusion.”23 Hume raises the entire subject of the emotions to a higher level than any former philosopher, even going so far as to make feeling dominant over rational ideas. No one had ever before written anything so extraordinary as the following.

All probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. It is not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinced of any principle, it is only an idea which strikes more strongly upon me. When I give the preference to one set of arguments above another, I do nothing but decide from my feeling concerning the superiority of their influence.24

As we pointed out above, earlier philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, probably felt inclined to assume there was something genetic about music simply on the basis of its universality. But they were like those early astronomers who had to speculate on the organization of the solar system without the benefit of a telescope. It has only been during the past century that breakthroughs in medical research have for the first time thrown some genuine light on this subject, offering physical proof to support earlier philosophical speculation. Thus far we have seen many individual scientists studying a wide variety of aspects of music perception which seem to point toward genetic foundations. It is too early for a unified theory, but these individual findings are remarkable. Consider the following:

ITEM: Dennis Molfese of the University of Pennsylvania has found an affinity for musical language in infants less than 48 hours after birth.25

ITEM: Psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard University in a study for infants four months old found an apparent genetic predilection to consonance over dissonance.26

ITEM: University of California researchers believe that infants are born with a genetic ability to recognize and respond to music, even before language.27

ITEM: Research at UCLA with newborns before they left the hospital establish bicameral patterns for speech versus musical sounds. Furthermore the brain adds amplification: to the left ear for music (right brain) and to the right ear for speech.28

ITEM: There is evidence that almost all musicians who began their training before the age of six possess absolute pitch, compared with none of those who began after the age of eleven.29 Some believe absolute pitch may be a vestigial talent of our primate ancestors.

ITEM: Research by Dr. Jamshed Bharucha, of Dartmouth College, has found that we have a genetic preference for certain kinds of melodic patterns.

ITEM: A study by Stewart Hulse of Johns Hopkins University found that starlings have the ability to recognize a simple melody in different keys. In another experiment, pigeons were trained to distinguish random excerpts of music by J. S. Bach from excerpts by Stravinsky and were able to correctly categorize music by other composers as being either “Bach-like” or “Stravinsky-like.30

ITEM: Jay Dowling, of the University of Texas at Dallas, has found clinical evidence to suggest that ordinary people perceive melodic patterns on the basis of the relationship between the notes themselves, and not on the basis of precise pitches. Hence almost everybody can sing “Happy Birthday” beginning from any note on the piano.31

ITEM: John Pierce of Stanford has demonstrated that the brain has little ability to recognize melodic patterns played backwards. For example, most people do not realize that the sound of the word “we” is the reverse of the sound of the word “you.”32

In conclusion, music teachers have an unbelievable advantage. Suppose you were a geology teacher and someone told you, “every student loves geology and every student has the basics of geology implanted genetically before he enters the school.” That would be a happy geology teacher, he would suddenly feel his teaching area was fundamental and important to mankind.

Music teachers have this advantages but they do not capitalize on it. Our grandchildren will be hard pressed to explain why the music educators of today have failed to teach music through performance and instead have constructed an educational edifice built on conceptual information about music, an edifice no child has any interest in visiting.

Suppose you were a young person who wanted to learn to play golf. You love watching golf; you feel instinctively that you have what it takes to play golf. So you take a course called, “Introduction to Golf.” What do you do when you find it is not a course in playing golf at all, but a course about golf? You head for the door and you don’t return. You go off and teach yourself how to play golf.

And that is the same reason why the majority of school children are not in our music classes. And all those students who are not in our classes are interested and even involved in music on their own, utterly unsupervised.


  1. Problemata, 920b.28 ↩︎
  2. Politico, 1283a ↩︎
  3. Quoted in Anderson, Ethos and Education in Greek Music, 173 ↩︎
  4. Complete Works of Erasmus, XXXI, 167 ↩︎
  5. On the Sublime, trans. Roberts, XXXIX, 2 ↩︎
  6. Exposition of Psalm XII ↩︎
  7. On Music, trans. Taliaferro, v ↩︎
  8. Kristeller, “Music and Learning in the Early Italian Renaissance,” in The Journal of Renaissance and Baroque Music, I, Nr. 4, 269ff] ↩︎
  9. Quoted by Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought, 179 ↩︎
  10. Essays, trans. Screech. II, xxxvii, 866. In III, ii, 914 he wonders since we are made by God as we are, the idea of repenting our actions seems foreign to him. We also like his phrase, “No man is poor by Nature’s standards, but by opinion’s standards, every man is.” ↩︎
  11. In Descartes Philosophical Letters, trans. Kenny, Clarendon Press, 210ff ↩︎
  12. Observation sur notre instinct pour a musique…, quoted in Morgenstern, Composers on Music, 44 ↩︎
  13. Norman and Shrifte, Letters of Composers, 20 ↩︎
  14. Quoted in MacClinock, Readings in the History of Music in Performance, 212 ↩︎
  15. Quoted in Huray and Day, Music and Aesthetics in the 18th and 19th centuries, 50ff ↩︎
  16. Discourse on Metaphysics, XXIV ↩︎
  17. Ibid., I, ii, 5. The St Paul reference is in Romans 2:15 ↩︎
  18. Ibid. ↩︎
  19. Quoted in Loemker, Philosophical Papers and Letters, 425ff ↩︎
  20. Works of John Dryden, I, iii ↩︎
  21. IV, ii ↩︎
  22. Ibid., II, iii ↩︎
  23. Quoted in Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, 98 ↩︎
  24. A Treatise on Human Nature, I, iii, 8 ↩︎
  25. Buck, reported in Human Behavior, June, 1976 ↩︎
  26. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 2, 1996 ↩︎
  27. Reported in the Associated Press, Jan. 23, 1992 ↩︎
  28. UCLA Press Release, Sept., 10, 2004 ↩︎
  29. “Experimental Investigation of Absolute Pitch,” Journal of Research in Musical Education, 17, Nr. 1 (Spring, 1969, 135–143] ↩︎
  30. Reported in “The Musical Brain,” US News & Report, June 11, 1990 ↩︎
  31. Reported in Ibid. ↩︎
  32. Buck, op. cit. ↩︎