Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/November 1890/The Origin of Music

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[In preparing a final edition of my Essays—Scientific, Political, and Speculative—I have seized the occasion for adding a postscript to the essay on The Origin and Function of Music. As, when embodied along with other matter in its permanent form, this postscript will be seen by comparatively few, it has seemed desirable to give it a wider diffusion by publishing it separately.]

AN opponent, or partial opponent, of high authority, whose views were published some fourteen years after the above essay, must here be answered: I mean Mr. Darwin. Diligent and careful as an observer beyond naturalists in general, and still more beyond those who are untrained in research, his judgment on a question which must be decided by induction is one to be received with great respect. I think, however, examination will show that in this instance Mr. Darwin's observations are inadequate, and his reasonings upon them inconclusive. Swayed by his doctrine of sexual selection, he has leaned toward the view that music had its origin in the expression of amatory feeling, and has been led to overestimate such evidence as he thinks favors that view, while ignoring the difficulties in its way, and the large amount of evidence supporting another view. Before considering the special reasons for dissenting from his hypothesis, let us look at the most general reasons.

The interpretation of music which Mr. Darwin gives, agrees with my own in supposing music to be developed from vocal noises; but differs in supposing a particular class of vocal noises to have originated it—the amatory class. I have aimed to show that music has its germs in the sounds which the voice emits under excitement, and eventually gains this or that character according to the kind of excitement; whereas Mr. Darwin argues that music arises from those sounds which the male makes during the excitements of courtship, that they are consciously made to charm the female, and that from the resulting combinations of sounds arise not love-music only but music in general. That certain tones of voice and cadences having some likeness of nature are spontaneously used to express grief, others to express joy, others to express affection, and others to express triumph or martial ardor, is undeniable. According to the view I have set forth, the whole body of these vocal manifestations of emotion form the root of music. According to Mr. Darwin's view, the sounds which are prompted by the amatory feeling only, having originated musical utterance, there are derived from these all the other varieties of musical utterance which aim to express other kinds of feeling. This roundabout derivation has, I think, less probability than the direct derivation.

This antithesis and its implications will perhaps be more clearly understood on looking at the facts under their nervo-muscular aspect. Mr. Darwin recognizes the truth of the doctrine with which the foregoing essay sets out, that feeling discharges itself in action: saying of the air-breathing vertebrata that—

"When the primeval members of this class were strongly excited and their muscles violently contracted, purposeless sounds would almost certainly have been produced; and these, if they proved in any way serviceable, might readily have been modified or intensified by the preservation of properly adapted variations." (The Descent of Man, vol. ii, p. 331.)

But though this passage recognizes the general relation between feelings and those muscular contractions which cause sounds, it does so inadequately; since it ignores, on the one hand, those loudest sounds which accompany intense sensations—the shrieks and groans of bodily agony; while, on the other hand, it ignores those multitudinous sounds not produced "under the excitement of love, rage, and jealousy," but which accompany ordinary amounts of feelings, various in their kinds. And it is because he does not bear in mind how large a proportion of vocal noises are caused by other excitements, that Mr. Darwin thinks "a strong case can be made out, that the vocal organs were primarily used and perfected in relation to the propagation of the species" (p. 330).

Certainly the animals around us yield but few facts countenancing his view. The cooing of pigeons may, indeed, be named in its support; and it may be contended that caterwauling furnishes evidence; though I doubt whether the sounds are made by the male to charm the female. But the howling of dogs has no relation to sexual excitements; nor has their barking, which is used to express emotion of almost any kind. Pigs grunt sometimes through pleasurable expectation, sometimes during the gratifications of eating, sometimes from a general content while seeking about for food. The Heatings of sheep, again, occur under the promptings of various feelings, usually of no great intensity: social and maternal rather than sexual. The like holds with the lowing of cattle. Nor is it otherwise with poultry. The quacking of ducks indicates general satisfaction, and the screams occasionally vented by a flock of geese seem rather to express a wave of social excitement than anything else. Save after laying an egg, when the sounds have the character of triumph, the duckings of a hen show content; and on various occasions cock-crowing apparently implies good spirits only. In all cases an overflow of nervous energy has to find vent; and while in some cases it leads to wagging of the tail, in others it leads to contraction of the vocal muscles. That this relation holds, not of one kind of feeling, but of many kinds, is a truth which seems to me at variance with the view "that the vocal organs were primarily used and perfected in relation to the propagation of the species."

The hypothesis that music had its origin in the amatory sounds made by the male to charm the female, has the support of the popular idea that the singing of birds constitutes a kind of courtship—an idea adopted by Mr. Darwin when he says that "the male pours forth his full volume of song, in rivalry with other males, for the sake of captivating the female." Usually, Mr. Darwin does not accept without criticism and verification, the beliefs he finds current; but in this case he seems to have done so. Even cursory observation suffices to dissipate this belief, initiated, I suppose, by poets. In preparation for dealing with the matter I have made memoranda concerning various songbirds, dating back to 1883. On the 7th of February of that year I heard a lark singing several times; and, still more remarkably, during the mild winter of 1884-1 saw one soar, and heard it sing, on the 10th January. Yet the lark does not pair till March. Having heard the redbreast near the close of August, 1888, 1 noted the continuance of its song all through the autumn and winter, up to Christmas eve, Christmas day, the 29th of December, and again on the 18th January, 1889. How common is the singing of the thrush during mild weather in winter, every one must have observed. The presence of thrushes behind my house has led to the making of notes on this point. The male sang in November, 1889; I noted the song again on Christmas eve, again on the 13th January, 1890, and from time to time all through the rest of that month. I heard little of his song in February, which is the pairing season; and none at all, save a few notes early in the morning, during the period of rearing the young. But now that, in the middle of May, the young, reared in a nest in my garden, have some time since flown, he has recommenced singing vociferously at intervals throughout the day; and doubtless, in conformity with what I have observed elsewhere, will go on singing till July. How marked is the direct relation between singing and the conditions which cause high spirits, is perhaps best shown by a fact I noted on the 4th December, 1888, when, the day being not only mild but bright, the copses on Holmwood Common, Dorking, were vocal just as on a spring day, with a chorus of birds of various kinds—robins, thrushes, chaffinches, linnets, and sundry others of which I did not know the names. Ornithological works furnish verifying statements. Wood states that the hedge-sparrow continues "to sing throughout a large portion of the year, and only ceasing during the time of the ordinary molt." The song of the Blackcap, he says, "is hardly suspended throughout the year;" and of caged birds which sing continuously, save when molting, he names the Grosbeak, the Linnet, the Goldfinch, and the Siskin.

I think these facts show that the popular idea adopted by Mr. Darwin is untenable. What then is the true interpretation? Simply that like the whistling and humming of tunes by boys and men, the singing of birds results from overflow of energy—an overflow which in both cases ceases under depressing conditions. The relation between courtship and singing, so far as it can be shown to hold, is not a relation of cause and effect, but a relation of concomitance: the two are simultaneous results of the same cause. Throughout the animal kingdom at large, the commencement of reproduction is associated with an excess of those absorbed materials needful for self-maintenance; and with a consequent ability to devote a part to the maintenance of the species. This constitutional state is one with which there goes a tendency to superfluous expenditure in various forms of action—unusual vivacity of every kind, including vocal vivacity. While we thus see why pairing and singing come to be associated, we also see why there is singing at other times when the feeding and weather are favorable; and why, in some cases, as in those of the thrush and the robin, there is more singing after the breeding season than before or during the breeding season. We are shown, too, why these birds, and especially the thrush, so often sing in the winter: the supply of worms on lawns and in gardens being habitually utilized by both, and thrushes having the further advantage that they are strong enough to break the shells of the hibernating snails: this last ability being connected with the fact that thrushes and blackbirds are the first among the singing birds to build. It remains only to add that the alleged singing of males against one another with the view of charming the females is open to parallel criticisms. How far this competition happens during the pairing season I have not observed, but it certainly happens out of the pairing season. I have several times heard blackbirds singing alternately in June. But the most conspicuous instance is supplied by the redbreasts. These habitually sing against one another during the autumn months: reply and rejoinder being commonly continued for five minutes at a time.

Even did the evidence support the popular view adopted by Mr. Darwin, that the singing of birds is a kind of courtship—even were there good proof, instead of much disproof, that a bird's song is a developed form of the sexual sounds made by the male to charm the female; the conclusion would, I think, do little toward justifying the belief that human music has had a kindred origin. For, in the first place, the bird-type in general, developed as it is out of the reptilian type, is very remotely related to that type of the Vertebrata which ascends to Man as its highest exemplar; and, in the second place, song-birds belong, with but few exceptions, to the single order of Insessores—one order only, of the many orders constituting the class. So that, if the Vertebrata at large be represented by a tree, of which Man is the topmost twig, then it is at a considerable distance down the trunk that there diverges the branch from which the bird-type is derived; and the group of singing-birds forms but a terminal subdivision of this branch—lies far out of the ascending line which ends in Man. To give appreciable support to Mr. Darwin's view, we ought to find vocal manifestations of the amatory feeling becoming more pronounced as we ascend along that particular line of inferior Vertebrata out of which Man has arisen. Just as we find other traits which pre-figure human traits (instance arms and hands adapted for grasping) becoming more marked as we approach Man; so should we find, becoming more marked, this sexual use of the voice, which is supposed to end in human song. But we do not find this. The South American monkeys ("The Howlers," as they are sometimes called), which, in chorus, make the woods resound for hours together with their "dreadful concert," appear, according to Rengger, to be prompted by no other desire than that of making a noise. Mr. Darwin admits, too, that this is generally the case with the gibbons: the only exception he is inclined to make being in the case of Hylobates agilis, which, on the testimony of Mr. Waterhouse, he says ascends and descends the scale by half-tones. [1] This comparatively musical set of sounds, he thinks, may be used to charm the female; though, there is no evidence forthcoming that this is the case. When we remember that in the forms nearest to the human—the chimpanzees and the gorilla—there is nothing which approaches even thus far toward musical utterance, we see that the hypothesis has next to none of that support which ought to be forthcoming. Indeed in his Descent of Man, vol. ii, p. 332, Mr. Darwin himself says:—"It is a surprising fact that we have not as yet any good evidence that these organs are used by male mammals to charm the female:" an admission which amounts to something like a surrender.

Even more marked is the absence of proof when we come to the human race itself—or rather, not absence of proof but presence of disproof. Here, from the Descriptive Sociology, where the authorities will be found under the respective heads, I quote a number of testimonies of travelers concerning primitive music; commencing with those referring to the lowest race.

"The songs of the natives [of Australia]... are chiefly made on the spur of the moment, and refer to something that has struck the attention at the time." "The Watchandies seeing me much interested in the genus Eucalyptus soon composed a song on this subject." The Fuegians are fond of music and generally sing in their boats, doubtless keeping time, as many primitive peoples do. "The principal subject of the songs of the Araucanians is the exploits of their heroes:" when at work their "song was simple, referring mostly to their labor," and was the same "for every occasion, whether the burden of the song be joy or sorrow." The Greenlanders sing of "their exploits in the chase" and "chant the deeds of their ancestors." The Indians of the Upper Mississippi vocalize an incident, as—'They have brought us a fat dog':" then the chorus goes on for a minute. Of other North-American Indians we read—"the air which the women sang was pleasing... the men first gave out the words, which formed a consummate glorification of themselves." Among the Carriers (of North America) there are professed composers, who "turn their talent to good account on the occasion of a feast, when new airs are in great request." Of the New Zealanders we read:—"The singing of such compositions [laments] resembles cathedral chanting." "Passing events are described by extemporaneous songs, which are preserved when good." "When men worked together appropriate airs were sung." When presenting a meal to travelers, women would chant "What shall be our food? shell fish and fern-root, that is the root of the earth." Among the Sandwich Islanders "most of the traditions of remarkable events in their history are preserved in songs." When taught reading they could not "recite a lesson without chanting or singing it." Cook found the Tahitians had itinerant musicians who gave narrative chants quite unpremeditated. "A Samoan can hardly put his paddle in the water without striking up some chant." A chief of the Kyans, "Tamawan, jumped up and while standing burst out into an extempore song, in which Sir James Brooke and myself, and last not least the wonderful steamer, was mentioned with warm eulogies." In East Africa "the fisherman will accompany his paddle, the porter his trudge, and the housewife her task of rubbing down grain, with song." In singing, the East African "contents himself with improvising a few words without sense or rhyme and repeats them till they nauseate." Among the Dahonians any incident "from the arrival of a stranger to an earthquake" is turned into a song. When rowing, the Coast-negroes sing "either a description of some love intrigue or the praise.of some woman celebrated for her beauty." In Loango "the women as they till the field make it echo with their rustic songs." Park says of the Bambarran—"they lightened their labors by songs, one of which was composed extempore; for I was myself the subject of it." "In some parts of Africa nothing is done except to the sound of music." "They are very expert in adapting the subjects of these songs to current events." The Malays "amuse all their leisure hours... with the repetition of songs, which are for the most part proverbs illustrated. . . . Some that they rehearse in a kind of recitative at their bimbangs or feasts are historical love-tales." A Sumatran maiden will sometimes begin a tender song and be answered by one of the young men. The ballads of the Kamtschadales are "inspired apparently by grief, love, or domestic feeling;" and their music conveys "a sensation of sorrow and vague, unavailing regret." Of their long-songs it is said "the women generally compose them." A Kirghiz "singer sits on one knee and sings in an unnatural tone of voice, his lay being usually of an amorous character." Of the Yakuts we are told "their style of singing is monotonous... their songs described the beauty of the landscape in terms which appeared to me exaggerated."

In these statements, which, omitting repetitions, are all which the Descriptive Sociology contains relevant to the issue, several striking facts are manifest. Among the lowest races the only musical utterances named are those which refer to the incidents of the moment, and seem prompted by feelings which those incidents produce. The derivation of song or chant from emotional speech in general, thus suggested, is similarly suggested by the habits of many higher races; for they, too, show us that the musically-expressed feelings relevant to the immediate occasion, or to past occasions, are feelings of various kinds: now of simple good spirits and now of joy or triumph—now of surprise, praise, admiration, and now of sorrow, melancholy, regret. Only among certain of the more advanced races, as the semi-civilized Malays and peoples of Northern Asia, do we read of love-songs; and then, strange to say, these are mentioned as mostly coming, not from men, but from women. Out of all the testimonies there is not one which tells of a love-song spontaneously commenced by a man to charm a woman. Entirely absent among the rudest types and many of the more developed types, amatory musical utterance, where first found, is found under a form opposite to that which Mr. Darwin's hypothesis implies; and we have to seek among civilized peoples before we meet, in serenades and the like, music of the kind which, according to his view, should be the earliest.[2]

Even were his view countenanced by the facts, there would remain unexplained the process by which sexually-excited sounds have been evolved into music. In the foregoing essay I have indicated the various qualities, relations, and combinations of tones, spontaneously prompted by emotions of all kinds, which exhibit, in undeveloped forms, the traits of recitative and melody. To have reduced his hypothesis to a shape admitting of comparison, Mr. Darwin should have shown that the sounds excited by sexual emotions possess these same traits; and, to have proved that his hypothesis is the more tenable, should have shown that they possess these same traits in a greater degree. But he has not attempted to do this. He has simply suggested that instead of having its roots in the vocal sounds caused by feelings of all kinds, music has its roots in the vocal sounds caused by the amatory feeling only: giving no reason why the effects of the feelings at large should be ignored, and the effects of one particular feeling alone recognized.


Nineteen years after my essay on "The Origin and Function of Music" was published, Mr. Edmund Gurney criticised it in an article which made its appearance in the Fortnightly Review for July, 1876. Absorption in more important work prevented me from replying. Though, some ten years ago, I thought of defending my views against those of Mr. Darwin and Mr. Gurney, the occurrence of Mr. Darwin's death obliged me to postpone for a time any discussion of his views; and then, the more recent unfortunate death of Mr. Gurney caused a further postponement. I must now, however, say that which seems needful, though there is no longer any possibility of a rejoinder from him.

Some parts of Mr. Gurney's criticism I have already answered by implication; for he adopts the hypothesis that music originated in the vocal utterances prompted by sexual feeling. To the reasons above given for rejecting this hypothesis, I will add here, what I might have added above, that it is at variance with one of the fundamental laws of evolution. All development proceeds from the general to the special. First there appear those traits which a thing has in common with many other things; then those traits which it has in common with a smaller class of things; and so on until there eventually arise those traits which distinguish it from everything else. The genesis which I have described conforms to this fundamental law. It posits the antecedent fact that feeling in general produces muscular contraction in general; and the less general fact that feeling in general produces, among other muscular contractions, those which move the respiratory and vocal apparatus. With these it joins the still less general fact that sounds indicative of feelings vary in sundry respects according to the intensity of the feelings; and then enumerates the still less general facts which show us the kinship between the vocal manifestations of feeling and the characters of vocal music: the implication being that there has gone on a progressive specialization. But the view which Mr. Gurney adopts from Mr. Darwin is that from the special actions producing the special sounds accompanying sexual excitement, were evolved those various actions producing the various sounds which accompany all other feelings. Vocal expression of a particular emotion came first, and from this proceeded vocal expressions of emotions in general: the order of evolution was reversed.

To deficient knowledge of the laws of evolution are due sundry of Mr. Gurney's objections. He makes a cardinal error in assuming that a more evolved thing is distinguished from less evolved things in respect of all the various traits of evolution; whereas, very generally, a higher degree of evolution in some or most respects, is accompanied by an equal or lower degree of evolution in other respects. On the average, increase of locomotive power goes along with advance of evolution; and yet numerous mammals are more fleet than man. The stage of development is largely indicated by degree of intelligence; and yet the more intelligent parrot is inferior in vision, in speed, and in destructive appliances, to the less-intelligent hawk. The contrast between birds and mammals well illustrates the general truth. A bird's skeleton diverges more widely from the skeleton of the lower vertebrates in respect of heterogeneity than does the skeleton of a mammal; and the bird has a more developed respiratory system, as well as a higher temperature of blood, and a superior power of locomotion. Nevertheless, many mammals in respect of bulk, in respect of various appliances (especially for prehension), and in respect of intelligence, are more evolved than birds. Thus it is obviously a mistake to assume that whatever is more highly evolved in general character is more highly evolved in every trait.

Of Mr. Gurney's several objections which are based on this mistake here is an example. He says—"Loudness though a frequent is by no means a universal or essential element, either of song or of emotional speech" (p. 107). Under one of its aspects this criticism is self-destructive; for if, though both relatively loud in most cases, song and emotional speech are both characterized by the occasional use of subdued tones, then this is a further point of kinship between them—a kinship which Mr. Gurney seeks to disprove. Under its other aspect this criticism implies the above-described misconception. If in a song, or rather in some part or parts of a song, the trait of loudness is absent, while the other traits of developed emotional utterance are present, it simply illustrates the truth that the traits of a highly-evolved product are frequently not all present together.

A like answer is at hand to the next objection he makes. It runs thus:—

"In the recitative which he [Mr. Spencer] himself considers naturally and historically a step between speech and song, the rapid variation of pitch is impossible, and such recitative is distinguished from the tones even of common speech precisely by being more monotonous" (p. 108).

But Mr. Gurney overlooks the fact that while, in recitative, some traits of developed emotional utterance are not present, two of its traits are present. One is that greater resonance of tone, caused by greater contraction of the vocal chords, which distinguishes it from ordinary speech. The other is the relative elevation of pitch, or divergence from the medium tones of voice: a trait similarly implying greater strain of certain vocal muscles, resulting from stronger feeling.

Another difficulty raised by Mr. Gurney he would probably not have set down had he been aware that one character of musical utterance which he thinks distinctive, is a character of all phenomena into which motion enters as a factor. He says: "Now no one can suppose that the sense of rhythm can be derived from emotional speech" (p. 110). Had he referred to the chapter on "The Rhythm of Motion" in First Principles, he would have seen that, in common with inorganic actions, all organic actions are completely or partially rhythmical—from appetite and sleep to inspirations and heart-beats; from the winking of the eyes to the contractions of the intestines; from the motions of the legs to discharges through the nerves. Having contemplated such facts he would have seen that the rhythmical tendency which is perfectly displayed in musical utterance, is imperfectly displayed in emotional speech. Just as under emotion we see swayings of the body and wringings of the hands, so do we see contractions of the vocal organs which are now stronger and now weaker. Surely it is manifest that the utterances of passion, far from being monotonous, are characterized by rapidly-recurring ascents and descents of tone and by rapidly-recurring emphases: there is rhythm, though it is an irregular rhythm.

Want of knowledge of the principles of evolution has, in another place, led Mr. Gurney to represent as an objection what is in reality a verification. He says:—

"Music is distinguished from emotional speech in that it proceeds not only by fixed degrees in time, bat by fixed degrees in the scale. This is a constant quality through all the immense quantity of embryo and developed scale-systems that have been used: whereas the transitions of pitch which mark emotional affections of voice are, as Helmholtz has pointed out, of a gliding character" (p. 113).

Had Mr. Gurney known that evolution in all cases is from the indefinite to the definite, he would have seen that as a matter of course the gradations of emotional speech must be indefinite in comparison with the gradations of developed music. Progress from the one to the other is in part constituted by increasing definiteness in the time-intervals and increasing definiteness in the tone-intervals. Were it otherwise, the hypothesis I have set forth would lack one of its evidences. To his allegation that not only the "developed scale-systems" but also the "embryo" scale-systems are definite, it may obviously be replied that the mere existence of any scale-system capable of being written down, implies that the earlier stage of the progress has already been passed through. To have risen to a scale-system is to have become definite; and until a scale-system has been reached vocal phrases can not have been recorded. Moreover had Mr. Gurney remembered that there are many people with musical perceptions so imperfect that when making their merely recognizable, and sometimes hardly recognizable, attempts to whistle or hum melodies, they show how vague are their appreciations of musical intervals, he would have seen reason for doubting his assumption that definite scales were reached all at once. The fact that in what we call bad ears there are all degrees of imperfection, joined with the fact that where the imperfection is not great practice may remedy it, suffice of themselves to show that definite perceptions of musical intervals were reached by degrees.

Some of Mr. Gurney's objections are strangely insubstantial. Here is an example:—

"The fact is that song, which moreover in our time is but a limited branch of music, is perpetually making conscious efforts; for instance, the most peaceful melody may be a considerable strain to a soprano voice, if sung in a very high register: while speech continues to obey in a natural way the physiological laws of emotion" (p. 117.)

That in exaggerating and emphasizing the traits of emotional speech, the singer should be led to make "conscious efforts" is surely natural enough. What would Mr. Gurney have said of dancing? He would scarcely have denied that saltatory movements often result spontaneously from excited feeling; and he could hardly have doubted that primitive dancing arose as a systematized form of such movements. Would he have considered the belief that stage-dancing is evolved from these spontaneous movements to be negatived by the fact that a stage-dancer's bounds and gyrations are made with "conscious efforts"?

In his elaborate work on The Power of Sound, Mr. Gurney, repeating in other forms the objections I have above dealt with, adds to them some others. One of these, which appears at first sight to have much weight, I must not pass by. He thus expresses it:—

"Any one may convince himself that not only are the intervals used in emotional speech very large, twelve diatonic notes being quite an ordinary skip, but that he uses extremes of both high and low pitch with his speaking voice, which, if he tries to dwell on them and make them resonant, will be found to lie beyond the compass of his singing voice" (p. 479).

Now the part of my hypothesis which Mr. Gurney here combats is that, as in emotional speech so in song, feeling, by causing muscular contractions, causes divergences from the middle tones of the voice, which become wider as it increases; and that this fact supports the belief that song is developed from emotional speech. To this Mr. Gurney thinks it a conclusive answer that higher notes are used by the speaking voice than by the singing voice. But if, as his words imply, there is a physical impediment to the production of notes in the one voice as high as those in the other, then my argument is justified if, in either voice, extremes of feeling are shown by extremes of pitch. If, for example, the celebrated ut de poitrine with which Tamberlik brought down the house in one of the scenes of William Tell, was recognized as expressing the greatest intensity of martial patriotism, my position is warranted, even though in his speaking voice he could have produced a still higher note.

Of answers to Mr. Gurney 's objections the two most effective are suggested by the passage in which he sums up his conclusions. Here are his words:

"It is enough to recall how every consideration tended to the same result; that the oak grew from the acorn; that the musical faculty and pleasure, which have to do with music and nothing else, are the representatives and linear descendants of a faculty and pleasure which were musical and nothing else; and that, however rudely and tentatively applied to speech, Music was a separate order" (p. 492).
Thus, then, it is implied that the true germs of music stand toward developed music as the acorn to the oak. Now suppose we ask—How many traits of the oak are to be found in the acorn? Next to none. And then suppose we ask—How many traits of music are to be found in the tones of emotional speech? Very many. Yet while Mr. Gurney thinks that music had its origin in something which might have been as unlike it as the acorn is unlike the oak, he rejects the theory that it had its origin in something as much like it as the cadences of emotional speech; and he does this because there are sundry differences between the characters of speech-cadences and the characters of music. In the one case he tacitly assumes a great unlikeness between germ and product; while in the other case he objects because germ and product are not in all respects similar!

I may end by pointing out how extremely improbable, a priori, is Mr. Gurney's conception. He admits, as perforce he must, that emotional speech has various traits in common with recitative and song relatively greater resonance, relatively greater loudness, more marked divergences from medium tones, the use of the extremes of pitch in signifying the extremes of feeling, and so on. But, denying that the one is derived from the others, he implies that these kindred groups of traits have had independent origins. Two sets of peculiarities in the use of the voice which show various kinships, have nothing to do with one another! I think it merely requires to put the proposition in this shape to see how incredible it is.


Sundry objections to the views contained in the essay on "The Origin and Function of Music," have arisen from misconception of its scope. An endeavor to explain the origin of music, has been dealt with as though it were a theory of music in its entirety. An hypothesis concerning the rudiments has been rejected because it did not account for everything contained in the developed product. To preclude this misapprehension for the future, and to show how much more is comprehended in a theory of music than I professed to deal with, let me enumerate the several components of musical effect. They may properly be divided into sensational, perceptional, and emotional.

That the sensational pleasure is distinguishable from the other pleasures which music yields, will not be questioned. A sweet sound is agreeable in itself, when heard out of relation to other sounds. Tones of various timbres, too, are severally appreciated as having their special beauties. Of further elements in the sensational pleasure have to be named those which result from certain congruities between notes and immediately succeeding notes. This pleasure, like the primary pleasure which fine quality yields, appears to have a purely physical basis. We know that the agreeableness of simultaneous tones depends partly on the relative frequency of recurring correspondences of the vibrations producing them, and partly on the relative infrequency of beats, and we may suspect that there is a kindred cause for the agreeableness of successive tones; since the auditory apparatus which has been at one instant vibrating in a particular manner, will take up certain succeeding vibrations more readily than others. Evidently it is a question of the degree of congruity; for the most congruous vibrations, those of the octaves, yield less pleasure when heard in succession than those of which the congruity is not so great. To obtain the greatest pleasure in this and other things, there requires both likeness and difference. Recognition of this fact introduces us to the next element of sensational pleasure—that due to contrast; including contrast of pitch, of loudness, and of timbre. In this case, as in other cases, the disagreeableness caused by frequent repetition of the same sensation (here literally called "monotony") results from the exhaustion which any single nervous agent undergoes from perpetual stimulation; and contrast gives pleasure because it implies action of an agent which has had rest. It follows that much of the sensational pleasure to be obtained from music depends on such adjustments of sounds as bring into play, without conflict, many nervous elements: exercising all and not overexerting any. We must not overlook a concomitant effect. With the agreeable sensation is joined a faint emotion of an agreeable kind. Beyond the simple definite pleasure yielded by a sweet tone, there is a vague, diffused pleasure. As indicated in the Principles of Psychology, § 537, each nervous excitation produces reverberation throughout the nervous system at large; and probably this indefinite emotional pleasure is a consequence. Doubtless some shape is given to it by association. But after observing how much there is in common between the diffused feeling aroused by smelling a deliriously scented flower and that aroused by listening to a sweet tone, it will, I think, be perceived that the more general cause predominates.

The division between the sensational effects and the perceptional effects is of course indefinite. As above implied, part of the sensational pleasure depends on the relation between each tone and the succeeding tones; and hence this pleasure gradually merges into that which arises from perceiving the structural connections between the phrases and between the larger parts of musical compositions. Much of the gratification given by a melody consists in the consciousness of the relations between each group of sounds heard and the groups of sounds held in memory as having just passed, as well as those represented as about to come. In many cases the passage listened to would not be regarded as having any beauty were it not for its remembered connections with, passages in the immediate past and the immediate future. If, for example, from the first movement of Beethoven's Funeral-March sonata the first five notes are detached, they appear to be meaningless; but if, the movement being known, they are joined with imaginations of the anticipated phrases, they immediately acquire meaning and beauty. Indefinable as are the causes of this perceptional pleasure in many cases, some causes of it are definable. Symmetry is one. A chief element in melodic effect results from repetitions of phrases which are either identical, or differ only in pitch, or differ only in minor variations: there being in the first case the pleasure derived from perception of complete likeness, and in the other cases the greater pleasure derived from perception of likeness with difference—a perception which is more involved, and therefore exercises a greater number of nervous agents. Next comes, as a source of gratification, the consciousness of pronounced unlikeness or contrast; such as that between passages above the middle tones and passages below, or as that between ascending phrases and descending phrases. And then we rise to larger contrasts; as when, the first theme in a melody having been elaborated, there is introduced another having a certain kinship though in many respects different, after which there is a return to the first theme: a structure which yields more extensive and more complex perceptions of both differences and likenesses. But while perceptional pleasures include much that is of the highest, they also include much that is of the lowest. A certain kind of interest, if not of beauty, is producible by the likenesses and contrasts of musical phrases which are intrinsically meaningless or even ugly. A familiar experience exemplifies this. If a piece of paper is folded and on one side of the crease there is drawn an irregular line in ink, which, by closing the paper, is blotted on the opposite side of the crease, there results a figure which, in virtue of its symmetry, has some beauty; no matter how entirely without beauty the two lines themselves may be. Similarly, some interest results from the parallelism of musical phrases, notwithstanding utter lack of interest in the phrases themselves. The kind of interest resulting from such parallelisms, and from many contrasts, irrespective of any intrinsic worth in their components, is that which is most appreciated by the musically-uncultured, and gives popularity to miserable drawing-room ballads and vulgar music-hall songs.

The remaining element of musical effect consists in the idealized rendering of emotion. This, as I have sought to show, is the primitive element, and will ever continue to be the vital element; for if "melody is the soul of music," then expression is the soul of melody—the soul without which it is mechanical and meaningless, whatever may be the merit of its form. This primitive element may with tolerable clearness be distinguished from the other elements, and may coexist with them in various degrees: in some cases being the predominant element. Any one who, in analytical mood, listens to such a song as Robert, toi que j'aime, can not, I think, fail to perceive that its effectiveness depends on the way in which it exalts and intensifies the traits of passionate utterance. No doubt as music develops, the emotional element (which affects structure chiefly through the forms of phrases) is increasingly complicated with, and obscured by, the perceptional element; which both modifies these phrases and unites them into symmetrical and contrasted combinations. But though the groups of notes which emotion prompts admit of elaboration into structures that have additional charms due to artfully-arranged contrasts and repetitions, the essential element is liable to be thus submerged in the non-essential. Only in melodies of high types, such as the Addio of Mozart and Adelaide of Beethoven, do we see the two requirements simultaneously fulfilled. Musical genius is shown in achieving the decorative beauty without losing the beauty of emotional meaning.

It goes without saying that there must be otherwise accounted for that relatively modern element in musical effect which has now almost outgrown in importance the other elements—I mean harmony. This can not be affiliated on the natural language of emotion; since, in such language, limited to successive tones, there can not originate the effects wrought by simultaneous tones. Dependent as harmony is on relations among rates of aërial pulses, its primary basis is purely mechanical; and its secondary basis lies in the compound vibrations which certain combinations of mechanical rhythms cause in the auditory apparatus. The resulting pleasure must, therefore, be due to nervous excitations of kinds which, by their congruity, exalt one another; and thus generate a larger volume of agreeable sensation. A further pleasure of sensational origin which harmony yields is due to contrapuntal effects. Skillful counterpoint has the general character that it does not repeat in immediate succession similar combinations of tones and similar directions of change; and by thus avoiding temporary overtax of the nervous structures brought into action, keeps them in better condition for subsequent action. Absence of regard for this requirement characterizes the music of Gluck, of whom Handel said—"He knows no more counterpoint than my cook; and it is this disregard which produces its cloying character. Respecting the effects of harmony I will add only that the vague emotional accompaniment to the sensation produced by a single sweet tone, is paralleled by the stronger emotional accompaniment to the more voluminous and complex sensation produced by a fine chord. Clearly this vague emotion forms a large component in the pleasure which harmony gives.

While thus recognizing, and indeed emphasizing, the fact that of many traits of developed music my hypothesis respecting the origin of music yields no explanation, let me point out that this hypothesis gains a further general support from its conformity to the law of evolution. Progressive integration is seen in the immense contrast between the small combinations of tones constituting a cadence of grief, or anger, or triumph, and the vast combinations of tones, simultaneous and successive, constituting an oratorio. Great advance in coherence becomes manifest when, from the lax unions among the sounds in which feeling spontaneously expresses itself, or even from those few musical phrases which constitute a simple air, we pass to those elaborate compositions in which portions small and large are tied together into extended organic wholes. On comparing the unpremeditated inflexions of the voice in emotional speech, vague in tones and times, with those premeditated ones which the musician arranges for stage or concert-room, in which the divisions of time are exactly measured, the successive intervals precise, and the harmonies adjusted to a nicety, we observe in the last a far higher definiteness. And immense progress in heterogeneity is seen on putting side by side the monotonous chants of savages with the musical compositions familiar to us; each of which is relatively heterogeneous within itself, and the assemblage of which forms an immeasurably heterogeneous aggregate.


Strong support for the theory enunciated in this essay, and defended in the foregoing paragraphs, is furnished by the testimonies of two travelers in Hungary, given in works published in 1878 and 1888 respectively. Here is an extract from the first of the two:—

"Music is an instinct with these Hungarian gypsies. They play by ear, and with a marvelous precision, not surpassed by musicians who have been subject to the most careful training. . . . The airs they play are most frequently compositions of their own, and are in character quite peculiar. . . . I heard on this occasion one of the gypsy airs which made an indelible impression on my mind; it seemed to me the thrilling utterance of a people's history. There was the low wail of sorrow, of troubled passionate grief, stirring the heart to restlessness, then the sense of turmoil and defeat; but upon this breaks suddenly a wild burst of exultation, of rapturous joy—a triumph achieved, which hurries you along with it in resistless sympathy. The excitable Hungarians can literally become intoxicated with this music—and no wonder. You can not reason upon it, or explain it, but its strains compel you to sensations of despair and joy, of exultation and excitement, as though under the influence of some potent charm."—Round about the Carpathians, by Andrew F. Crosse, pp. 11, 12.

Still more graphic and startling is the description given by a more recent traveler, E. Gerard:—

"Devoid of printed notes, the Tzigane is not forced to divide his attention between a sheet of paper and his instrument, and there is consequently nothing to detract from the utter abandonment with which he absorbs himself in his playing. He seems to be sunk in an inner world of his own; the instrument sobs and moans in his hands, and is pressed tight against his heart as though it had grown and taken root there. This is the true moment of inspiration, to which he rarely gives way, and then only in the privacy of an intimate circle, never before a numerous and unsympathetic audience. Himself spell-bound by the power of the tones he evokes, his head gradually sinking lower and lower over the instrument, the body bent forward in an attitude of rapt attention, and his ear seeming to hearken to far-off ghostly strains audible to himself alone, the untaught Tzigane achieves a perfection of expression unattainable by mere professional training.

"This power of identification with his music is the real secret of the Tzigane's influence over his audience. Inspired and carried away by his own strains, he must perforce carry his hearers with him as well; and the Hungarian listener throws himself heart and soul into this species of musical intoxication, which to him is the greatest delight on earth. There is a proverb which says, 'The Hungarian only requires a gypsy fiddler and a glass of water in order to make him quite drunk;' and, indeed, intoxication is the only word fittingly to describe the state of exaltation into which I have seen a Hungarian audience thrown by a gypsy band.

"Sometimes, under the combined influence of music and wine, the Tziganes become like creatures possessed; the wild cries and stamps of an equally excited audience only stimulate them to greater exertions. The whole atmosphere seems tossed by billows of passionate harmony; we seem to catch sight of the electric sparks of inspiration flying through the air. It is then that the Tzigane player gives forth everything that is secretly lurking within him—fierce anger, childish wailings, presumptuous exaltation, brooding melancholy, and passionate despair; and at such moments, as a Hungarian writer has said, one could readily believe in his power of drawing down the angels from heaven into hell!

"Listen how another Hungarian has here described the effect of their music:—'How it rushes through the veins like electric fire! How it penetrates straight to the soul! In soft plaintive minor tones the adagio opens with a slow rhythmical movement: it is a sighing and longing of unsatisfied aspirations; a craving for undiscovered happiness; the lover's yearning for the object of his affection; the expression of mourning for lost joys, for happy days gone forever; then abruptly changing to a major key, the tones get faster and more agitated; and from the whirlpool of harmony the melody gradually detaches itself, alternately drowned in the foam of overbreaking waves, to reappear floating on the surface with undulating motion—collecting as it were fresh power for a renewed burst of fury. But quickly as the storm came it is gone again, and the music relapses into the melancholy yearnings of heretofore.'"—The Land beyond the Forest, vol. ii, pp. 122-4. London, 1888.

After the evidence thus furnished, argument is almost superfluous. The origin of music as the developed language of emotion seems to be no longer an inference but simply a description of the fact.

  1. It is far more probable that the ascents and descents made by this gibbon consisted of indefinitely-slurred tones. To suppose that each was a series of definite semi-tones strains belief to breaking point; considering that among human beings the great majority, even of those who have good ears, are unable to go up or down the chromatic scale without being taught to do so. The achievement is one requiring considerable practice; and that such an achievement should be spontaneous on the part of a monkey is incredible.
  2. After the above paragraphs had been sent to the printers I received from an Ameriican anthropologist, the Rev. Owen Dorsey, some essays containing kindred evidence. Of over three dozen songs and chants of the Omaha, Ponka, and other Indians, in some cases given with music and in other cases without, there are but five which have any reference to amatory feeling; and while in these the expression of amatory feeling comes from women, nothing more than derision of them comes from men.