top of page

from the Trickster Brain


It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception. (When asked about his theory of relativity)

—Albert Einstein

Once language erupted in our species our ancestors’ emotional responses to the unexplained mysteries led them to invent the spiritual universe. Whenever mythic creation first developed in the human mind, 50,000 to 150,000 years ago, it had to have been one of the most momentous times for our species, for here we crossed a divide between life lived day to day without conscious purpose (though, obviously, a conscious sense of purpose is not necessary for survival) to a life that is consciously connected to both a personal historical narrative—language telling the story of ourselves—to the narrative of the larger social group within an expanded mythic context. Aware of being aware entered our minds, with the consequent implications of past, present, and future. More and more questions of “why,” must have been formed in our ancestors’ heads, which various people in the community, no doubt, tried to address.

Somewhere in that stir of invention early humans came to see language as a magical force—especially language tied to music: song. Even

7 3

in preliterate societies today, language is seen as power, and poetry is always song. Songs are used to do everything from coax the sun up in the morning to sing a child to sleep at night. Song is the primary literary creation of tribal cultures, and it is in song that language is most thoroughly bonded to emotion. It seems likely that the ancients, like tribal people today, evoked song to move the world in the ways that they desired. Song—borne of language and music together—became the first mythic tool.


Since music and language are the two communicative systems of sequential information in our species, many have theorized on their common root. Many animal species use vocal calls and “songs” to communicate emotions, to signal territorial boundaries, and to alert others to mating readiness. Many of these calls (including those for chimps) are innate, though there is a small degree of individual variation in chimpanzee panting that can be consciously altered by the individual. Yet, some bird species must learn and even invent hundreds of songs.1 Humpbacked whales create songs that are five to twenty minutes long “marked by repeating phrases, rhythm and even rhyme—[which are] sung over and over again for hours.”2 Another form of animal song is chorusing and duetting. Some birds sing in tremendously large choruses, while other birds can duet, “fitting their sounds together so precisely that it is hard to believe that more than one individual is involved.”3 Duetting appears mostly in pair-bonded monogamous birds who hold a specific yearround territory; the reasons why are speculative (this is not the same as synchronous singing). One theory is that the duet enforces the pairbond, another that these are just territorial calls that a couple is using to defend their territory. In primates, gibbons and siamangs (the only monogamous apes) also sing duets, and they are the only real “singers” in the ape family.

T. Geissmann, who has extensively studied primate vocalizations, says that singing developed a number of times in primate evolution, and that the structure of the singing suggests that singing “evolved each time from loud calls used in a territorial or alarm context” highly emotional

7 5

in nature.4 If we look at the nature of song in animal species we can see that it usually functions from emotional stimuli tied to mating, territorial defense, communication with the group, and to intimidate enemies. In other words, singing has very specific purposes and is not done just for the sake of creating interesting effects. (No art for art’s sake in the natural world). It is reasonable to think that the same would have applied to our early ancestors: songs would have had specific reasons for existing, and specific meanings would have been conveyed. (I am defining song in the early hominid period as panting, hooting, and rhythmic vocalization). This clearly puts music/song into the adaptive mode—it was serving a purpose and became a selected behavior—helping the survival of individuals.

While music by itself does not have a referential element, as words do, it can still convey referential meaning—especially emotional meaning—everything from “I am free to mate,” to “don’t step on my turf,” “I feel sad, or happy.” Within pre-language early hominid groups it seems reasonable to think that vocalizations and rhythms could have eventually gathered greater specificity, possibly standing for more complex thought patterns, such as “there’s water over there,” or “those guys from the other troop are coming after us—RUN!” This goes back to the concept of schemas, the pre-language thought stories that are at the root of language. Just by looking at the communicative acts of other species, it is clear that rhythm/vocalizations with a musical component came about long before language.

There are many places in which the two systems cross over: both music and language require patterning of sounds that arise from emotional responses. Recall that every thought and utterance is meshed with the oldest emotive parts of the brain: language can never be purely logical and always has an emotional component. In addition, both language and music involve the use of timing, pitch, and tone. The differences are, of course, that music makes us feel, and it is universally understandable (though cultural preferences apply); while language is symbolic, standing for things in the environment as well as abstract ideas. Plus, each language is only comprehensible within its own language community (here, I am eliminating body language and gesture, much of which is universal throughout humans). So, if music and language do come from the same source, at what point, and why, might they have diverged?

7 6


There are basically two camps in this debate—emotive and referential. By examining vocal origins through the behavior of living animals, we have just seen how even contemporary animal vocalizations can serve dual purposes—being both emotional and referential—expressing both feeling and concept, and even in our own communication we can see echoes of the pre-vocalization-music/pre-vocalization-language split. When we bark out a warning to someone in danger of being hit by a truck—“Hey!”—it’s not so much a word as an exclamation for another to look out (we could also say, “Look Out!” or we could just scream!). When we make the “tsk-tsk” noise to show disapproval, or clear our throats to express our displeasure at another’s remark, or expel a burst of air for exasperation—these all show that same pre-language use of sound to convey emotion and meaning. (In the Lakota language, there weren’t any swear words, so disgruntlement was expressed by making the bear noise!). When we scream from fear or frustration, or say “ow!” or “ahh!” when stubbing our toe, we are doing something similar, just as we are when laughing, giggling, sobbing, howling, or growling. In addition, we do use musical elements to convey specific meanings: the doorbell rings to signal someone is here; the train whistle alerts us get off the tracks; the tornado alarm warns us to get into a basement; the noon whistle—the school bells ringing—the church bells chiming—all are created to affect our actions; the ice-cream truck’s dinging let’s us know to run out to the street with a dollar bill.


A number of theorists have attempted to go back and look at where and how music and language might have gone their separate ways. One of the most interesting recent discoveries showing the evolutionary link between music and language comes from Dale Purves (a neuroscientist at Duke University) and his colleagues. It has long been known that humans, across cultures, have found the same twelve tones appealing, but as Schwartz, Howe, and Purves state, “The similarity of musical scales and consonance judgments across human populations has no generally

7 7

accepted explanation.”5 Yet, in August of 2007 Dale Purves discovered that “the tones of the chromatic scale are dominated by the harmonic ratios found in the sound of the human voice.” When “tonal intervals, or harmonics, of a single vowel sound were broken down, the frequency ratios of our familiar music scales are usually found.”6 Purves says that this finding calls aesthetics itself into question, stating that “the implicit conclusion in this work is that aesthetics is reduced to biological information, and that is not what musicians and philosophers want to hear.”7 But this is just another corroboration of the evolutionary antecedents of who we are—from music, to language, to art. Here, in this instance, we have the first empirical data linking the physicality of music and language.

Anthropologist Steve Brown developed the Musilanguage concept to explain the origins of music and language, for he says they have the same properties embedded in each other. He carefully goes through the physical steps of how he thinks the two systems, once the same, divided and evolved along parallel lines: lexical units/metrics, propositional syntax/pitch-blending syntax. Brown makes the case that what is often neglected is the fact that there is “musical-language,” and “speechmelody,” which we now see confirmed in Purves’s work. Brown says that

the phrase is the basic unit of structure and function. It is what makes speaking and singing different from grunting and screaming. In both, a limited repertoire of discrete units is chosen out of an infinite number of possible acoustic elements, such that phrases are generated through combinatorial arrangements of these unitary elements.8

Both music and language do contain discreet units that can be combined in numerous ways to produce a variety of “lines.” Without punctuation between syllables or notes there would be nothing but nonsense in both music and language. In addition, tonal languages use different pitches to express various meanings for the same sounds, while all languages use tonal variations for emphasis or to shift meaning. “I love you,” said flat, without any variation in pitch is not the same thing as “I love you, or I LOVE you,” or I love YOU. We don’t quite believe the speaker of the first sentence; the second speaker means nobody else loves you as much; three means yes, I really do love you; while four means the one I love

7 8

is not the floozy over there but You! Just utilizing an inflection gives us all this variation, and could mean the difference between staying married or getting a divorce. We seldom realize how much the musicality of speech plays into our interpretation of words—but in oral discourse it makes all the difference. This is one reason that moving language to print becomes so difficult, for the writer must either imply the inflection through context (so that the reader hears it in her head while reading), or the writer must revert to symbols such as capitalization, underlining, italics, and exclamation marks.

Mithen, in The Singing Neanderthals, thinks early humans would have communicated via a system of multi-modal musical phrases without words or grammar between 1.8 and 0.25 million years ago.9 Mithen builds his theory from one first proposed by John Blacking’s in 1973, in which Blacking postulates “a prelinguistic ‘musical’ mode of thought and action” for early man.10 Mithen puts this into a timeline, with “Hmmmm” (his theoretical singing/language) starting with a need for more communication due to full bipedal life (Ergaster), with “Hmmm” developing further in Erectus, and coming into fruition in the Neanderthals, who had brains the size of ours and survived in extreme hostile conditions, yet do not quite appear to have developed symbolic thought or art, at least not to the degree of homo sapiens. Homo sapiens, Mithen believes, began segmenting the “Hmmm” phrases into words and grammar, diverging from music, some 200,000 years ago.

Our closest cousins, the common chimps and gorillas, are neither musical nor gifted in paired vocalizations; however, chimps do employ a number of vocal patterns to express emotion, such as pant hoots, pant barks, whimpers, screams, pant grunts, and copulation screams.11 In chimps, vocalizations especially occur in times of excitement, and “dominance displays, danger vocalizations are usually spontaneous, signaling the excitement of arriving at a food source, greeting of old friends, or moments of acute fear or distress.”12 In addition, drumming is also a part of both chimp and gorilla behavior. This may even signal individuation:

Wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) generate low-frequency sounds that are audible to humans from a distance of at least 1 km away by hitting the buttresses of trees with their hands and feet. This buttress drumming occurs in discrete bouts of rapidly delivered beats that usually accompany

7 9

“pant hoots,” the species-specific long-distance vocalization. Individual differences in male chimpanzee drumming were investigated during a 6-month field study in the Taï National Park, Ivory Coast. Analysis of drumming bouts recorded from six adult males revealed significant differences between individuals in three acoustic features: (1) mean duration of interbeat interval; (2) mean number of beats per bout; and (3) mean bout duration. Preliminary analysis indicated that individuals differ in their tendency to deliver drumbeats in temporally close pairs separated by longer interbeat intervals. Qualitative examination also suggested that individuals may differ in the temporal integration of drumming into the pant hoot vocalization. These results suggest that there may be acoustic cues available for chimpanzees to recognize unseen males by their drumming performances alone. Drumming by Taï chimpanzees was also compared to drumming by chimpanzees (P.T. Schweinfurthii) from the Kanyawara study group in Kibale National Park, Uganda. The Kanyawara chimpanzees appeared to drum more often without vocalizing than did the Taï chimpanzees. When they did drum and vocalize together, the Kanyawara chimpanzees appeared to integrate their drumming later into the associated pant hoots than did the Taï chimpanzees. These results suggest the possibility that interpopulation variation exists in chimpanzee buttress drumming.13

Besides drumming, Jane Goodall witnessed an amazing act of communicative behavior in chimpanzees, the “rain-dance,” that also involved patterned rhythmic movement, and a possible glimpse into the antecedents for music/dance/ritual. She gives this account of her experience during an interview in 2001:

One day in 1960, in the early days of my long-term study of chimpanzees, I saw something amazing. I was observing a group—seven adult males and a few females and young—on the opposite slope of a steep ravine. Suddenly, a rainstorm, which had been threatening for sometime, broke. The chimps had just finished feeding and were walking up to the open ridge. As they paused, a bolt of lightning struck, followed by a heartstopping clap of thunder.

As if this was a signal, one of the big males stood upright and began moving rhythmically from foot to foot, eyeing the low branch of a tree. Then he charged down the slope toward the trees he had just left. There, swinging around the trunk of a small tree to break his headlong rush, he leaped into the low branches and sat motionless.

8 0

Two other males charged after him. Both broke off huge branches as they ran, dragging them and hurling them ahead. A fourth male charged, leaped into a tree, tore off a large branch, jumped with it to the ground, and ran with it down the slope. The others followed. When they reached the ridge, where the females and youngsters were watching, the males charged down again with equal vigor.

The rain fell harder. Jagged forks and brilliant flashes of lightning lit the leaden sky, and the crashing of thunder seemed to shake the very mountains. I watched, enthralled, marveling at the magnificence of these splendid beings. With a display of strength such as this, primitive man himself might have challenged the elements. Twenty minutes after it began, everything was over, and the whole group moved over the opposite ridge. I continued sitting in the rain, staring in near-disbelief at the white scars on the tree trunks and the discarded branches on the ground—all that remained to prove that the primeval rain dance had taken place at all. . . .

It is not only the rain that triggers these displays. Deep in the forest is a magnificent waterfall where one of the small, fast-flowing streams plunges some 80 feet down a sheer rock face, creating its own wind as the water is forced through a narrow fissure. Sometimes the chimpanzees, hair bristling, perform their displays in the streambed below the falls, swaying rhythmically upright, hurling rocks, climbing the slender hanging vines, and pushing out into the spray.

Afterwards a male may sit on a rock at the edge of the streams, looking up at the sheet of living water as it falls, watching as it flows past him on its way to the lake. What is he thinking? What is this thing that is always coming from above, always going away, yet always there? Is it alive?

If they had spoken language, the chimpanzees could discuss the feeling that prompted these displays. Is it something like awe? If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with the others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion? Would they worship the falls, the deluge from the sky, the thunder and lightning—the gods of the elements? So all-powerful; so incomprehensible.14

Of course, some would call Goodall’s interpretation of this event as “ritual” mere anthropomorphizing, a sentimental assessment of chimp behavior. But the more neuroscience tells us about our relationships to other animals, the more an over-concern for personification seems out of place. Goodall’s response is no Disneyfication of nature but rather an 8 1

observation of our closest living relatives reacting emotionally to incredible natural phenomena. It hardly seems a stretch to think that our common ancestors would have reacted in similar ways, and that in this kind of behavior, responding dramatically to the environment, we are indeed seeing intimations of an emotional response that leads to an “artistic” action. For the chimp behavior is not an act of survival. An act of survival would dictate, in the case of a lightning storm, getting away from the largest trees and crouching in a ditch. Neither is their behavior a mere motor action, like a shiver or a chill. Plus, there is evidence of cultural response in these displays, for it turns out “different chimpanzee groups dance with different styles. In Gombe National Park in Tanzania, the chimp rain dance is loud and frenzied. In Taï Forest National Park in the Ivory Coast, the chimpanzees dance in silent slow motion, mimicking the movements of aggression displays, like a great ape version of Tai Chi.”15 Not only can vocal acrobatics, drumming, and rhythmic dancing (all of which are essential components of music) ensue from excitement brought on by the natural environment, but bonobos, when stimulated by a new food source or feeding ground, will usually engage in communal sexual activity.16


In September 2001, Anne J. Blood and Robert J. Zatorre made the astounding discovery that music creates the same chemical affects as do food and sex on the brain:

We have shown here that music recruits neural systems of reward and emotion similar to those known to respond specifically to biologically relevant stimuli, such as food and sex, and those that are artificially activated by drugs of abuse. This is quite remarkable, because music is neither strictly necessary for biological survival or reproduction, nor is it a pharmacological substance. Activation of these brain systems in response to a stimulus as abstract as music may represent an emergent property of the complexity of human cognition. Perhaps as formation of anatomical and functional links between phylogenically older, survival-related brain systems and newer, more cognitive systems increased our general capacity to assign meaning to abstract stimuli, our capacity to derive pleasure from these stimuli also increased. The ability of music to induce such intense

8 2

pleasure and its putative stimulation of endogenous reward systems suggest that, although music may not be imperative for survival of the human species, it may indeed be of significant benefit to our mental and physical well-being.17

But why should music have developed the same kinds of brain response as sex and food, both essential for survival, when music is not! Music takes time and energy, so what would have been the biological fitness benefits that would have been greater than the biological costs of putting time and energy into music? In terms of brain function, oxytocin (the social bonding chemical) is released during musical experiences (as it is in courtship, trance, and many other social interactions). Music also releases endorphins, and natural opiates used to counteract stress and pain.

To step back a minute, it’s clear that I’m defining music quite loosely here, but I want to focus on one aspect of music not usually not given its due: rhythm. Duke Ellington was right when he said, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing.” Seitz, looking at the work of Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in light of data from neuroscience, states “that bodily processes, rhythm, and physical motion were the basis of musical expressivity and music pedagogy.”18 And as Mithen correctly points out, dance is the other element usually ignored in the discussion of music, for in most societies rhythm and dance go hand in hand. And as we all know, dancing is sexy stuff, but music might have other surprising qualities.

 Michael H. Tahut, in “Rhythm, Human Temporality, and Brain Function,” states that the “structured flow of time, made audible in music’s temporal architecture of sound, rhythm, and polyphony, may be what excites, moves, and gives order to our feelings, thoughts and sense of movement. Music may be central to who we are.” Investigators at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, scanned monkey brains while the rhesus macaques listened to either drumming or monkey calls. They found overlapping networks activated in the temporal lobe, which in humans is key to processing meaning in both speech and vision.

“Monkeys respond to drumming sounds as they would to vocalizations,” researcher Christopher Kayser, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Insti-

8 3

tute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, told LiveScience. “Hence, drumming originated as a form of expression or communication, possibly in an ancestral species common to apes and old-world monkeys, early during primate evolution.”19 (Through YouTube videos of birds, such as Snowball, scientists have discovered that parrots can also react to rhythm and “dance” to a beat. Recent work with chimps in captivity has also shown that chimps have an affinity for music, and that they can drum to a beat, in a group setting, spontaneously creating polyrhythms).


Sexual selection clearly seems the best answer to the question of why music began. Darwin himself believed that music must have had a direct relationship to sexual advantage in mate selection, saying that\ the impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which his half-human ancestors long ago aroused each other’s ardent passions, during their courtship and rivalry.20

Geoffrey Miller resurrects Darwin’s emphasis on music and mating in “Evolution Of Human Music Through Sexual Selection”:

Consider Jimi Hendrix, for example. This rock guitarist extraordinaire died at the age of 27 in 1970, overdosing on the drugs he used to fire his musical imagination. His music output, three studio albums and hundreds of live concerts, did him no survival favours. But he did have sexual liaisons with hundreds of groupies, maintained parallel long-term relationships with at least two women, and fathered at least three children in the U.S., Germany, and Sweden. Under ancestral conditions before birth control, he would have fathered many more. Hendrix’s genes for musical talent probably doubled their frequency in a single generation, through the power of attracting opposite-sex admirers. As Darwin realized, music’s aesthetic and emotional power, far from indicating a transcendental origin, point to a sexual-selection origin, where too much is never enough. Our ancestral hominid-Hendrixes could never say, “OK, our music’s good enough, we can stop now,” because they were competing with all

8 4

the hominid-Eric-Claptons, hominid-Jerry-Garcias, and hominid-JohnLennons. The aesthetic and emotional power of music is exactly what we would expect from Sexual Selection’s arms race to impress minds like ours.21

To anyone who has ever been involved in the music business, Miller’s argument would seem so commonsensical as to not even elicit a response. But the evolutionary problem is this: If music is something that both men and women excel at, then how could it have been sexually selected? Also, if that were so, there should be some sexual dimorphism in the case of musical talent, just as there is for body size. Miller, trying to grapple with this, looked at the recording industry and discovered that males produced ten times the records as females, across all genres, with output peaking around age thirty, falling within the prime years for reproductive success. Clearly, there was something driving males, which was not driving females to the same degree. When I did an anecdotal survey of musicians I know from various genres, asking why they got into music—no matter their abilities, and some were at the very top of their professions, for the guys it was always, “To get girls.” But when I asked the women it was never “To get men.” Instead it was, “Because I love music,” or “Because I wanted to say something with my music.”

As we saw in the section on sexual selection, since human mating involves an element of female competition for males (though not to the same extent as male competition for females), musical ability in females would also have signaled their fitness and desirability, and we have the fact that in pair-bonding situations there is much less difference between males and females in a species on the whole. With music there is also motivation and desire within the individual. Genius has less to do with talent than obsession and desire.22 Testosterone alone could have been responsible for igniting more of this desire for musical persistence in men.

As we will see in the trickster stories to come, there is often a tie between musicians and tricksters. Many times they are both. In this alliance, I believe we can detect a hint of the antecedents—courtship behavior—that drove our ancient ancestors to become silver-tongued devils of both song and word. For in both music and language there is 8 5 the very ancient linkage to sexuality, and there is every reason to think that this is what led to the emergence of both. When most people think of “music” they think of songs, and most songs have to do with love. We crave them: listening to them on the radio going to and from work; or singing them in the shower. We wear iPods around our neck to give our lives a soundtrack. Many people associate certain songs with time periods that were important to us, as well as with particular love relationships: “That’s our song.” Only smell, with its most primal wiring, is more powerful for evoking emotions and memories. This explains the tendency many people have to become locked into the songs of their teen years, when hormones and emotions were running full steam. Most tend to prefer those songs and artists throughout their lifetime, whether they be Benny Goodman, Elvis, the Beatles, or The Clash.


Songs are universal to all human societies, and they are often used to try to magically make something happen. Though there are songs for every kind of activity, love is the central pursuit. Below are examples from North American Indian and Eskimo cultures:

Love Song, Chippewa, North America, translated by Frances Densmore

A loon,

I thought it was. But it was My love’s Splashing oar.

A Woman’s Song, Chippewa, North America

You are walking around

Trying to remember

What you promised

But you can’t remember

8 6

Eskimo, Dueling Song over Love, Greenland


Now shall I split off words—little, sharp words Like the wooden splinters which I hack off with my ax. A song from ancient times—a breath of the ancestors A song of longing—for my wife. An impudent, black-skinned oaf has stolen her, Has tried to belittle her.

A miserable wretch who loves human flesh— A cannibal from famine days.


Insolence that takes the breath away.

Such laughable arrogance and effrontery.

What a satirical song! Supposed to place the blame on me.

You would drive fear into my heart!

I who care not about death.

Hi! You sing about my woman who was your wench.

You weren’t so loving then—she as much alone. You forgot to prize her in song, In stout, contest songs.

Now she is mine.

And never shall she visit singing, false lovers. Betrayer of women in strange households.

Hummingbird Song, Tlingit, North America

I am feeling very lonely away.

I am singing inside.

I am crying about myself.

bottom of page