Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture

Summary of: Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Music may be a key driver of human biological and cultural evolution, enabling individual brains to engage in complex internal cognitive synchronization and externally attuning the brains of different individuals into group cooperative activity.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Perseus Books


  • The phenomenon of synchrony observed in fireflies and other organisms may play an important role in the social coordination and trust-building behaviors that are still observed in religious and social musical and dancing rituals.
  • Working together in coordinated activity is enabled by the uniquely human use of language, and may have been key to its evolution – and music may have been a precursor to complex language behavior.
  • Making music together involves close listening and modeling of the activities of others, setting up internal neural resonances and mental models that can serve as the fundamental processes for building up more complex and instrumental social interactions.
  • Embodiment – the use of the human body as a musical instrument and for performing music with external instruments – may be an important and largely unexplored key to the evolution and maintenance of complex social behavior.

Human babies are capable of synchronizing their movements with that of others at a very early age, indicating that the neural capacity for synchrony must have occurred during gestation: "tightly synchronized interaction with others constitutes part of the maturational environment for the cerebral cortex." Our closest primate relatives can neither synchronize with others nor hold a steady beat. Ritual music and dance appear to trigger brain mechanisms that foster social bonding and so have been essential to creating the trust upon which all social interaction depends. Separate individuals who engage in mutual music-making set up neurophysiological processes that could serve as substrates for a tight coupling between multiple individuals.

Protohumans, through restructuring their internal representations of each other in the process of making music behavior, may have adapted neural circuits that evolved for other purposes into social instrumentation. The neurochemical processes associated with emotions, which may play a role in the trust-building and intention-signaling behaviors essential to social cooperation, are evoked and harnessed through rhythm and music-making rituals: "We are social creatures, we depend on our fellows. When we express emotion we are signaling something about our interior milieu. We assume that others will pick up the signal and respond accordingly. Similarly, when we pick up on the emotions of another, our nervous system will bring out changes in our interior milieu."

The brain's oscillatory circuits called central pattern generators can be internally synchronized through sonic activity; Benzon proposes that mutual internal synchronization, coordinated through rhythm and harmony, creates a literal inter-brain coupling which can then be adapted for complex social coordination: "Music thus becomes a means of communal play, of communal dreaming. It is a group activity in which interactions between individuals are as precisely timed and orchestrated as those within a single brain. The individuals are physically separate but temporally integrated. It is one music, one dance." Benzon proposes that physical mimicry of animal cries could have led protohumans to making music together, which later differentiated into spoken language.

A survey by Alan Lomax and others of the music of 233 cultures from five continents and the Pacific islands found consistent correlations with other measures of social structure and economic practice: "…a culture's favored song style reflects and reinforces the kind of behavior essential to its main subsistence efforts and to its central and controlling social institutions."

"…ritual creates a cultural space where social innovation takes place. During periods when a society is under no particular stress, ritual serves to confirm and maintain the existing order. But when the society comes under duress, ritual allows new social mechanisms to emerge. As societies grow and their structure differentiates, musicking continues to play the role it had in humankind's beginning: the forge in which new forms of social being emerge."