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Spring 2024


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Gary Tomlinson’s A Million Years of Music discussed in Frontiers in Neuroscience
Evolutionary Musicology Meets Embodied Cognition

Writing in Frontiers in Neuroscience, Dylan van der Schyff and Andrea Schiavio advocate an enactive approach to understanding human musicality. This magisterial article considers the ongoing debate in evolutionary musicology - whether music is a product of nature or culture. Feeling that this approach is reductive, they argue for a “biocultural” proposal, which combines the two. They discuss how the enactive approach to cognition aligns with the biocultural perspective. Gary Tomlinson’s book A Million Years of Music is cited heavily throughout. To read the full article click here. To read more about the book click here.

An excerpt appears below:

“Tomlinson (2015) argues that although music-as-adaptation perspectives all reveal important aspects of why music is meaningful for the human animal, they are also problematic when they tend to assume a “unilateral explanation for a manifold phenomenon” (p. 33; see also Killin, 2016a). That is, because music takes on so many forms, involves such a wide range of behavior, and serves so many functions, it seems difficult to specify a single selective environment for it. And thus, these traits sit “uneasily side by side, their interrelation left unspecified” (p. 33).

“To be clear, this does not in any way negate the claims regarding the social and developmental meanings of music. These biologically relevant traits do exist, but they are just too numerous and complex to be properly described in terms of an adaptation (at least not in the orthodox sense of the term). Because of this, Tomlinson (2015) claims that we must be careful about how we frame evolutionary questions—and especially those regarding complex behaviors such as music and language—lest we fall into the reductive theorizing associated with “adaptationist fundamentalism.” He thus argues that dwelling on the question of the adaptive status of music has had the effect of “focusing our sights too narrowly on the question of natural selection alone—and usually a threadbare theorizing of it, at that” (p. 34).”