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By Layne Partin

“But that music is a language by whose means messages are elaborated, that such messages can be understood by the many but sent out only by the few, and that it alone among all languages unites the contradictory character of being at once intelligible and untranslatable—these facts make the creator of music a being like the gods and make music itself the supreme mystery of human knowledge.”—Claude Levi-Strauss: The Raw and the Cooked.

Have you ever wondered why people enjoy music? Whether it’s drumming one’s fingers on any available surface or moving to some inner tune, music seems an innate part of the human experience. At almost any social gathering, if there is a piano or guitar or another musical instrument around and someone with skill begins to play, people will invariably pause in their conversions and gather around to listen. 

Even those who crave solitude and take pleasure in spending time in the wilderness enjoy listening to the wind through the trees, the purling of a silvery brook, or the various songs of birds. Whistling, humming, or singing often accompany even the most mundane of chores. From the ancient to the modern, every culture has its musical expression. Why such enthrallment with music? In this article, we will examine the origins of music and its various uses.

Origin of Music:

When it comes to the origin of music, there is much debate and little consensus. While it is regarded as a cultural universal, definitions vary wildly around the world and down through history. Here are some of the better-known theories concerning the origin of music:

Music is an elaborate form of sexual selection. Charles Darwin put forth this theory, which first appeared in his 1871 book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. While this theory has been widely criticized as lacking proof, many scholars have propagated and developed this theory, citing the use of music in animal mating rituals. 

Music arose alongside language. Biologist Herbert Spencer and composer Richard Wagner were proponents of the theory. Wagner termed the music and language’s shared ancestor as “speech music.” Recently, a number of scholars have supported this theory, prominent among them the archeologist Steven Mithen. 

Music arose to fulfill practical needs, including:

  • To assist in organizing cohesive labor.
  • To improve the ease and range of long-distance communication.
  • To enhance communication with the divine or otherwise supernatural.
  • To assist in the coordination, cohesion, and cooperation of families and communities.
  • To be a means of frightening off predators or enemies.  

Music has two origins: speech (logogenic) and emotional expression (pathogenic).

Origins might also be traced to: play rhythms, clapping, mimicries, singing, human sound, the roaring of waves or oceans, a blacksmith’s hammer and anvil, and environmental sounds.

Regardless of origin, music has been with us since ancient times. Archeologists have discovered primitive flutes made out of bone and ivory that date back to as far as 43,000 BC. They also tell us that the earliest fragment of a musical composition comes from a 4,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet honoring the ruler Lipit-Ishtar, and even includes instructions and tunings.

“The Hurrian Hymn,” considered the oldest surviving complete melody, was discovered in the 1950s on a clay tablet inscribed with Cuneiform text, is over 3,400 years old, and is dedicated to Nikkal, the Hurrian’s goddess of orchards (and can be listened to on YouTube).

Music in the Bible:

According to the Bible, Jubal was the inventor of stringed and wind instruments, i.e., the harp and the flute, around 4000 BCE. When asked to reveal the will of God about going into battle, the prophet Elisha asked for a musician to be brought; while the music played, the hand of the Lord came upon him and showed him the future.

Most likely, the music calmed his mind and settled his emotions, making him more receptive to the Spirit. David the giant slayer was skillful with the harp, and he used music to soothe King Saul and exorcise the distressing spirit that would torment him, after which the king would become “refreshed and well.” 

In the book named after him, Joshua’s army, accompanied by priests blowing on ram’s horns, used a type of psychological warfare by marching around the walls of Jericho, blasting away for seven days. The book of 1 Samuel mentions a group of prophets coming from worship with “a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp.” 

King Nebuchadnezzar commanded that all his subjects, when they heard “the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music,” immediately bow down and worship an image of his mightiness. Music and the singing of hymns go hand in hand with most forms of religion down through the ages.

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

From The Cradle To The Grave:

Scientific studies on the effect that music has on babies in the womb tell us some interesting things. The following comes from the website

“Listening to music while pregnant has many benefits for the developing fetus and also encourages mother and baby’s prenatal bonding. Prenatal music stimulation takes place when you expose your unborn baby to music whilst still in the womb. However, if you wish to expose baby to music, an ever-increasing body of scientific research is beginning to show the benefits of playing music in the womb for both mother and baby alike.”

“High stress levels in expectant mothers can have negative effects on fetal development. Music and singing have a soothing effect on the expecting mother and the unborn baby alike and contribute to a healthy and happy baby later in life. Choose any kind of music you like—anything from a Beethoven classic to singing lullabies.”

“Listening to all kinds of music encourages early brain development in the fetus because music facilitates neuron connections in the brain. Listening to and experiencing music stimulates the fetus’ brain and assists with the growth of brain structures. New studies even suggest that babies remember music they listened to in the womb for up to four months after being born!”

Music doesn’t just have positive effects on babies in the womb but has great benefits all through our lives. Listening to music gives us enjoyment, reduces stress, and improves concentration. When we listen to our favorite music, it enters our brains and almost immediately triggers pleasure centers and releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy. Not only that but listening to music contributes to better health by causing up-ticks in immunity-boosting antibodies and cells that protect against bacteria and other enemies of the body.

Music has also been proven effective in treating premature birth, depression, and even Parkinson’s disease. Training to play an instrument is thought to increase gray matter volume in areas of the brain. Musicians often show improvement in brain functions such as learning, memory, and auditory processing. Little wonder that so many musicians live long lives!

Want to lose weight? According to one study, listening to soft music in low-lit dining rooms caused people to consume 18% less food! Ever wonder why music is always playing when you shop? Certain kinds of music have been proven to increase spending, so the music that you hear trickling down from speakers isn’t just random tunes but carefully selected for their effect on your brain. Motion pictures use music because the industry knows just how powerfully the proper music can enhance the experience.

Even at the end of our lives, music can be a powerful, positive tool. Seasons Hospice in Springfield, MO, offers music therapy for palliative and hospice care. Taken from their website:

“For people who are terminally ill or dying, music can be a source of joy, relief, and decreased anxiety. Music therapy helps hospice patients process their emotions and get more out of their final days. In fact, a 2018 study from Brown University found that patients receiving palliative or hospice care reported less pain, anxiety, nausea, and feelings of depression after listening to music.”

“Patients can use music to help them cope with their situation and explore emotions like fear, anger, and guilt. Dying and leaving loved ones can be very scary. Hospice patients may be anxious about the future or what happens to them after they die. They may be concerned about their standing with God, managing pain, or how loved ones will get on without them.”

“For patients with dementia, music may reduce agitation, bring up long-forgotten memories, or help patients communicate. Many dementia patients continue to recognize and engage with songs even in the later stages of the disease. Music therapy isn’t just for the elderly. Children and people of all ages can benefit from music therapy, especially if they are diagnosed with a terminal disease.”

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

With so many positives concerning music, one has to wonder: Can music be harmful or used in negative ways? The answer is yes. Some examples:

During the invasion of and occupation of Iraq, when US forces were laying siege to Iraqi and Afghani strongholds, they would blast music on endless loops at extremely high volumes day and night until those being besieged eventually caved in and surrendered. Some of the tracks used were Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” ACϟDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” and Alice Cooper’s “No More Mister Nice Guy.”  

Strangely, the themes from children’s shows Sesame Street and Barney’s Friends were also effective. Jon Ronson, the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats, claims that he has seen those subjected endlessly to the Barney and Friends theme, “Screaming so hard that it looks as if they’re laughing.”

For ships plying the waters of the Gulf of Aden, the Guardafui Channel, and the Somalia Sea, one of the greatest dangers they face is the Somalian pirates, known for looting ships of all sizes and kidnapping people to be held for ransom. According to the merchant navy, one of the most effective ways of deterring them is blasting Western music, especially that of Brittany Spears, at them.

“Chart toppers ‘Baby One More Time’ and ‘Oops! I Did It Again’ are,” notes the British Daily Mirror tabloid, “the most effective in the war against the Kalashnikov-carrying bandits. Her songs have been chosen by the security team accompanying our tankers because they thought the pirates would hate them most,” Second Officer Rachel Owens told the paper. 

Steven Jones of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry says that one has to be careful which tracks are played, however: “I’d imagine using Justin Bieber would be against the Geneva Convention,” he quipped.

In 1993 the DEA cornered a group of Branch Davidians in a stronghold in Waco, Texas, which resulted in a 51-day standoff that eventually led to the deaths of leader David Koresh, 82 Branch Davidians, and four agents. One of the tactics used to try and end the stalemate was playing music. 

Songs used included Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart,” a compilation of Andy Williams, and sing-along Christmas Carols by Mitch Miller. Exactly how effective this tactic was is unknown, as the compound and everyone inside was burned to the ground in a terrible inferno.

One of the most controversial uses of music was at Guantanamo Bay, where it was used as a method of forcing prisoners to reveal information, along with “humane” tortures such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation. A case in point was the Tipton Three, a trio of British citizens held by the US government for two years while they were subjected to some of the most well-documented examples of sonic torture. 

Bound tightly with shackles, they were forced to sit in solitary confinement in tiny rooms while music was blasted at high volumes directly in front of them for many hours. The rooms were pitch black, with the only source of light being shone into their faces; they weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom or move around, while a wide variety of music was used to aggravate them even more. This form of torture proved so effective that the prisoners confessed to crimes that they weren’t even guilty of just to stop the music (which eventually led to their acquittals). This affair gives a whole new—and macabre—meaning to the term “face the music.” 

From a recent article in the New York Post: “A US city has come under fire over a controversial plan to deter homeless people that have been described as “psychological torture.” In recent months, Los Angeles has been blasting loud classical music in train stations in a bid to reduce crime and prevent homeless people from loitering. It comes after a recent spike in fatal overdoses and serious crime such as rape, aggravated assault, and robbery within the city’s public transport system.”

We hope you have enjoyed this brief look at some of the origins and usage of music. There is so much more to explore on this fascinating subject than any number of articles can cover, for one thing, is certain: Music is truly the supreme mystery of human knowledge. 

Layne Partin is a contributor for and may be reached at

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