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Singing: some do it for passion, all do it for evolution.

SINGING IS AN ENJOYABLE ACTIVITY for many individuals. Some love singing. Some make a career through singing. Singing, both individually and in groups, entertains the self and the public. How ancient is the relevance of singing in human society? How unique and multifaceted is the contribution of singing to everyday life? In this article, we will discuss some literature from evolutionary theories, brain studies, and music therapy that underline the importance and uniqueness of singing in the evolution of human society.


Since before the appearance of the first homo sapiens, singing has been an important social activity. As described by Charles Darwin, "when we treat of sexual selection we shall see that primeval man, or rather some early progenitor of man, probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing." (1) Darwin emphasized singing in the context of courtship and group oriented purposes. He discussed how animal singing often takes place to express a feeling that the group will be able to interpret as a sign of danger or a sign of triumph.

Evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania discusses the power of singing as an "audio-visual intimidating display" to intimidate enemies. (2) He claims that the first forms of music, especially drumming, vocalizing, and dancing started with hominids, to generate a sense of power and successful outcomes about battling and hunting. Jordania emphasizes the universal importance of monophonic and polyphonic singing, which he analyzes from a cultural viewpoint. Both Jordania and Darwin propose that singing preceded and determined the formation of language. (3)

Jordania and Darwin both underline the concept of singing as expressing emotions and events in the moment, and guiding the origin enhancing communication with complex patterns. Jordania states that between homo erectus and homo sapiens, communication evolved from vocalization to more complex oral communication. New cognitive abilities developed and words emerged, causing singing to lose its "initial survival value." (4) Singing continued as a dominant expression of emotions, while speech carried more cognitive messaging. Richman felt singing gave humans a sense of "social cohesion and solidarity" not possible in speech. (5)


Some scholars argue that music originated from singing. (6) Darwin believed humans made the first sound through "involuntary and purposeless contractions of the muscles of the chest and glottis... [which] may have given rise to the emission of vocal sounds." (7) He discussed the creation of melody as the "relative association of the sounds that all the essentially characteristic effects which are summed up in the phrase 'musical expression' depend." (8) How all of this happened was a very lucky coincidence for singers, but may still be a mystery.

Similar to Darwin's theory of the evolution of vocalization, Victorian anthropologist Herbert Spencer explained that vocal sounds in hominids originated from a muscular contraction in response to pleasurable or painful feelings. Spencer emphasized that "the different qualities of voice accompany different mental states, and that under states of excitement the tones are more sonorous than usual." (9) Spencer described various qualities of voice and emotional states. He described anger as accompanied by a metallic ring, or the emotion of grief as reaching a chanting quality. Some of the adjustments of expression led emotional sounds to develop into more melodically complex vocalizations that can be compared to early forms of singing. Perhaps early singing could have represented a closer step to more complex forms of communication, such as speech.

Vocalization, pitch, loudness, and other singing elements appear to be interactive factors in communication. Some scholars believe that the importance of pitches originated when hominids needed to call one another and their sound needed to cover a large distance. Usually, a louder vocal sound becomes higher in pitch. In evolution, it became important to "shout a message across or be heard beyond proximity." (10)

Spencer stated that "all music is originally vocal." (11) The first vocal "melodies" encouraged the development of instrumental music. (12) Instrumental music is often considered an extension of the voice, as in the expression, "with the voice and beyond the voice." (13)

The importance of singing for humankind is clear in the universality of lullabies. (14) There is no culture in the world that denies lullabies to their infants. Lullabies share common vocal and musical elements and interactions between the child and its mother are often musical. (15) Parents may create lullabies to interact with infants, and may couple these lullabies with body movements, resulting in a musical adaptation of infant-directed speech, also known as "motherese." Familiar childhood lullabies may provide a sense of safety for the child, suggesting the safety of the child by the mother. (16)

Research has shown that children prefer the "motherese" in infant-directed singing due to improved transport of an emotional message. (17) Case studies in music therapy suggest that the emotional message communicated through singing is deeper and more truthful.20 Singing promotes the shared expression of the mother's true feelings with her child, and may set the groundwork for parent-child communication. (18)

Infants appear to have a preference for certain pitch patterns. (19) The presence of wider and more variable pitches in singing may engage the infants more passionately, and stimulates the development of preferences. "For both playsongs and lullabies the tempo is slower ... the pitch and jitter factor is higher." (20) Jitter (pitch variations in voice) and pitch are significant musical elements of the singing voice, and may play a role in infants' preferences. Studies have shown that infants who have been previously exposed to a lullaby maintain a pitch bias for that lullaby, especially a higher pitch bias. When the lullaby is sung in a lower key, infants show less interest. (21) This may explain why infants appear to be so deeply sensitive to the tone of the voice. Higher pitches are associated with more significant stimuli, and as such, are more adequate for survival. (22)

Research suggests that in infant-directed singing, mothers involuntarily and instinctively adjust the subtleties in their singing style to make it more appropriate to their infant's needs. Infants, in response to lullabies, show alterations in attention and arousal, fundamental elements for healthy growth. (23) The child's development continues through singing as a social activity.


Musician and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin emphasizes two categories of musical personalities in Western culture: those who sing/perform and those who listen. In Western countries, listeners "are not" performers and "do not sing." (24) Levitin underscores the importance of singing in other non-Western cultures, like the Sotho villagers in South Africa, where singing is as natural as talking. "The Sotho consider singing an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, young and old, men and women, not an activity reserved for a special few." (25) Sotho villagers find the statement "I don't sing" an objection that is "puzzling and inexplicable." (26)

Levitin believes Western culture has indeed split into those who sing and those who do not sing. However, singing is an activity available to all. Singing along with the radio, with the TV, going to Karaoke, and singing campfire songs are activities that most people deeply enjoy and are integrated parts of our lives. (27)

If singing led to the evolution of language, why did singing remain in our modern world and why is it still such a fundamental part of everyday life?


Music and speech share many similarities, including complex and dynamic acoustic information, as well as patterns of rhythm, pitch, timbre, dynamics, and phrasing. (28) The part of the brain called the inferior frontal gyrus (including Broca's area and Wernicke's area) contains both music and language processing. Music and language influence each other, and musical training can enhance memory, sensitivity to language syntax, and speech prosody. Just as temporal features of music perception are influenced by an individual's native language, the prosodic pitch patterns of language influence the melodic variability in that culture. (29)

"Singing activates the whole brain," but the right hemisphere is more engaged in melody processing. (30) Researchers in one study felt that the neural complexity of singing offered two hypotheses: (1) singing as a highly evolved skill that would be represented more complexly in the brain; or (2) singing as a fundamental skill and perhaps a precursor to language.

Language acquisition begins with vocalization exploration. Before children learn words, they are sensitive to differences of any sound. (31) From the initial vocalization phases of melodic "cooing" and "babbling," children learn sounds and prosodic contours to expand their communication in the preverbal phase. (32) Extreme pitches more easily capture the attention of the caregiver, promoting survival. This points to the important survival value of singing.

Singing has also been shown to improve communication repair. Music therapy has been shown to have a significantly positive recovery role with patients with memory, communication, and emotional deficits. (33) Studies show that singing enhanced communication with caregivers, reestablished family bonding, and could have a calming effect on patients. (34)

Patients with expressive aphasia (inability to produce language) due to Alzheimer's disease have found recall of lyrics and improved access to songs from childhood, as well as improved consciousness. (35) Singing is therefore a powerful tool for consciousness and health. Aphasia centered in Wernicke's area can result in meaningless sentences, but these patients are able to recall lyrics of songs. The duality of singing and speech has led neurologists, including pioneering neurologist Oliver Sacks, to discover that singing could remediate aphasia. (36) Singing has also been found to enhance fluency for individuals who stutter; these people exhibited reduced dysfluencies during singing compared to reading conditions. (37)

The brain behind the singing voice still presents numerous mysteries to be solved; even though the fundamental activities of speech and singing have much in common, they seem to work independently. It seems that when it comes to singing, the right hemisphere assumes the majority of responsibilities, especially when singing a familiar song; some patients whose left hemisphere had been removed completely through a hemispherectomy could still sing familiar songs well. (38) Indeed, it takes a lot of trauma before the brain can give up something as important as singing.

Diane Austin has advocated her powerful method Vocal Psychotherapy, whereby vocalization is used for therapeutic purposes, to reach parts of the unconscious that speech alone would not reach. (39) Her theory is based on voice as the primary instrument. Using techniques that she developed and named vocal holding and free associative singing, patients tap into those internal vocal sounds that need to be released. "Few people hear their own voices because fear, blocked grief and rage keep the voice in the throat." (40)

Alfred Wolfsohn advocated use of the voice to release horrors experienced in wartime, developing a primordial sound approach to therapeutic singing. In his book Orpheus, Wolfsohn wrote: "When I speak of singing, I do not see it as an artistic exercise... but as a possibility and a means to recognizing oneself, and of transforming this recognition into conscious life." (41)

The transformation of our conscious self into a world of perceived safety necessitates the use of singing as a manner of expression, communication, emotional stability, and comfort. Through singing, we have evolved into a species capable of complex communication. With singing, we are able to participate productively in our society.

The literature reviewed for this article points to singing as a fundamental component to the society we know today. In evolution, singing appears to have enormously contributed to communication; Darwin and Spencer believed it even contributed to the formation of language. (42) There is no known culture that will not sing lullabies to their infants and even studies on the brain seem to point to the uniqueness and importance of singing.

In modern society, numerous factors contribute to what makes a singer. Some of these factors are the ability to perform on a stage or record beautiful pieces that make an artistic contribution. Perchance, for singers and nonsingers alike, the wonderful stage of contribution has been evolution.


(1.) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Originally published: NY: Crowell Press, 1874; reprint Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 90.

(2.) Joseph Jordania, "Times to fight and times to relax: singing and humming at the beginning of human evolutionary history," Kadmos 1, no. 1 (January 2009): 273.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Joseph Jordania, Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech (Tbilisi, Logos, the Tbilisi Ivane Javakhishvili State University Press, 2006), 14.

(5.) Bruce Richman, "On the evolution of speech: Singing as the middle term," Current Anthropology 34, no. 5 (December 1993): 721.

(6.) See John Potter and Neil Sorrell, A History of Singing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(7.) Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (Originally published: London, 1872, John Murray; reprint Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 89.

(8.) Ibid., 95.

(9.) Herbert Spencer, Illustrations of Universal Progress: A Series of Discussions (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1864), 314.

(10.) Rita Aiello, "Music and Evolution," lecture conducted at New York University, New York, NY (December 9, 2013); quoted with author's permission.

(11.) Spencer, 217.

(12.) Potter and Sorrell.

(13.) Aiello.

(14.) Shannon K. de l'Etolie, "Infant behavioral responses to infant-directed singing and other maternal interactions," Infant Behavior and Development 29, no. 3 (January 2006): 456-470.

(15.) Takayuki Nakata and Sandra E. Trehub, "Expressive timing and dynamics in infant-directed and non-infant-directed singing," Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain 21, no. 1-2 (June 2011): 45.

(16.) Dean Falk, "Prelinguistic evolution in early hominins: Whence motherese?" Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27, no. 4 (August 2004): 491-503.

(17.) Hasan Gunes and Nadide Gunes, "The Effects of Lullabies on Children," International Journal of Business and Social Science 3, no. 7 (April 2012).

(18.) Nicole J. Conrad et al., "Examining infants' preferences for tempo in lullabies and playsongs," Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie experimentale 65, no. 3 (September 2011): 168.

(19.) Felicity Baker and Elizabeth Mackinlay, "Sing, soothe and sleep: A lullaby education programme for first-time mothers," British Journal of Music Education 23, no. 2 (July 2006): 147-160.

(20.) Laurel J. Trainor et al., "The acoustic basis of preferences for infant-directed singing," Infant Behavior and Development 20, no. 3 (January 1997): 383-396.

(21.) Anna Volkova et al., "Infants' memory for musical performances," Developmental Science 9, no. 6 (November 2006): 583-589.

(22.) See Stephen Malloch and Colwyn Trevarthen, eds., Communicative Musicality: Exploring the Basis of Human Companionship (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009).

(23.) de l'Etolie.

(24.) Daniel J. Levitin, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 2008), 6.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Ibid.

(27.) Annabel J. Cohen, "Research on singing: Development, education and well-being--Introduction to the special volume on 'singing and psychomusicology'," Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain 21, no. 1-2 (2011): 1.

(28.) See Laurel. J. Trainor and Erin E. Hannon, "Musical Development," in D. Deutsch, ed., The Psychology of Music, 3rd ed. (London, UK: Elsevier Inc., 2013), 423-498.

(29.) See Jody Kreiman and Diana Sidtis, Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception (Chichester West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011).

(30.) Valerie L. Trollinger, "The Brain in Singing and Language," General Music Today 23, no. 2 (January 2010): 20-23.

(31.) Nobuo Masataka, "Music, Evolution and Language," Developmental Science 10, no. 1 (January 2007): 35-39.

(32.) Ibid.

(33.) Eva Gotell et al., "The Influence of Caregiver Singing and Background Music on Vocally Expressed Emotions and Moods in Dementia Care," International Journal of Nursing Studies 46, no. 4 (April 2009): 422-430.

(34.) Ibid.

(35.) Catherine Y. Wan et al., "The therapeutic effects of singing in neurological disorders," Music perception 27, no. 4 (April 2010): 287.

(36.) See Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).

(37.) Wan et al.

(38.) Kreiman and Sidtis.

(39.) See Diane Austin, The Theory and Practice of Vocal Psychotherapy: Songs of the Self (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008).

(40.) Ibid., 25.

(41.) Noah Pikes, Dark Voices: The Genesis of Roy Hart Theatre (New Orleans: Spring Journal Books, 1999), 66.

(42.) See Aniruddh Patel, Music, Language, and the Brain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Elisa Monti is a doctoral student in experimental psychology at The New School for Social Research. Her concentration is voice, specifically investigating the potential predictive power of childhood experiences on different aspects of voice, looking into elements such as attachment and trauma. Elisa has worked as an adjunct professor at New York University and as a vocal psychotherapist at The New School.

Rita Aiello's EdD research addresses the perception, cognition, and the emotions of music. Her focus is on the processes that we apply when listening to music, on the strategies musicians develop to memorize music, and on the acquisition of music knowledge. She is co-editor of the book Musical Perceptions (Oxford University Press), and is writing a book on the cognition and the emotions of music. Trained as a classical pianist, Rita Aiello has taught at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. She is an adjunct associate professor in the Psychology Department at New York University.

Dr. Linda Carroll is an internationally recognized voice clinician, treating patients who have extensive voice use demands, complicated voice issues, or severe dysphonia. Her early foundations in performance voice were expanded to voice research and clinical speech pathology, allowing her to bring acute perceptual skills, knowledge of the larynx, and performance demands to revolutionize assessment and management of dysphonia. An ASHA Fellow, Dr. Carroll is Program Director and Chair of the new graduate program in SLP at Yeshiva University, serves as Senior Voice Scientist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and maintains a private practice in voice pathology in New York City.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt
And when we were children, staying at the
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountain, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the

                           T. S. Eliot, "I. The Burial of the Dead,"
                                               from The Waste Land

Lynn Helding, Associate Editor
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Title Annotation:Mindful Voice
Author:Monti, Elisa; Aiello, Rita; Carroll, Linda
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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