The Descent of Man

Author: Charles Darwin

Voice and Musical Powers.

In some species of Quadrumana there is a great difference between the adult sexes, in the power of their voices and in the development of the vocal organs; and man appears to have inherited this difference from his early progenitors. His vocal cords are about one-third longer than in woman, or than in boys; and emasculation produces the same effect on him as on the lower animals, for it "arrests that prominent growth of the thyroid, etc., which accompanies the elongation of the cords." (27. Owen, ’Anatomy of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 603.) With respect to the cause of this difference between the sexes, I have nothing to add to the remarks in the last chapter on the probable effects of the long-continued use of the vocal organs by the male under the excitement of love, rage and jealousy. According to Sir Duncan Gibb (28. ’Journal of the Anthropological Society,’ April 1869, p. lvii. and lxvi.), the voice and the form of the larynx differ in the different races of mankind; but with the Tartars, Chinese, etc., the voice of the male is said not to differ so much from that of the female, as in most other races.

The capacity and love for singing or music, though not a sexual character in man, must not here be passed over. Although the sounds emitted by animals of all kinds serve many purposes, a strong case can be made out, that the vocal organs were primarily used and perfected in relation to the propagation of the species. Insects and some few spiders are the lowest animals which voluntarily produce any sound; and this is generally effected by the aid of beautifully constructed stridulating organs, which are often confined to the males. The sounds thus produced consist, I believe in all cases, of the same note, repeated rhythmically (29. Dr. Scudder, ’Notes on Stridulation,’ in ’Proc. Boston Soc. of Nat. Hist.’ vol. xi. April 1868.); and this is sometimes pleasing even to the ears of man. The chief and, in some cases, exclusive purpose appears to be either to call or charm the opposite sex.

The sounds produced by fishes are said in some cases to be made only by the males during the breeding-season. All the air-breathing Vertebrata necessarily possess an apparatus for inhaling and expelling air, with a pipe capable of being closed at one end. Hence when the primeval members of this class were strongly excited and their muscles violently contracted, purposeless sounds would almost certainly have been produced; and these, if they proved in any way serviceable, might readily have been modified or intensified by the preservation of properly adapted variations. The lowest Vertebrates which breathe air are Amphibians; and of these, frogs and toads possess vocal organs, which are incessantly used during the breedingseason, and which are often more highly developed in the male than in the female. The male alone of the tortoise utters a noise, and this only during the season of love. Male alligators roar or bellow during the same season. Every one knows how much birds use their vocal organs as a means of courtship; and some species likewise perform what may be called instrumental music.

In the class of Mammals, with which we are here more particularly concerned, the males of almost all the species use their voices during the breeding-season much more than at any other time; and some are absolutely mute excepting at this season. With other species both sexes, or only the females, use their voices as a love-call. Considering these facts, and that the vocal organs of some quadrupeds are much more largely developed in the male than in the female, either permanently or temporarily during the breeding-season; and considering that in most of the lower classes the sounds produced by the males, serve not only to call but to excite or allure the female, it is a surprising fact that we have not as yet any good evidence that these organs are used by male mammals to charm the females. The American Mycetes caraya perhaps forms an exception, as does the Hylobates agilis, an ape allied to man. This gibbon has an extremely loud but musical voice. Mr. Waterhouse states (30. Given in W.C.L. Martin’s ’General Introduction to Natural History of Mamm. Animals,’ 1841, p. 432; Owen, ’Anatomy of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii, p. 600.), "It appeared to me that in ascending and descending the scale, the intervals were always exactly half-tones; and I am sure that the highest note was the exact octave to the lowest. The quality of the notes is very musical; and I do not doubt that a good violinist would be able to give a correct idea of the gibbon’s composition, excepting as regards its loudness." Mr. Waterhouse then gives the notes. Professor Owen, who is a musician, confirms the foregoing statement, and remarks, though erroneously, that this gibbon "alone of brute mammals may be said to sing." It appears to be much excited after its performance. Unfortunately, its habits have never been closely observed in a state of nature; but from the analogy of other animals, it is probable that it uses its musical powers more especially during the season of courtship.

This gibbon is not the only species in the genus which sings, for my son, Francis Darwin, attentively listened in the Zoological Gardens to H. leuciscus whilst singing a cadence of three notes, in true musical intervals and with a clear musical tone. It is a more surprising fact that certain rodents utter musical sounds. Singing mice have often been mentioned and exhibited, but imposture has commonly been suspected. We have, however, at last a clear account by a well-known observer, the Rev. S. Lockwood (31. The ’American Naturalist,’ 1871, p. 761.), of the musical powers of an American species, the Hesperomys cognatus, belonging to a genus distinct from that of the English mouse. This little animal was kept in confinement, and the performance was repeatedly heard. In one of the two chief songs, "the last bar would frequently be prolonged to two or three; and she would sometimes change from C sharp and D, to C natural and D, then warble on these two notes awhile, and wind up with a quick chirp on C sharp and D. The distinctness between the semitones was very marked, and easily appreciable to a good ear." Mr. Lockwood gives both songs in musical notation; and adds that though this little mouse "had no ear for time, yet she would keep to the key of B (two flats) and strictly in a major key."..."Her soft clear voice falls an octave with all the precision possible; then at the wind up, it rises again into a very quick trill on C sharp and D."

A critic has asked how the ears of man, and he ought to have added of other animals, could have been adapted by selection so as to distinguish musical notes. But this question shews some confusion on the subject; a noise is the sensation resulting from the co-existence of several aerial "simple vibrations" of various periods, each of which intermits so frequently that its separate existence cannot be perceived. It is only in the want of continuity of such vibrations, and in their want of harmony inter se, that a noise differs from a musical note. Thus an ear to be capable of discriminating noises—and the high importance of this power to all animals is admitted by every one—must be sensitive to musical notes. We have evidence of this capacity even low down in the animal scale: thus Crustaceans are provided with auditory hairs of different lengths, which have been seen to vibrate when the proper musical notes are struck. (32. Helmholtz, ’Theorie Phys. de la Musique,’ 1868, p. 187.) As stated in a previous chapter, similar observations have been made on the hairs of the antennae of gnats. It has been positively asserted by good observers that spiders are attracted by music. It is also well known that some dogs howl when hearing particular tones. (33. Several accounts have been published to this effect. Mr. Peach writes to me that an old dog of his howls when B flat is sounded on the flute, and to no other note. I may add another instance of a dog always whining, when one note on a concertina, which was out of tune, was played.) Seals apparently appreciate music, and their fondness for it "was well known to the ancients, and is often taken advantage of by the hunters at the present day." (34. Mr. R. Brown, in ’Proc. Zool. Soc.’ 1868, p. 410.)

Therefore, as far as the mere perception of musical notes is concerned, there seems no special difficulty in the case of man or of any other animal. Helmholtz has explained on physiological principles why concords are agreeable, and discords disagreeable to the human ear; but we are little concerned with these, as music in harmony is a late invention. We are more concerned with melody, and here again, according to Helmholtz, it is intelligible why the notes of our musical scale are used. The ear analyses all sounds into their component "simple vibrations," although we are not conscious of this analysis. In a musical note the lowest in pitch of these is generally predominant, and the others which are less marked are the octave, the twelfth, the second octave, etc., all harmonies of the fundamental predominant note; any two notes of our scale have many of these harmonic over-tones in common. It seems pretty clear then, that if an animal always wished to sing precisely the same song, he would guide himself by sounding those notes in succession, which possess many overtones in common—that is, he would choose for his song, notes which belong to our musical scale.

But if it be further asked why musical tones in a certain order and rhythm give man and other animals pleasure, we can no more give the reason than for the pleasantness of certain tastes and smells. That they do give pleasure of some kind to animals, we may infer from their being produced during the season of courtship by many insects, spiders, fishes, amphibians, and birds; for unless the females were able to appreciate such sounds and were excited or charmed by them, the persevering efforts of the males, and the complex structures often possessed by them alone, would be useless; and this it is impossible to believe.

Human song is generally admitted to be the basis or origin of instrumental music. As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed. They are present, though in a very rude condition, in men of all races, even the most savage; but so different is the taste of the several races, that our music gives no pleasure to savages, and their music is to us in most cases hideous and unmeaning. Dr. Seemann, in some interesting remarks on this subject (35. ’Journal of Anthropological Society,’ Oct. 1870, p. clv. See also the several later chapters in Sir John Lubbock’s ’Prehistoric Times,’ 2nd ed. 1869, which contain an admirable account of the habits of savages.), "doubts whether even amongst the nations of Western Europe, intimately connected as they are by close and frequent intercourse, the music of the one is interpreted in the same sense by the others. By travelling eastwards we find that there is certainly a different language of music. Songs of joy and danceaccompaniments are no longer, as with us, in the major keys, but always in the minor." Whether or not the half-human progenitors of man possessed, like the singing gibbons, the capacity of producing, and therefore no doubt of appreciating, musical notes, we know that man possessed these faculties at a very remote period. M. Lartet has described two flutes made out of the bones and horns of the reindeer, found in caves together with flint tools and the remains of extinct animals. The arts of singing and of dancing are also very ancient, and are now practised by all or nearly all the lowest races of man. Poetry, which may be considered as the offspring of song, is likewise so ancient, that many persons have felt astonished that it should have arisen during the earliest ages of which we have any record.

We see that the musical faculties, which are not wholly deficient in any race, are capable of prompt and high development, for Hottentots and Negroes have become excellent musicians, although in their native countries they rarely practise anything that we should consider music. Schweinfurth, however, was pleased with some of the simple melodies which he heard in the interior of Africa. But there is nothing anomalous in the musical faculties lying dormant in man: some species of birds which never naturally sing, can without much difficulty be taught to do so; thus a house-sparrow has learnt the song of a linnet. As these two species are closely allied, and belong to the order of Insessores, which includes nearly all the singing-birds in the world, it is possible that a progenitor of the sparrow may have been a songster. It is more remarkable that parrots, belonging to a group distinct from the Insessores, and having differently constructed vocal organs, can be taught not only to speak, but to pipe or whistle tunes invented by man, so that they must have some musical capacity. Nevertheless it would be very rash to assume that parrots are descended from some ancient form which was a songster. Many cases could be advanced of organs and instincts originally adapted for one purpose, having been utilised for some distinct purpose. (36. Since this chapter was printed, I have seen a valuable article by Mr. Chauncey Wright (’North American Review,’ Oct. 1870, page 293), who, in discussing the above subject, remarks, "There are many consequences of the ultimate laws or uniformities of nature, through which the acquisition of one useful power will bring with it many resulting advantages as well as limiting disadvantages, actual or possible, which the principle of utility may not have comprehended in its action." As I have attempted to shew in an early chapter of this work, this principle has an important bearing on the acquisition by man of some of his mental characteristics.) Hence the capacity for high musical development which the savage races of man possess, may be due either to the practice by our semi-human progenitors of some rude form of music, or simply to their having acquired the proper vocal organs for a different purpose. But in this latter case we must assume, as in the above instance of parrots, and as seems to occur with many animals, that they already possessed some sense of melody.

Music arouses in us various emotions, but not the more terrible ones of horror, fear, rage, etc. It awakens the gentler feelings of tenderness and love, which readily pass into devotion. In the Chinese annals it is said, "Music hath the power of making heaven descend upon earth." It likewise stirs up in us the sense of triumph and the glorious ardour for war. These powerful and mingled feelings may well give rise to the sense of sublimity. We can concentrate, as Dr. Seemann observes, greater intensity of feeling in a single musical note than in pages of writing. It is probable that nearly the same emotions, but much weaker and far less complex, are felt by birds when the male pours forth his full volume of song, in rivalry with other males, to captivate the female. Love is still the commonest theme of our songs. As Herbert Spencer remarks, "music arouses dormant sentiments of which we had not conceived the possibility, and do not know the meaning; or, as Richter says, tells us of things we have not seen and shall not see." Conversely, when vivid emotions are felt and expressed by the orator, or even in common speech, musical cadences and rhythm are instinctively used. The negro in Africa when excited often bursts forth in song; "another will reply in song, whilst the company, as if touched by a musical wave, murmur a chorus in perfect unison." (37. Winwood Reade, ’The Martyrdom of Man,’ 1872, p. 441, and ’African Sketch Book,’ 1873, vol. ii. p. 313.) Even monkeys express strong feelings in different tones— anger and impatience by low,—fear and pain by high notes. (38. Rengger, ’Saugethiere von Paraguay,’ s. 49.) The sensations and ideas thus excited in us by music, or expressed by the cadences of oratory, appear from their vagueness, yet depth, like mental reversions to the emotions and thoughts of a long-past age.

All these facts with respect to music and impassioned speech become intelligible to a certain extent, if we may assume that musical tones and rhythm were used by our half-human ancestors, during the season of courtship, when animals of all kinds are excited not only by love, but by the strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph. From the deeplylaid principle of inherited associations, musical tones in this case would be likely to call up vaguely and indefinitely the strong emotions of a long-past age. As we have every reason to suppose that articulate speech is one of the latest, as it certainly is the highest, of the arts acquired by man, and as the instinctive power of producing musical notes and rhythms is developed low down in the animal series, it would be altogether opposed to the principle of evolution, if we were to admit that man’s musical capacity has been developed from the tones used in impassioned speech. We must suppose that the rhythms and cadences of oratory are derived from previously developed musical powers. (39. See the very interesting discussion on the ’Origin and Function of Music,’ by Mr. Herbert Spencer, in his collected ’Essays,’ 1858, p. 359. Mr. Spencer comes to an exactly opposite conclusion to that at which I have arrived. He concludes, as did Diderot formerly, that the cadences used in emotional speech afford the foundation from which music has been developed; whilst I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively, or through association when strong emotions are expressed in speech. Mr. Spencer does not offer any satisfactory explanation, nor can I, why high or deep notes should be expressive, both with man and the lower animals, of certain emotions. Mr. Spencer gives also an interesting discussion on the relations between poetry, recitative and song.) We can thus understand how it is that music, dancing, song, and poetry are such very ancient arts. We may go even further than this, and, as remarked in a former chapter, believe that musical sounds afforded one of the bases for the development of language. (40. I find in Lord Monboddo’s ’Origin of Language,’ vol. i. 1774, p. 469, that Dr. Blacklock likewise thought "that the first language among men was music, and that before our ideas were expressed by articulate sounds, they were communicated by tones varied according to different degrees of gravity and acuteness.")

As the males of several quadrumanous animals have their vocal organs much more developed than in the females, and as a gibbon, one of the anthropomorphous apes, pours forth a whole octave of musical notes and may be said to sing, it appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavoured to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm. So little is known about the use of the voice by the Quadrumana during the season of love, that we have no means of judging whether the habit of singing was first acquired by our male or female ancestors. Women are generally thought to possess sweeter voices than men, and as far as this serves as any guide, we may infer that they first acquired musical powers in order to attract the other sex. (41. See an interesting discussion on this subject by Haeckel, ’Generelle Morphologie,’ B. ii. 1866, s. 246.) But if so, this must have occurred long ago, before our ancestors had become sufficiently human to treat and value their women merely as useful slaves. 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.


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Chicago: Charles Darwin, "Voice and Musical Powers.," The Descent of Man, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in The Descent of Man Original Sources, accessed February 29, 2024,

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "Voice and Musical Powers." The Descent of Man, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in The Descent of Man, Original Sources. 29 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'Voice and Musical Powers.' in The Descent of Man, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Descent of Man. Original Sources, retrieved 29 February 2024, from