The Evolution of Music

Thursday, 02 April 2015

Kings Conference Centre, Old Aberdeen

Professor Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College London

Music is ubiquitous, ancient and immensely diverse. How does it come to be this way? Perhaps Darwin can help us? Evolutionary principles, when applied to music, result in a new science of cultural change.


Minute of meeting held in the Kings Conference Centre on 2nd April 2015.

The President, Professor Mike Greaves, presided. The meeting had been advertised to the public.  42 people attended including members and public.

The President introduced the speaker - Professor Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College, London.  His topic was The Evolution of Music.

Prof Leroi suggested that the evolution of music should be studied as a science and that it would look similar to evolutionary biology.  Darwin saw that language could be viewed in evolutionary terms but music is also an evolutionary process since composers start with what they know and modify that in some way.

He played three pieces of traditional music to illustrate the problem of classification: pygmies singing after killing an elephant; a Canadian Inuit singing to himself and a traditional song from the Scottish Hebrides..

He then mentioned Alex Lomax who had tried to look at the evolution of music mainly by working with blues songs from America but also global music.  He had analysed music with the help of a computer in the 1960s and Prof Leroi had managed to obtain Alex Lomax's data and had analysed his music into 7 clusters which correlated with the computer analysis showing that people from different parts of the world sing in different ways even after mass migrations in the past.

Prof Leroi spoke specifically about Bantu Africans who emerged 2 - 3 thousand years ago as pastoralists and moved down through Africa, reaching South Africa about 500 years ago, about the same time as Europeans.  He showed a map of Bantu genes in the population and showed that it correlated with the distribution of their music.  He played Swazi warriors singing and then southern USA chain gang songs which sounded very similar.

He then showed another cluster which was circumpolar going down to South America.  He played three songs from three continents from that cluster  (North Japan, North Canada and Patagonia) which all sounded similar.

He then spoke about having obtained 30 second excerpts from 170,000 songs from American pop charts between 1960 and 2020.  He analysed them with sophisticated computer software into 'topics' and showed that some of these topics came and went over the years whilst others gradually declined, for example some jazz topics.  This technique quantified the music of our time and led to tying groups of topics to pre-known genres and it proved to be a reasonable match.

Prof Leroi posed the question "has music homogenised or diversified" and answered 'neither'.  He showed diversity coming and going over the years and found 3 'revolutions' over the years, including one in the 1960s with the advent of the 'British invasion' led by the Beatles but he felt that they were simply ahead of an establishing trend.

He then spoke about the Long Term Evolutionary Experiment which is still running and involves the bacterium E. coli.  Every day an aliquot of the culture is removed to grow on independently. The bacteria tend to grow stronger due to evolutionary pressures.   Prof Leroi wondered if he could do the same thing with music and thus set up 'Darwin Tunes', which is machines which take 8 second loops of songs.  Out of 100 samples of these loops, 20 are rated between 'hate' and 'love'.  Of these the worst 10 are deleted and the 10 best 'evolve' into other songs.  There have been about 85,000 ratings by about 7,000 listeners and 2,500 generations of songs.  This has showed that music does evolve and becomes better but the evolution then becomes stuck and fails to improve any more.

This brought Prof Leroi to speak about George Price who developed the Price Equation, relating change to natural selection and environmental changes.  He likened complex musical entities becoming vulnerable to the harmful effects of mutations to diseases developing for similar reasons in animals.

Looking to the future, he showed a map of genetic populations in the UK and said that he hopes to analyse music from throughout the country and expects that the two maps will be similar.

Finally, he said that this is a whole new science and rather than having science and culture are different disciplines, this is the start of 'the science of culture'.


There followed several questions. One asked about the mutation rate in his experiment, another about the number of variables.  One questioner asked why Prof Leroi had not mentioned lyrics.  He answered that he did not think that pop lyrics matter much.

The President thanked Professor Leroi for his novel and fascinating talk. 

← back to listings