Volume 17: pp. 33-87

The Natural History of Musical Rhythm: Functional and Mechanistic Theories on the Evolution of Human Rhythm Cognition and the Relevance of Rhythmic Animal Behaviors

Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, Tomas Persson, and Elainie Madsen

Lund University, Department of Philosophy / Cognitive Science

Reading Options


Recently, interest has been growing in investigating rhythm cognition and behavior in nonhuman animals as a way of tracking the evolutionary origins of human musicality—that is, the ability to perceive, enjoy, and produce music. During the past 2 decades, an explosion of theoretical proposals have aimed at explaining why and how humans have evolved into musical beings, and the empirical comparative research has gained momentum. In this article, we focus on the rhythmic component of musicality and review functional and mechanistic theoretical proposals concerning putative prerequisites for perceiving and producing rhythmic structures similar to those encountered in music. For each theoretical proposal, we also review supporting and contradictory empirical findings. To acknowledge that the evolutionary study of musicality requires an interdisciplinary approach, our review strives to cover perspectives and findings from as many disciplines as possible. We conclude with a research agenda that highlights relevant, yet thus far neglected, topics in the comparative and evolutionary study of rhythm cognition. Specifically, we call for a widened research focus that will include additional rhythmic abilities besides entrainment, additional channels of perception and production besides the auditory and vocal ones, and a systematic focus on the functional contexts in which rhythmic signals spontaneously occur. With this expanded focus, and drawing from systematic observation and experimentation anchored in multiple disciplines, animal research is bound to generate many important insights into the adaptive pressures that forged the component abilities of human rhythm cognition and their (socio)cognitive and (neuro)biological underpinnings.

Keywords: rhythmic behaviors, rhythm cognition, music evolution, functional theories, mechanistic hypotheses

Author Note: Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, Lund University, Department of Philosophy, Box 192, 221 00 Lund

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc at gabriela-alina.sauciuc@lucs.lu.se.