New research shows how cultural transmission shapes the evolution of music

22 March 2023

New research shows how biological and cognitive constraints in our capacity to create music shape the way music evolves over time. The results, due to be published today [22 March] in the journal Current Biology, offer new insights into the complex interplay between biology, culture, and music evolution.

The research team made up of scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, used singing experiments to perform the largest ever cultural transmission study on the evolution of music.

Dr Manuel Anglada-Tort, Lecturer at the University of Oxford said: ‘Singing is a universal mode of musical communication, practiced by all cultures and ages, even in infants. For most of our history, oral transmission was the main mechanism by which songs were passed down human generations.

‘We believe that cross-cultural commonalities and diversities in human song emerged from this transmission process, but thus far it has been difficult to test how oral transmission shapes music evolution.’
The research team developed a novel method to simulate the evolution of music with singing experiments, where sung melodies are passed from one singer to the next. Over time, participants make errors in their efforts to replicate the melodies that they hear, gradually shaping the evolution of music in systematic ways. This approach allowed the researchers to study music evolution in unprecedented detail, quantifying the evolution of 3,424 melodies transmitted across 1,797 participants in the USA and India.

‘This work demonstrates the benefits of combining large-scale online data collection with innovative psychological paradigms to explore cultural transmission processes in unprecedented detail.’ Dr Anglada-Tort continues.

They found that oral transmission has profound effects on music evolution, revealing the emergence of musical structures that are consistent with widespread musical features observed across world cultures. In several controlled experiments, the researchers found that this happens because as humans, we are limited by our capacity to produce and process music. For example, musical elements that are difficult to sing such as large pitch intervals or to remember such as unfamiliar melodies, are consistently less likely to survive the transmission process.

Despite the infinite patterns in which music could be combined, these results show that in practice, ‘human transmission biases’ shape vocal music towards those structures that are easier to learn and transmit. This suggests that biological and cognitive constraints in our capacity to create music are an important bottleneck for evolution by oral transmission. It is possible that similar constraints played a role in shaping the evolution of music by early humans.

The researchers also found that cultural transmission - the process by which music is passed down from one person to the next - can amplify shared biases, making certain musical structures more popular and widespread over time. These results provide a new understanding of how cross-cultural differences and similarities in human song can emerge via cultural transmission. The implications of this study may extend beyond music to other behaviours that result from cultural transmission, such as bird song, human language, or social norms.

Notes to editors:

The paper "Large-scale iterated singing experiments reveal oral transmission mechanisms underlying music evolution" published in Current Biology will be available here:

Interviews are available with Dr Manuel Anglada-Tort, Director of the Music, Culture, and Cognition Lab at the University of Oxford.
Contact: E: [email protected] T: +44 1865 280528

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and number 2 in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.
Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.
Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 200 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years. The university is a catalyst for prosperity in Oxfordshire and the United Kingdom, contributing £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19, and supports more than 28,000 full time jobs.