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Meaningful Music, Unmediated Sound: An Evolutionary History

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Gabriela Pavarini.

What and how does music mean? I suggest that the conditions of representation that allow for music to be apprehended as socially and emotionally meaningful are biologically grounded in our evolutionary history. Specifically, I propose that music emerged from the evolution of the human capacity for culture (Tomasello 1999, 2005), and is a means of creating joint attentions and intentions in order to achieve social goals. The evolution of a uniquely human form of social intelligence resulted in human symbolic systems such as music and language that give rise to an inherent phonocentrism (Derrida 1976), a perceived immediacy of vocally communicative sound. Although decades of ethnomusicological research have debunked the myth of music’s literal unmediatedness, I maintain that the experience of music’s immediacy, indeed the experienced immediacy of any symbolic communication, is what allows it to be intelligible in the first place.​

About the Speaker

Elizabeth is Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University with a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology. She is currently a Research Affiliate at the Centre for Music and Science and a Visiting Scholar at the Faculty of Music, Cambridge University, and a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College. Her interdisciplinary theoretical interests and publications cover a broad range of topics, including music and evolution, feminist theory and gender, music and language ideologies, ritual, and music cognition.

This talk is part of the The Centre for Music and Science (CMS) series.

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