Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The Evolution of Music

Offered at: Pratt Logo

Note: This course has been retired and will be used as an inspiration for a new 3-credit course called Biological Origins of Sound & Music. Eventually, I would like it to be possible for Pratt students with an interest in music to take this course along with Daniel Wright’s course on the Physics of Music.

Course Description:
This short course explores the evolution of music from a biological perspective. Although we will look at forms of “music” produced by other animals, our primary focus will be on human musical forms. We will look at how music affects the human brain, consider the role that music has played in human societies, and assess various hypotheses for how our musical instincts evolved in our ancestors. We will also consider how the cultural evolution of musical forms, instruments, and players interacts with our evolved musical abilities.

Who Might Be Interested In This Course?
Have you ever wondered why music plays such a significant role in human society? What’s the function of music? Are you a musician, or just an aficionado of music, who wants to dig deeper into its origin? Are you looking to complement the perspective of other courses you may have taken that investigate the origin and function of music in human culture (such as Contemporary Music and Society: Hip Hop Culture, Languages of Music, Electro-Acoustic Music or Singing)? If so, this course will provide you with a strong foundation in the biological evolution of music, including an overview of the proximate neurological adaptations that make music production and consumption possible and the ultimate functions of music to the human species. This class is more demanding than my introductory course in Evolution (MSCI-260), and asks that students do slightly more independent thought and work. The majority of your grade will be based on your final project, which challenges you to analyze a genre of music from an evolutionary perspective. I also ask that students engage in regular discussions, often in small groups, so you should be prepared to be actively involved during class sessions. The Evolution of Music requires a significant amount of reading (see the syllabus below for details), so you should be prepared to allocate at least four hours a week to reading for this course (note that currently the course runs for only five weeks).

What Background Should I Have Before I Take This Course?
This course assumes that you have a basic understanding of evolutionary biology and strong understanding of high school-level biology. It is advised (though not required) that you take MSCI-260 (Evolution) before taking this course.

Important Course Materials:

MSCI-364 (The Evolution of Music) Course Syllabus

This is the 1-credit version of this course which I offered in the Spring of 2010. I am currently deciding whether or not to expand this course to 3 credits; this decision will depend on whether I can help initiate a minor in Sound & Music at Pratt.