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Listen to the History of Human Migration—Music Is a Witness to Human Evolution

In human migration and the formation of different ethnic groups, differences in language between various ethnic groups usually exhibit certain correlation with the gene differences. Recently, Steven Brown, associate professor in Psychology, Neuroscience and Linguistics at McMaster University, for the first time uses quantitative data prove that music and genes might have coevolved. This new finding, published on Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that music may become a new gauge to study human migration activities.

Brown and co-workers selected nine indigenous populations from Taiwan, where these ethnic groups are highly geographically isolated and their music has been deeply studied. With the help from a local ethnomusicologist with an expertise in local folktales, Brown collected 220 traditional, group-level vocal songs, excluding purely instrumental music and solo songs. Brown believes that choral vocal songs are more suitable to track and record long-term migration history because they change more slowly and conservatively compared to solo songs and purely instrumental music.


A map of Taiwan demonstrating the geographical locations of the nine indigenous populations included in this research. The nine indigenous populations are: Atayal; Saisiyat; Bunun; Tsou; Rukai; Paiwan; Puyuma; Amis; Tao(Yami). *Image source: Steven Brown et al.(2013)Proc Biol Sci.

In order to change these songs into quantitative data, Brown analyzed the songs using 41 characters including 26 structural characters from CantoCore (related to pitch, text, rhythm, texture and form) as well as 15 performance-style characters from Cantometrics (associated with vocal style, ornamentation and dynamics). In addition, Brown also collected 410 mtDNA samples from these same nine Taiwanese populations for gene analysis.

The results showed that difference in music between various ethnic groups is highly correlated with their gene difference, suggesting music and genes might have been coevolved for a significant time period and that music has the capacity to track and record population changes occurring on the time scale of probably thousands of years. While, the difference in language and that in music showed a low correlation, meaning that music and language might evolve in separate directions during the process of forming ethnic groups. Music, carrying a different migration history than that of language, might provide a complementary insight to language on human migration research. In the past, some researchers suspected whether music can loyally record long-term migration process, since music often changes fast; while, Brown’s team discovered that the coevolution of music and genes notes that music does meet the requirements of migration research in terms of the time scale.

By analyzing music, Professor Brown also proved that ingenious Taiwanese have a cultural link with other ethnic groups of Austronesian family, which provides important reference for formation study on Austronesian family. In future’s research on the formation of various ethnic groups, perhaps, music can become a new key to help us open the door of the wonderful migration world.

Source:Brown S, Savage PE, Ko AM, Stoneking M, Ko YC, Loo JH, Trejaut JA. Correlations in the population structure of music, genes and language.Proc Biol Sci. 281(1774):20132072.