David Attenborough explains why it's pretty certain that early humans could sing before they could talk

6 May 2016, 16:28

On his 90th birthday, we remember when David Attenborough gave Classic FM a personal lesson in the evolution of music.

Back in 2011, Classic FM tracked down David Attenborough to talk about his love of classical music. From listening to his mother play piano as a child, to joining her for duets, Sir David told us of the integral role it has played throughout his life.

The great naturalist and über-national treasure became particularly animated when asked why music is uniquely able to tap into our emotions. He gave us this detailed explanation of why it is clear that music evolved before humans even developed the ability to talk. 

Take it away, David…

"There is no question that music came before speech.

"One of the mysteries to me… is that the human larynx is absolutely extraordinary. If you hear a coloratura soprano singing, how is it that you’ve got the apparatus to make that extraordinary collection of sounds? They aren’t used in speech. And they require, anatomically, a special organ.

"Well, Mother Nature doesn’t produce specialist organs for no reason at all. So there’s every reason to suppose that music and complicated singing came before speech.”

Attenborough went on to explain how music is used by other animals:

"Of course, chimpanzees use complex drumming. They can signal to one another with drums. They beat with their hands and feet on the phlanges of big rainforest trees. So music was there right from the beginning.

"What did it do? Well it was almost certainly territorial, but mostly it was sexual. You can demonstrate that female birds will select - in some circumstances - the male with the best song. Some birds of course go in for feathers, but duller birds like the reed warbler have a very complex song.

“Human beings are very complicated and they’ve loaded all kinds of other stuff on to it. Religious stuff, nationalistic stuff, all kinds of stuff. Music is a language and it says things to us."

Listen to the full interview with David Attenborough, from 2011, below:

Listen to our interview with Sir David Attenborough

And by the way, if you want to the human larynx in action, watch this grimly fascinating video.