Music is widely acknowledged to be a universal attribute of our species, Homo sapiens. All human cultures and social groups participate in, and respond to, music and dance. Music can produce a sense of well-being; it induces what are presumed to be beneficial physiological changes in humans. However, what, if any, evolutionary significance did music have for the founder members of our species? Our immediate ancestors must have had complex, mimetic communication skills (Mithen, 2005) and recent studies support the long-standing idea that there was a precursor from which both music and language were derived. But why did modern Homo sapiens retain both communication systems? Music is not usually representational, does not propound theories or testable hypotheses (Storr, 1992). Music is essentially prosodic, ‘emotional’ communication, it entrains neural activity and stimulates our emotions, it can induce whole body autonomic and physiological responses, it forms a major component of ceremony and ritual. Language, on the other hand, is primarily semantic communication; it is symbolic and abstract, generative and referential, it permits intuitive reasoning, it usually possesses past, present and future tenses that enable reflection and facilitate foresight, choice-making, contingency planning, etc. For many, the evolution of language in Homo sapiens is a singular event that is linked to the evolution of the cognitively modern mind. Why, then, alongside language and speech, does music seem to be a ‘specific biological competence’ (Brown, 2000), that has universally remained so for tens of thousands of years, and how is this relevant to the health and welfare of humans in the twenty-first century?
In this chapter I will argue that it is because music (and with it dance) promotes the expression and experience of emotions, affects arousal, fosters interactions within groups, that it was of major evolutionary importance in the early history of our species and remains important to us, individually and collectively, today. A considerable body of evidence obtained from numerous laboratories around the world has shown that areas in the human brain associated with positive responses to music overlap with networks associated with reward behaviours and acts of social cooperation. In the specific context of neurotherapy, I propose that these evolutionary considerations and functional brain imaging studies all point to the validity of using music as a therapeutic tool in the treatment of neurological dysfunctions ranging from psychiatric disorders to rehabilitation after trauma.