There is a growing body of evidence that infants attend selectively to some fundamental aspects of number and music. Such findings suggest that attention to and learning about number and music are perhaps due to the presence of innate, skeletal principles in each domain. In our chapter, we develop this position while showing how it is consistent with the different ways that cultures support learning and development in specific knowledge areas. Pairing considerations of number and music enables us to show that domain specificity and cultural variation need not be treated as antithetical.
Whereas it is still common for scholars in some fields to assume that “primitive” peoples lack a concept of number (see the following discussion), there is wide acceptance of the idea that all peoples develop musical competence, mainly because the latter can happen without benefit of formal instruction, use of special symbol systems, or the need to represent abstract, relevant dimensions like pitch, key, harmony, rhythm, and so forth. Indeed, accounts of the evolutionary function of the human music capacity often include the idea that, in preliterate societies, music serves to efficiently organize information that cannot be written down. For example, Gardner (1983) describes a possible role for music in organizing religious rites and work groups in the Stone Age, and Sloboda (1985) hypothesizes that music provides a mnemonic framework within which the structure of cultural knowledge and societal relations is stored and communicated. Whatever the role of music in preliterate groups, Donald (1991) points out that these societies always have complex rituals based on some form of music.