Music as social coordination technology

The origins of language is as debated a topic as the onset of consciousness. Yet we know well its effects: humans have no greater social coordination technology than language. Our expressions, vocabulary, and inflections pin us to a culture. Just consider the numerous variations of American English, with its wide range of regional accents and lingo. Somewhere along the evolutionary line thoughts gave birth to vocalizations, eventually resulting in a shared set of sounds that uniquely signal others in your tribe.

This was an essential step for our ancestors in coordinating to secure food. Combined with bipedalism, which empowered them to communicate across long distances, this ability to articulate geographical positions and warn of approaching predators helped our forebears attack when called for and flee when necessary. Not that a wide vocabulary was required. Three taps on a tree or a guttural yowl could suffice.

From that foundation, an entire new coordinating technology emerged, one we use to tap out ideas onto keyboards today. While we usually look at the utility of language in guessing its origins, University of Reading Archaeology professor Steven Mithen believes we’ve overlooked an important evolutionary step in this social development: music.

In his 2007 book, The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen argues that music might have informed the development of cohesive language. This is not a stretch. Today, the musicality of expression in apes and monkeys, we can imagine early humans similarly emoting. Eventually, the signals grew more complex, giving rise to language as other once-disparate domains of knowledge fused—cognitive fluidity is the coin he termed in his previous book. As our consciousness grew in complexity, so did our need to define the once-disparate realms of experience.


Non-human primate calls should be described as ‘holistic’ because they do not appear to be composed out of discrete ‘words’ with their own individual meanings and which can be recombined to make novel utterances. The Singing Neanderthals argues that the vocalizations of our Pliocene ancestors would have been similar and these directly evolved into human language and music during the course of hominin evolution.

Mithen doesn’t propose a straight line from music to language. Yet he feels the musicality of expression shaped what would become our greatest communication, and therefore coordination, technology:

What we should expect, however, is for the communication systems of our ancestors and relatives to have had a degree of musicality as a means to express and induce emotions and to develop group identities, the latter being essential for the high degree of cooperation required by prehistoric communities.

Language gives groups identity by coordinating their consciousness, yet interestingly, when engaged in the group, personal identity is quieted. Though Mithen’s origin story will always remain speculation, in 2008, John Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb used fMRI to examine the brains of jazz musicians and freestyle rappers. He discovered that when musicians improvise their prefrontal cortex is deactivated—specifically, the neural region known for self-monitoring and impulse control. This is also the process by which humans enter flow states. Musicians, like athletes, have long discussed the liberation of ego they experience when engaged in their passion. The neural correlate is this tamping down of the brain’s ego-center. The group becomes one.

Other reports, also involving fMRI, have shown that when musicians perform together, they enter what is known as group flow. Their brain waves synchronize; the sound you hear, whether produced by two or two hundred musicians, appears to be the result of one coordinated entity. Such synchronization can be traced back to our earliest moments, when as infants our mothers soothed us with their voices, strengthening the theory that babies are inherently musical. In both cases, our emotions are coordinated through music. Our sense of self dissolves within the matrix of sound.

In the video above, Greg Meredith discusses evolving social coordination technologies through what he terms a loopcast, in which individuals can view global states in real time. When an individual takes a small action they witness its impact as it occurs. The effects of our actions are normally hidden from view. In this new coordination paradigm, that would no longer be the case.

The actions of the collective, Meredith notes, make the biggest changes, which in this technological paradigm will also be witnessed as it unfolds. To explain this he discusses the Senegalese Sabar tradition, which he studied under the guidance of griots. During this time in the late nineties, his entire understanding of music shifted. No longer were songs divided between producer and consumer; instead, Meredith viewed this ritualistic gathering as the glue binding the community together. The true voice of the music, he continues, arises in the combination of all of the voices present. Group flow.

Meredith then discusses the lead drummer. During his solo, a climax of the communication system, he remains calm and poised, putting minimal effort into his performance because he could hear the rhythms being generated by every other player simultaneously. Instead of showboating, the lead drummer fills in only what was essential, creating a trance-inducing pattern of almost unbelievable proportions. He’s coordinating the community by listening to the group voice.

Music has long been a metaphor for life. At the time of writing, Hurricane Florence has dumped more rain on North Carolina than at any point in recorded history. The slow-moving storm was supercharged thanks to climate change; the survival of the group depends on a concerted effort by local residents, governmental agencies, and donations from the larger tribe. This storm is not an outlier but represents a trend that will grow in strength as climate change gets worse.

Combating climate change will require new social coordination technologies as coastal regions become uninhabitable. Humans are resilient animals; our ability to work together has helped us to arrive at where we are today. Where we end up in the future will depend on our continual ability to create newer and better technologies for coordinating. 

At RCon3 earlier this month, Greg Meredith touched on this point again as he unveiled a new immersive music technology.