Singing and Song: A Biophysical and Evolutionary Perspective
The periodicity of natural signals from our environment since the dawn of life on earth has provided the foundation for development of rhythmic responses innate to living organisms, ranging from ancient bacteria to modern humans. The evolution of organs tuned to auditory signals – especially since the colonization of terrestrial environments by early vertebrates – has been matched by the coevolution of vocalization from the production of simple warnings and alarms to complex patterns communicating sophisticated messages. The need to interpret and produce auditory information is essential for a diverse spectrum of animals. At what point does complex vocalization become “song”, and what is it that we regard as “singing”?
We recognize “songs” and “singing” in the spring chorus of amphibians, the humming and chirping of insects, the species-specific songs of birds, and the complex communication of humpback whales and other cetaceans. These terms vary in meaning when describing such vocalizations compared to humans. For human singers, the act of singing and the meaning of song have strong emotional and physical components that are profound and personal, with demonstrated effects on brain activity and development, health and well-being. Is this uniquely human?
This paper reviews the biophysics of hearing and the concept of singing from the perspective of evolution within the natural rhythmic soundscape of our world.