Evolution of Mind & Society: Our Musical Inheritance

Edel Sanders

This course explores multiple roles music may play in the evolution of mind and society. Furthermore, we will view the mind’s involvement with music on cellular, cultural and philosophical levels.

Rather than being limited to one area, the entire brain can be active in musical processing, from primal sensory, motor, emotional and memory centres to higher order pattern recognition and problem-solving regions. Oscillating between the micro and the macro while using evolutionary and cross-cultural interpretations, we will ponder how and why human and nonhuman animals might have created music from the prehistoric past to the present.  Students will be encouraged to think critically and to participate fully in small group and full class discussions based upon the readings assigned as well as videos, presentations and enquiries brought to lectures and seminars. This course is segmented into four disciplines that consider music from these often overlapping lenses:  anthropology, psychology, sociology and philosophy.

This course is aimed at: Individuals from diverse backgrounds who may be interested in why there are Orphean legends, avian rock stars and national anthems.  Anthropologists, ecologists, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers and anyone with an appreciation of music and the arts in general should find fascinating features here, ripe for healthy debate.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: There are no particular pre-requisites for the course other than interest in the topic areas.  Students without experience are encouraged to familiarise themselves with at least some of the recommended readings prior to the start of the course.

Transferable knowledge and skills: The course will enable students to develop a range of abilities, such as reasoning, argument, critical analysis, research, project development, essay writing, presentation and communication.

Core readings: In addition to the course reader, which is provided for all students and will include portions from the books below, a limited number of these books will be available to borrow. Students may want to read one or more chapters that precede or follow the required chapters for a more in-depth understanding of the material, especially if that is the area of focus for the chosen essay and project.  Two books, one by Levitin, the other by Mithen, provide excellent foundational knowledge.  Thus, it is strongly suggested that students purchase and explore at least one of these books beforehand.

Primary text: IMPORTANT Students taking this course must purchase their own copy of Levitin, D. (2007).  This Is Your Brain on Music:  Understanding a Human Obsession.  London, UK: Atlantic BooksIt is strongly recommended that it is bought in advance of travel to Cambridge as sufficient copies will not be available for all students in local shops and libraries.

Note that

Recommended texts:

  • Dewey, J. (2005/1932).  Art as Experience.  New York, US:  Penguin.
  • Gracyk, T., & Kania, A. (2011).  The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music.  Abingdon, UK:  Routledge.
  • Levitin, D. (2007).  This Is Your Brain on Music:  Understanding a Human Obsession. London, UK: Atlantic Books.
  • Mithen, S. (2005).  The Singing Neanderthals:  The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body.  London, UK:  Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
  • North, A., & Hargreaves, D. (2008).  The Social and Applied Psychology of Music. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia, New York, NY: Random House.
  • Tan, S., Pfordresher, P., & Harre, R. (2010).  Psychology of Music:  From Sound to Significance.  East Sussex, UK:  Psychology Press.



  • Participation, progress and attendance: 10%
  • 1 Essay (2,500-3,000 words): 45%
  • 1 Research-based Presentation: 45%
  • Note:  the essay and presentation will both be based upon a self-chosen project.


Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours:  8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)