top of page


The Human Faculty for Music - What's special about it?

In this cross-disciplinary project I have been seeking to describe a "narrow faculty for music" - qualities and/or capabilities that are at once universally present and operational in music across cultures whilst also being specific to our species and to the domain of music.  I have suggested that configurations of musical pulse; musical tone; and musical motivation provide a particular and sustained attentional structure for managing personal experience and interpersonal/group interaction - they offer a continually renewing phenomenological link between the immediate past, the perceptual present and future expectation [see 2021.pdf].  Music’s unique “design features” are therefore considered as a quasi-architectural framework in which our most central affective and socio-intentional drives are afforded extended time, stability, and a degree of abstraction, intensity, focus and meaning.  Crucially, this perspective has many important implications for our understanding of broad issues on music psychology, health; culture; communication; attention; therapy; and cognition.   Interested readers can read the introduction here [Intro.pdf] while the full exposition of my thoughts on this topic is available in my PhD thesis [see PhD.pdf].  Extending from previous publications [see 2006.pdf; 2009.pdf; 2012.pdf], I also plan (funding dependent! ;-)) to prepare a précis of my main arguments in article form, targeting publication and peer commentary in Behavioural Brain Sciences (CUP) - and potentially also as a book publication - 'the musical moment' - for a wider and more general readership [see RP.pdf below].

Sensorimotor Harmonisation

I am keen to move into more practical/experimental research areas and the above  highlighted some critical gaps in our understanding of pitch and harmony in musical interaction and in related comparative analyses.  One particular approach I am therefore proposing is a new experimental paradigm for investigating pitch matching and correction mechanisms in music.  My psychophysiological study of pitch perception and production in humans and other animals [PhD.pdf Chapter 3] suggests that this missing experimental paradigm will contribute to our broad understandings of music in evolution, social interaction, perception-action coupling, volitional control of vocalisation, and the psychology of musical harmony.  I am currently considering some initial pilot studies and looking for research positions to run more extensive experiments .  More details are available here [RP.pdf]. 

  • Bispham, J.C. (in preparation). The Human Faculty for Music: What's special about it? (Precis). To be submitted to Behavioural Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press).

  • Bispham, J.C. (2021). Music, Evolution and the Experience of Time.  Invited Chapter Submission for ‘Oxford Handbook of Time in Music’ (Oxford University Press).

  • Bispham, J.C. (2018). The Human Faculty for Music: What's special about it?. PhD Thesis, Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

  • Bispham, J.C. (2012). How musical is Man? – An evolutionary perspective. Chapter in “Sound Musicianship: Understanding the Crafts of Music. - 1/7 Meaningful Music Making for Life”. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

  • Bispham, J. C. (2010). Modelisation de la musique - motivation, pulsation et tonalites musicales. In 'Musique et Evolution' Eds. Deliege, I., Vitouch, O. PSY Mardaga.

  • Bispham. J.C. (2009) – Music’s “design features”: Musical motivation, musical pulse, and musical pitch. Musicae Scientiae, special issue:  music and evolution.

  • Cross, I., Bispham, J., Himberg, T. &Swaine, J. (unpublished) – Evolution and Musical Rhythm. Submitted to Evolutionary Anthropology.

  • Bispham, J.C. (2007) – Music as socio-affective confluential communication? Response to 'a commentary on Bispham’ (2006). Music Perception, 25;2

  • Bispham. J.C. (2006) - Rhythm in Music: What is it? Who has it? And Why? Journal of Music Perception, special issue on rhythm perception and performance, 24;2, 125-134.

  • Bispham, J.C. (2006) - Music means nothing if we don’t know what it means - lead review of ‘The Singing Neanderthals’ by S. Mithen. Journal of Human Evolution, 50, 587-593.

  • Bispham, J.C. (2004) – Bridging the Gaps – Music as a Biocultural Phenonmenon. Commentary on ‘In time with the music: The concept of entrainment and its significance for ethnomusicology’ by Clayton, M., Sager, R., & Will, U. ESEM Counterpoint 1.

  • Bispham, J.C. (2003) - An Evolutionary Perspective on the Human Skill of Interpersonal Musical Entrainment. Submitted in partial recognition of MPhil in Music Psychology.  Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge.

bottom of page