skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Edmund Gurney   8 July 1876


July 8, 1876.

My Dear Mr. Gurney,—

I have read your article with much interest, except the latter part, which soared above my ken.1 I am greatly pleased that you uphold my views to a certain extent. Your criticism of the rasping noise made by insects being necessarily rhythmical is very good; but though not made intentionally, it may be pleasing to the females, from the nerve cells being nearly similar in function throughout the animal kingdom.2 With respect to your letter, I believe that I understand your meaning, and agree with you.3 I never supposed that the different degrees and kinds of pleasure derived from different music could be explained by the musical powers of our semi-human progenitors. Does not the fact that different people belonging to the same civilized nation are very differently affected by the same music, almost show that these diversities of taste and pleasure have been acquired during their individual lives? Your simile of architecture seems to me particularly good; for in this case the appreciation almost must be individual, though possibly the sense of sublimity excited by a grand cathedral may have some connection with the vague feelings of terror and superstition in our savage ancestors, when they entered a great cavern or gloomy forest.4 I wish some one could analyse the feeling of sublimity. It amuses me to think how horrified some high-flying æsthetic men will be, at your encouraging such low degraded views as mine.5

Believe me, yours very sincerely, | Charles Darwin.


The first part of Gurney’s article ‘On some disputed points in music’ (Gurney 1876) focused on the origins of music; it was followed by a discussion of technical aspects of rhythm, melody, and harmony, and the article finished with a discussion of the relation between music, language, aesthetics, and emotion.
Gurney had pointed out that the noises made by insects were naturally rhythmical owing to the way they were produced and compared these to the regular sound of a stick being run along a railing (Gurney 1876, p. 111).
Gurney’s letter has not been found.
See Gurney 1876, p. 118. Gurney had argued that to say a piece of music was composed as an expression of an external emotion was like saying that the interior of St Mark’s was designed as an expression of a previous mood of gloom in its architect.
CD had suggested that musical tones and rhythm were used by half-human ancestors during courtship; he also suggested that musical sounds were one of the bases for the development of language (Descent 2d ed., p. 572). In his article, Gurney expressed general agreement with CD’s view of the development of music (Gurney 1876, pp. 107–8, 119; for more of CD’s theory, see Descent 2d ed., pp. 566–73).


Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

Gurney, Edmund. 1876. On some disputed points in music. Fortnightly Review, 1 July 1876, pp. 106–30.


Read EG’s article ["Some disputed points in music", Fortn. Rev. n.s. 20 (1876): 106–30]. Diversity of musical taste in man indicates that it is acquired during individuals’ lives. The origin of the "sense of sublimity".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Edmund Gurney
Sent from
Source of text
LL 3: 186

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10559,” accessed on 28 July 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 24