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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Herbert Spencer   16 November 1872

37 Queen’s Gardens, | Bayswater, W.

Nov. 16th. 1872.

Dear Darwin,

I have delayed somewhat longer than I intended, acknowledging the copy of your new volume, which you have been kind enough to send me.1 I delayed partly in the hope of being able to read more of it before writing to you; but my reading powers are so small, and they are at present so much employed in getting up materials for work in hand, that I have been unable to get on far with it. I have, however, read quite enough to see what an immense mass of evidence you have brought to bear in proof of your propositions.

I will comment only on one point on which I see you differ from me; namely the explanation of musical expression, in respect of which you quote Mr. Litchfield.2 I think if you would trace up the genesis of melody, beginning with the cadences of slightly emotional speech and passing through recitative, you would see that melody is quite comprehensible on the principles I have pointed out. The fact that melody proper, has been evolved in comparatively recent times, is strong evidence of this. That recitative is a natural expression of emotion, is abundantly proved. I remember having read of Australians, who used a kind of recitative in talking to themselves when walking along about things that interested them; and I have heard children, when engaged in any play that interested them, or such occupations as gathering flowers, talk to themselves in recitative. Join this with the fact that many inferior races have never risen above recitative (as the Chinese and Hindoos) and that there is reason for believing that even among the Greeks, melody had not become so markedly different from recitative as now—add, too, the fact that even now in the Highlands you may hear Gaelic songs that retain very much of the recitative character; and I think you will see that melody is, as I have contended, an idealised form of the natural cadences of emotion.3 Indeed I could point out musical phrases which would, I think, clearly prove this to you. Ask your daughter to play to you “Robert toi que j’aime,” and you will I think see this.4 I do not mean to say that this is all; for there are other elements of effect in melody. But this is, I think, the cardinal element.

Very truly yours |


Spencer’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for Expression (Appendix V).
Spencer thought that all music was based on the impulse to muscular movement caused by emotion (Spencer 1858–74, 1: 362–3). In Expression, p. 90, CD had quoted Richard Buckley Litchfield’s opinion that Spencer’s view did not explain the emotional effect of pure melody. See also Correspondence vol. 19, letter from R. B. Litchfield, [before 2 December 1871].
See Spencer 1858–74, 1: 364.
‘Robert, toi que j’aime’ is an aria from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le diable, first produced in 1831.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Spencer, Herbert. 1858–74. Essays: scientific, political, and speculative. 3 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts; Williams & Norgate.


Thanks CD for Expression. Disagrees with his views on the genesis of melody; HS gives some reasons for believing it to originate in the natural cadences of emotional speech.

Letter details

Letter no.
Herbert Spencer
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 231
Physical description
3pp inc

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8631,” accessed on 6 December 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20