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7 Theories On Why We Evolved to Love Music

In the late 1990’s, our own Steven Pinker ruffled feathers in the cognitive psychology community after he called music “auditory cheesecake.” He was referring to the theory that music is a useless by-product of natural selection – a potentially wasteful use of our brain’s resources that brings pleasure but serves no evolutionary purpose for the species.

From an evolutionary perspective, scientists have long been trying to identify an explanation for the amount of time and energy we spend on music. As we unroll our profile of musical icon and engineer Tom Scholz, we’ve collected some of the more compelling theories used to answer the question – why do we love music?

1. To Get The Girl

Chicks dig music.

“What brings anyone anywhere? Why do men build bridges, why are there jets? I was hoping to have sex tonight.” This insight comes from the brilliantly warped mind of Jack Donaghy, a character on NBC’s 30 Rock. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection is grounded in a similar ideology. For the same reason that men flex their muscles or shower or even get up in the morning, they play music to get girls. Said Darwin: “Primeval man probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences as do some of the gibbon-apes at the present day; and we may conclude…that this power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes.” Researchers who support this theory often point to ethnographic evidence. For example, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed a famous singer among natives in the Troibriand Islands off the eastern coast of New Guinea. “Like all of his profession he was no less renowned for his success with the ladies,” said Malinowski. “The throat is a long passage like the wilu (vulva), and the two attract each other.” Alrighty then. While this is interesting in theory, it doesn’t really explain the success of Lady Gaga or Joni Mitchell or any other female musician.

2. To Keep In Synch

Have you ever noticed that when you walk with someone, you synchronize your footsteps with theirs? The subconscious need to walk in rhythm served an evolutionary function for our ancestors. When humans walk, we make noise. For early humans, that was a problem. The sound of footsteps could potentially mask the sound of a predatory animal or other sounds signaling danger. Our ancestors may have learned to synchronize their steps in order to create predictable sounds as a group, improving their ability to recognize external rhythms. Some scientists hold that this may have laid the groundwork for our ability to “feel the beat” in music.

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Social cohesion to spare.

3. To Identify Your Tribe

Most athletic events begin with a song. Most teams have a chant that fans use to identify themselves as fans. According to the “adaptionist” theory of evolutionary musicology, these fans may be doing the same thing that coyotes do when they howl in the woods: maintaining their status as part of the pack. Anthropologist Edward Hagen and evolutionary psychologist Gregory Bryant have suggested that music serves as a device for identifying and maintaining the cohesiveness of social groups. According to this theory, music may have evolved from coordinated territorial defense signals that are common in many social species, including chimpanzees and coyotes. Hagen and Bryant support their argument through a study in which musical synchrony was manipulated to alter subjects’ perceptions about the quality of a song. The results support the idea that music quality correlates to perceptions about “intergroup affinity.” In short, our brains have evolved to believe that the tribe that makes music together, stays together.

Experiencing an abundance of flow.

4. To Maximize Flow

If you’ve ever lost yourself on the dance floor or ignored a green light due to excessive singing along, you’ll understand this perspective on music evolution. Cognitive psychologist (and Steven Pinker mentee) Gary Marcus agrees with Pinker’s sentiments that music is useless from an evolutionary standpoint. “There doesn’t appear to be any specific neural module devoted to music (as you might expect if music had been specifically tuned by natural selection),” Marcus writes in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. “People don’t indulge in the arts because it’s good for their genes; they do it despite their genes.” Instead of sexual selection, Marcus holds that over time, innovative musicians have evolved their understanding of what makes human beings tick, reverse-engineering the human psyche to enhance the sheer joy of music. Eventually, musicians developed a taste for what psychologist Csíkszentmihályi Mihály called “flow” – a joyful state of immersion, wherein one loses all sense of time. In short, this theory holds that the craft of music evolved in order to “tickle the brain in particular ways.”

5. To Feel Emotions

Music and language have a lot in common. As Gary Marcus told us, both are infinitely generative systems. Learn a finite number of words, and you can create an infinite number of sentences. Marcus also identified one important distinction between the two: “Music is much more emotional than language.” Some scientists (not Marcus) theorize that music and language evolved from a common “musiclanguage” ancestor, with music evolving to tackle emotional meaning and language evolving to handle referential meaning. Perhaps this would explain why poetry is significantly less popular than music – we’re more comfortable with feeling things when words are set to music.

6. To Intimidate Predators

When our evolutionary ancestors descended from the trees, they discovered a new kind of risk in ground predators. Evolutionary musicologist Dr. Joseph Jordania suggests that “rhythmically well-organized loud noise” – the predecessor of choral singing – was initially established as a means to intimidate large ground predators in the African savannah. Further, Jordania holds that relentless repetitive rhythm may have had some kind of hypnotic effect on the whole group, uniting them against a common enemy.

7. Survival of the Funkiest

This one’s fresh out of the oven, but interesting to consider. If Darwinism explains the organic world of animals, plants, and other organisms, why can’t it explain human culture? That’s the idea behind DarwinTunes, a project that tasks participants with selecting songs and “mating” them with other tunes to create “music offspring.” If the offspring are selected by other players, they “survive” and the music “species” lives on. The project is rooted in the theory of “cultural evolution,” the idea that people copy cultural artifacts – from words to songs to visuals – from other people. Each time an artifact is copied, it is mutated. Most die, but some are successful. These catch on and become a success, the victors of cultural evolution. While not exactly like natural evolution, many useful parallels can be drawn. For example, both natural and cultural evolution seem to experience punctuated equilibrium. Just as a species may experience occasional gigantic leaps, art and music also experience innovate eras followed by lower, more conventional periods. You can participate in the “survival of the funkiest” here.

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Seandor Szeles

    Seandor Szeles is the co-editor of the Secret Life Blog. He is most interested in the human side of science and providing take-away for educators.