Contributor: Anjali Kathir
What is Music?
Our brain creates mental images of sound that we identify as music. Scientifically speaking, music is a collection of sound waves that reaches our eardrums by traveling through the air around us. It's our brain that assigns meaning to these waves, discerning what sounds good from what sounds bad. But is it all just personal preference? Studies have shown that even as infants, we can understand musicality before we understand language itself. This tells us two things about music: 1) There is an evolutionary component to music that is internal to the human body, and 2) Music predates speech as a tool of communication. From this, we can conclude that more than any biological marker, it is music that makes us human.
The ability to perceive music precedes the ability to comprehend language — we can even go as far as to say that music perception is the foundation for acquiring language. There's a specific speech register that mothers use when communicating with infants, one that transcends cultural barriers: motherese, or more commonly known as "Baby talk." Babies don't really care WHAT we say to them; they don't understand any of it anyway; they're more concerned with how we say it. Upon birth, our brains are hardwired to look for rhythms, pitches, and intonation patterns to understand language (Fernald, 1985). Moreover, infants actively prefer consonance sounds over sounds of dissonance, further suggesting that we begin to make these distinctions before we are born (Fernald, 1985). In fact, our brains undergo rapid neural development before the age of five that we later fine-tune to retain the patterns we use most frequently. It's these connections that form the basis of our musical preferences.
Mick Jagger = Sexual Selection?
Here's a BIO1001A refresher. We know that an organism’s ultimate goal is to survive and reproduce. It follows then that traits that attract mates and allow them to reproduce eventually become encoded in the genome. Could this apply to music? Darwin thought so. In The Descent of Man, he describes musical notes and rhythm as first being acquired by either male or female progenitors to attract the opposite sex. Thus, music may potentially indicate biological and sexual fitness.
Furthermore, he believed that the origins of music predate speech as a tool for mating. He essentially equates music to a peacock's tail. His theory of sexual selection asserts that the emergence of features that don't contribute to an individual's direct survival serves to make that individual (and their genes by proxy) more attractive. But who cares about what Darwin thinks? Let's talk about Mick Jagger. The most famous rock bands have arguably consisted of slightly old, mediocre white men in the West. Who, while may not be particularly attractive, are quite rich and musically inclined. Having said that, a quick glance at any news tabloid reveals that popular rock stars have no shortage of potential romantic relations. In fact, quite the opposite. Cognitive psychologist Geoffrey Miller puts this into context in modern society. He suggests that music and dance were wholly intertwined under the conditions that likely existed through our evolutionary history. Given this, musicianship would've indicated sexual fitness for two reasons. Any capable singer or dancer is advertising stamina — an indicator of good physical health. Secondly, any individual with time to practice their singing was advertising that they had enough food and a good shelter that they could afford to "waste" resources on developing an unnecessary skill (Miller, 2000). This is essentially the peacock tail argument. A peacock with a large and beautiful tail has enough metabolism. He is so fit that he can waste metabolism on his rather extravagant caudal features.
In contemporary society, our interest in music also peaks during adolescence, which Miller suggests reinforces theme as a means of sexual selection. There are way more teenagers starting bands than 50-year-olds. Though it makes more sense to play an instrument in your senior years after having developed musicianship and the corresponding fine motor skills, Miller argues that "Music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display, mostly broadcast by young males to attract females” (Miller, 2000). Most of us find that our music taste has heavily evolved from the time we were 5; as our brains develop, we recognize more complex patterns and start to tire of Ring Around The Rosie. By the age of 19 however, you will find that your music taste starts to stagnate; it'll probably stay that way for the rest of your adult life. There's no denying that there is a heavy social factor to what influences our music taste. Music plays an essential role in social bonding and cohesion from where we grew up to what school we went to.
Back to Evolutionary Biology
Our best guess is that it takes at least fifty thousand years or so for an adaptation to present itself in the human genome. This evolutionary lag means that neither Mozart nor Taylor Swift tells us very much about our own biology. Instead, we should think about what music was like fifty millennia ago. It's possible that music also served the purpose of promoting social cohesiveness among social groups. Humans are social creatures, and any practice that bolstered community and synchrony would be long-lasting.
Music: A Uniquely Human Trait
We can establish music's evolutionary origin because it is present across all humans; it's been around for a long time. It involves specialized brain structures, i.e. dedicated memory systems. This meets the biological criterion of traits being widespread in a species. When physical brain systems develop across all humans, we assume there's some sort of evolutionary basis. Music conveys emotions and feelings that language can't, it's a basal anthropological entity, and arguably, makes us what we are today.
This article is inspired by Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music. If you’re interested in learning more about how science and music intersect, definitely check it out!
Darwin, C., Murray, J., & William Clowes and Sons,. (1871). The descent of man: And
selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray, Albermarle Street.
Fernald, A. (1985). Four-month-old infants prefer to listen to motherese. Infant
Behavior & Development, 8(2), 181–195.
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession.
New York, N.Y: Dutton.
Miller, G. (2000). Evolution of human music through sexual selection. In N. L. Wallin,
B. Merker, & S. Brown (Eds.), The origins of music (pp. 329–360). The MIT Press.