Like any curious person, I’ve often wondered, what’s up with music? Like, why is it so cool?
Music is found in every culture on the planet, and evokes a deep emotional response in us. But it’s not very obvious why a collection of mathematically related sound waves produced in a rhythmic pattern should cause us to feel a certain way, and I’ve thought about that a lot.
I started once again down this train of thought recently, after watching this video about the benefits to your brain of playing and listening to music.
Since I’m a big fan of the study of behavioral evolution, which seeks evolutionary explanations for why we behave the way we do, I set out to the internet in search of just such an explanation.
The results of my query? Well, as far as I can tell…no one knows.
There is a field of science studying this, known as evolutionary musicology, but, so far, there doesn’t seem to be a great explanation for why humans love music so much. I found a handful of hypotheses here, and some more here, but frankly I don’t find them very compelling.
I don’t necessarily think that those theories are incorrect, and I’ll save specific criticism for another time, but I don’t think that they give a satisfactory answer to what I feel is the most prescient question, which is not “why can we make music?” or “how did music begin?” but instead “why do we LOVE music?”
So, in light of the dearth of conclusions, I will suggest my own, now. (With standard disclaimers that I’m not a career scientist or researcher, just a curious person and avid thinker).
Recent research, summarized in the video linked above, suggests that music is in fact very, very good for your brain. Playing music is linked to greater executive function, greater auditory discrimination, fine motor skills, vocabulary, and nonverbal reasoning, and attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control. And scientists increasingly think that these are causal links. (In other words, it is playing music is what causes these benefits, not that people with those traits are disproportionately attracted to music, or that some third factor causes both of those).
So, imagine that there’s a gene that causes people to love music. You might think that sounds far-fetched, but actually scientists think there could be a genetic basis for all sorts of similarly complicated behaviors, such as altruism, selfishness, loving your siblings, etc. And there doesn’t need to really be a gene which is 100% the cause of your love of music. Just a gene which makes you even slightly more likely to enjoy and seek out music will do the trick.
Since such a gene would make its carrier more likely to be exposed to music, it would thereby indirectly improve the mental functioning of that carrier, in the ways listed above. And since those abilities have fairly obvious survival value in pretty much any environment, the “love-music” gene would thus confer an advantage to whomever expressed it, and should spread through the gene pool.
And actually, using music to gain those adaptations is a pretty robust method. You might imagine a competitor gene that aimed to give its carrier the same benefits by just growing them out of the box, without having to be exposed to music. This competitor gene would be disadvantaged from the get-go: it would require more built-in development mechanisms, which would be energy-intensive. And that would be unnecessary in an environment that already has musical stimuli!
Since this is a scientific hypothesis, there ought to be a way to test it, so here are some proposals:
First, since I’m claiming that love of music is genetic, and therefore innate, it ought to be present and detectable even in very young infants.
Second, since those mental benefits have value in nearly any environment, we probably should see evidence of enjoyment of music in other animals besides humans, like other primates, or perhaps dolphins.
Third, if this has a genetic basis, it ought to be susceptible to mutation. People who have Musical Anhedonia, who don’t find enjoyment in music, ought to have a genetic basis for that trait.
And fourth, there should be a way to offer a natural definition of music. If we define music as “any auditory stimulus that causes those mental improvements through the same mechanism,” then we should be able to measure what sort of stimuli cause the brain changes and which sounds don’t. The prediction of this hypothesis then, is that the set of sounds we enjoy will correlate with the set of sounds which improve brain function.
And there you have it. In summary, I believe that the reason we love music is because playing and listening to music offered survival value to our ancestors, in the form of improved cognitive functioning.
Once again, I’m not a career scientist, just a person who likes to think, so I’d love to hear opinions from anyone better informed than I am.