Homo Sapiens Musicus, or Why Humans Make Music
Humans are an inherently musical species. Besides whales and dolphins, humans are possibly the only mammal species that make music. In fact, we have been creating music longer than we have been farming or even painting.
Human history and music seem to go hand in hand, yet scientists still grapple with the question of why we make – and love – music. While no single answer has been found, here are the most recent theories behind our age-long desire for song…and a load of reasons for keeping your hearing loss in check.
The Social Bonds of Music
Music has long served the dual purpose of entertainment and communication. While people listen to music to have a good time and dance, commonly sung songs forge social bonds.
For example, the tunes that are blasted during a baseball game help rally the crowd and home team together. In a similar way, national anthems drum up a sense of patriotism within a country’s citizens. Music has wound its way into many of our social practices, on a national, local, and personal level.
Studies show that our minds process music the same way as spoken language, according to Professor Krumhansl of Cornell University. Some African and Asian dialects directly incorporate music into their speech, as meanings change according to the tone and melody with which they are spoken.
In short, our brains understand music as a way of communicating and connecting with other people, much like talking. As Aristotle said, man is by nature a social animal–perhaps music lies at the very basis of that sociability.
he Evolutionary Argument
Over the past hundreds of thousands of years, humans could have developed music as a tool to perpetuate the species. Scientists are exploring music’s potential role in natural selection, particularly when it comes to finding romantic partners.
Charles Darwin himself surmised that, much like the mating calls of birds, we humans have developed our own mating melodies. Consider the many musicians who are also legendary lotharios, such as Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger. Some scientists believe that they wooed with song, just as a peacock attracts partners with its tail. The evolutionary argument runs deep, as music predated the hunter-gatherers, possibly dating back as far as 250,000 years.
In addition to helping us choose mates, researchers believe that music contributes to social cohesion and group effort–both necessary to our survival as a species. Singing songs together could have helped our ancestors accomplish a difficult task, such as building communal living quarters. Music may also provide a form of perceptual and motor skill development, helping children improve their hearing and speaking skills.
The Emotional Side
We use music to express, experience, and emphasize our emotions. If you want to try an experiment at home, watch a poignant movie scene with the background music muted, then watch it again with the music playing.
Chances are you felt significantly more emotion while the music was playing. As far as feelings go, music might be just as internalized and natural to us as facial expressions.
Music even affects how we respond to visual images, making sad scenes look more melancholic and happy scenes appear particularly joyous. Consider any musical score, and how the songs evoke emotions during the film, often as powerful as the visual image itself.
Music As Memory
In some evolutionary arguments for the purpose of music, theorists believe that music allows for communication from one generation to another. In other words, music is a means of transmitting a collective memory.
While folk and traditional music was particularly popular for societies without written language, the modern man still sees music as a form of living history. From the brass bands of the Roaring Twenties and the Barber Shop quartets of the 1950s to the psychedelic sixties, music continues to be a means of connecting to the past.
Personal memories can often carry a tune as well. You may remember the song playing during your first slow dance or tunes you would listen to during road trips.
When you hear these songs years later, they can bring you right back to that moment in time. Music forges some of your memory and becomes a part of who you are. As part of our collective and individual memories, music helps us understand our histories and our identities as human beings.
Needless to say, take good care of your dear ears and make sure to monitor your hearing loss – Audicus Hearing Aids can help you with that.
Why Did Humans Invent Music?
Until the hot tub time machine becomes a reality, the answer to that question will remain as mysterious as the true identity of the ’60s garage band ? and the Mysterians.
Nonetheless, academic minds are always trying to come up with a theory. Charles Darwin believed music was created as a sexual come-on. His idea is given credence by the universally acclaimed song of the summer, «Blurred Lines.» (Note: The link goes to the Jimmy Fallon version played with toy instruments and is suitable for work.)
Other theorists believe music was an attempt at social glue, a way to bring early humans together into a close-knit community.
Chris Loersch, a senior research associate in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, likes that idea, and he’s done research to try and prove it. He and Nathan Arbuckle, from the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, designed a series of studies to bolster it.
«This hypothesis centers on music’s unique ability to influence the mood and behavior of many people at once,» they write, «helping to mold individual beings into a coordinated group.» They cite the power of military music, music played at sports games, and «ritualized drumming» as examples.
In a series of seven studies, the two looked at the «emotional reactions» to music of 879 individuals from U.S. universities and from abroad. They also asked the respondents how much they identify with an in-group. The subjects who said they were most affected by the music they heard had a «higher need to belong.» (Read: Making Music Boosts Brain’s Language Skills)
Loersch, whom we interviewed about the research, is quick to admit that this is not definitive proof but does help bolster the theory that «music evolved in service of group living.»
Does your theory explain why we pay lots of money to congregate with other fans at a concert?
I saw a bunch of Phish shows at one point. There’s a certain sense of community there, a lot of rules for how that community interacts with each other. People are bonding on a large scale, treating everybody that’s camping around them as family members. I think that’s what concerts are about, really becoming a group with those people around you. We put a YouTube link to a concert in the paper, where somebody on stage starts waving hands to the right and left and all these people with huge intense smiles engage in exact same behavior. You can see on their faces that music is having the most intense positive effect. Forty thousand people are completely bound up in being a group member.
But you’re not exactly best friends with all those people?
Even though you don’t know them at all, part of our theory is that the music is there to bind you and control you, not as an individual but as a member of a group. As humans our primary motivation in life is to be a good group member. People start to feel great when they lose their individual identity and become part of this larger whole.
Sometimes people boo at concerts.
I think we boo other social behavior all the time, not explicitly. When people don’t hold up their end of a social contract, that’s what gets you ostracized from a group.
So if a musician shows up late or puts on a bad show, they’re fair game for booing?
I don’t think musicians are immune from that ostracism just because they happen to be in control.
If music is all about connecting us to a group, why do people listen in solitude as well?
I think even when you listen by yourself, what makes that feel good is that you are kind of being tricked—much like when you watch TV—into thinking you’re interacting with people, tricked into thinking you’re part of a group. Our core motivation is to feel like we belong. Anything that tricks you into feeling that way is going to feel rewarding, you’re going to pursue that like a drug.
How do you regard the theory that music was invented as a sexual lure?
What we would argue is you play music and that gives you power to control a large group of people and power is attractive to the opposite sex.
Who’s your favorite musician?
My favorite artist is Stevie Wonder: I think he’s incredibly effective at communicating emotions. He makes you feel what he feels. And he clearly feels a lot.
Humans Evolved to Enjoy Songs and Music
Humans are remarkably talented musicians. We can recognize a tune despite when it’s slowed down or sped up or even if all of the notes are shifted to a higher or lower pitch. Though these may seem like trivial feats, most other animals can’t manage them. Experiments have shown that six-month old human babies can already distinguish musical pitch and recognize shifted melodies. These exceptional abilities suggest that humans might have some innate capacity to perceive and understand music, something like our hypothetical language faculty. Given that we’ve been able to sing for much longer than we’ve had musical instruments, it seems reasonable that any music capacity we evolved would be more attuned to vocal than instrumental music.
To test this idea, Michael Weiss, Sandra Trehub, and Glenn Schallenberg investigated whether people remember vocal or instrumental melodies better. They made a collection of 32 folk tunes recorded in four different ways: a singer repeating the syllable “la” and three instrumental versions played on a piano, a banjo, or a marimba. Participants in the experiment listened to four melodies of each type, for a total of 16 melodies; to make sure that the results weren’t affected by how memorable individual songs were, the songs were shuffled so groups of participants heard different songs as vocal or instrumental. After a short break, they listened to all 32 melodies (16 of which they hadn’t heard) and had to rate how familiar they sounded. The difference between the familiarity of the new songs and the old ones told the researchers how well people were remembering them.
The trio found that people remembered the tunes they had heard sung significantly better than those played on an instrument. This was true even after the team used a computer program to even out differences between the versions, so it wasn’t a consequence of the vocalist being more expressive or other differences in performance. It also wasn’t because people are more used to hearing voices — the instrumental versions were all equally memorable even though people said the piano sound was more familiar. It seems that something about the timbre and quality of the human voice simply makes it more memorable.
The difference isn’t a result of hearing the vocal versions better. «Listeners perceive pitch less accurately from vocal than instrumental material, perhaps because vocal tones have more pitch fluctuations than instrumental tones,» says Trehub. «Perception is the first step, but the mental elaboration that we do when we perceive something influences our memory for it. Why do we sometimes have trouble remembering where we put our keys, especially if we put them in different places at different times? Perception isn’t the issue here. The more distinctive the event, even if it’s only distinctive mentally, the better it will be remembered. Something about the voice could add distinctiveness to the melody, which makes it more memorable,» she explains.
The scientists don’t really know why that’s the case, but they speculated that it might be because the biological significance of the voice — the fact that we recognize it as the sound of another human — makes us respond more attentively and process it more than we do an instrument. Regardless of the exact hows and whys of the matter, it’s clear that humans remember vocal music better than other kinds. In addition to warning researchers to distinguish between vocal and instrumental music in future studies, these results also provide one more piece of evidence that our human predilection for song is part of our evolutionary heritage.
Why Did Humans Evolve To Enjoy Music?
Existing theories seem incomplete, so here’s another one. I think music is a side-effect of the evolution of self-awareness and love.
Music does have a lot of features we associate with sexual competition. It’s (historically speaking) an honest display of abilities, it exploits supernormal stimuli, and it’s sexy. But if those things were sufficient for its evolution, it would be widespread in other species. Instead, music seems to be nearly unique to humans.
In most species, displays are simply flamboyant exhibitions of individual prowess. Every peacock aims to have the biggest, flashiest tail; there is none of the complexity or diversity we associate with music. Guppies appreciate novel colors in their mates, but they do not evolve increasing complexity.
Closer to human music are the songs of certain birds. While nobody would deny that most bird song is some sort of sexual competitive signal, song complexity isn’t consistently linked to sexual selection at all. And relatively complex and varying bird songs, such as those of the song sparrow, can be generated using simple algorithms. Nothing in the animal world even remotely approaches the complexity and diversity of human music.
It’s also often suggested that music contributes to group bonding, which could be advantageous for a species like ours, where inter-tribal competition may have influenced evolution. And since humans are unusual in that sense, it also helps explain the uniqueness of music.There’s plenty of evidence that music does play this role. However, group selection is typically a weak force, while music is a costly feature; it’s hard to see how the former could be sufficient to account for the latter.
Perhaps music evolved as a sexually selected feature which was co-opted under group selection, but perhaps there’s a bigger hole in our thinking.
What neither idea seems to explain at all is why music is, well, musical. Why should a group — or, for that matter, pair – bonding involve the sort of fractal complexity, continual novelty and specificity of taste that sets music apart from common birdsong?
Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid argues that consciousness is a recursive computational process. Self-awareness in addition implies that the conscious mind contains a model or representation of the self.
What is this model? Why represent yourself, when you can simply be yourself? The answer, presumably, is that most of the mind is not conscious, nor even accessible to consciousness. So to have insight into your own behavior, you mentally model yourself in much the same way you model other people.
You see the problem. Modeling other conscious, self-aware minds requires an internal conscious, self-aware mind for every mind you model. Each of these models must in turn have its own models of other conscious, self-aware minds… and so on to infinity.
Our brains do not have infinite capacity. So what do we do when we encounter an infinitely recursive process? Curl up in despair? No! We approximate. We gaze as deeply as we can into the fractal, stretching the limits of our cognitive capacity. And then we acknowledge and accept those limits. We marvel at the tininess of the self in the wondrous grandiosity of the universe. We are overcome with spiritual joy.*
In other words, we congratulate ourselves on our willingness to face the limits of our comprehension. Why does this make us feel good? It’s adaptive.
We are a highly social species. Many researchers believe that human cognition was, for much of our evolutionary history, stuck in a positive feedback cycle of social selection.** That is, those of our ancestors who could better understand and predict others had greater evolutionary fitness, which made each succeeding generation harder to understand and predict than its parents.
So: it’s advantageous to enjoy peering into the depths of interesting fractals, because that stretching of cognitive ability is precisely what’s required to model minds better than our peers. And music is mostly interesting fractals.
Why Do Humans Make Music? To Help Us Understand Each Other a Little Better
Anew study has found a link between a person’s appreciation of music and their ability to feel empathy, suggesting that music may have an evolutionary purpose by enabling humans to bond with one another.
«What we found is that when they are listening to familiar music it is almost like they are engaging with a friend,» lead author Zachary Wallmark, an assistant professor at the Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, told Newsweek.
The study noted that the reward centers of the brains of highly empathetic people actually light up during functional MRI scans, according to the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The research showed that music also activated other parts of the brain in these subjects, including those involved in social interaction and feeling empathy. This activation might suggest that music gives these listeners the same warm and fuzzy feelings as human contact.
A human brain scan. Researchers found that highly empathic people experience music differently. Getty Images
«The concept for the study comes out of this fact—that we really have been baffled for quite some time by why humans make music at all,» Wallmark said. This research is the first of its kind to find evidence supporting a neurological connection between music and empathy.
During the study, 20 participants were asked to select a piece of music that they love and one that they strongly dislike. Then both music samples were played as researchers took scans of the participants’ brains. The study was done in partnership with researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the University of California in Los Angeles.
After each participant received an MRI, they were asked to complete a survey to evaluate differences in empathy. The survey asked questions about how each participant experienced sympathy for others in distress, or how easily they can picture themselves in another person’s shoes.
«This tells us that over and above appreciating music as high art, music is about humans interacting with other humans and trying to understand and communicate with each other,» Wallmark said.
«The big takeaway is that this provides additional ballast to an emerging view that the primary function of music might be social. It might be primarily about communicating with others, bonding with others, being able to express and sonify your emotions and intentions,» he said.
THE EFFECTS OF MUSIC ON THE HUMAN BODY
Have you ever felt your mood change at times while listening to a particular song? Or notice how you got a new dose of energy to finish that exercise you like so much? It’s the magic of music. Believe it or not, behind these feelings is a multitude of physical reactions that explain the effects of music on the human body. Today, we’ll explain some of them… join us on this exciting journey of science!
THE EFFECTS OF MUSIC ON OUR BRAIN
Thousands of studies carried out support this statement: music improves our cognitive abilities. Whether we listen to a song or we play an instrument, our system generates neural connections that affect almost all areas of the brain -those that control motor, language, cognitive, emotional, or even social functions-; activating and stimulating them. Hence, nowadays, the widespread use of ‘music therapy’ for treatment in patients with disorders such as parkinson’s disease, dementia or autism.
But the effects of music on our brain doesn’t stop there: it also triggers activity on the streams of the brain that affect our creativity, our ability to learn, our pain perception…Undoubtedly, music activates our brain more than any another human stimulus!
A GOOD DOSE OF MOTIVATION
The effects of music on the body are also a matter of chemistry and they have their own name: dopamine! It’s normal that when we listen to a song, the neurological stimuli we just mentioned, produce physiological responses such as the release of this hormone, known as the ‘pleasure hormone’, which has multiple benefits: it regulates sleep, mood, memory, attention… Clearly its name is well deserved: it’s the centre of pleasure and motivation!
Also, depending on the type of music you’re listening to, the brain can also release other neurotransmitters. For example, classical music that, according to some studies, triggers the release of serotonin, a chemical substance that provokes relaxation and calms stress levels and anxiety.
HEART RATE: PULSE… AND MUSIC!
Did you know that when we listen to music, our brainwaves change to adjust our breathing and heartbeat to the rhythm of the tune? This effect only happens to human beings and some birds, and may explain why, during exercise, our pace and resistance improves with faster songs… Furthermore, this type of music also increases our alertness, our pulse and our blood pressure, so press ‘play’ and run!
Are Humans the Only Musical Species?
We are all born with a predisposition for music, one that develops spontaneously and is refined by listening to music. Think, for example, of relative pitch, recognizing a melody separately from the exact pitch or tempo at which it is sung, and beat perception, hearing regularity in a varying rhythm. Even human newborns turn out to be sensitive to intonation or melody, rhythm, and the dynamics of the noise in their surroundings. Everything suggests that human biology is primed for music at birth with respect to both the perception and enjoyment of listening.
As such, the human capacity for music appears to be special. But what makes it special, and is our musical predisposition unique, like our linguistic ability? Or is musicality something with a long evolutionary history that we share with other animals?
Charles Darwin assumed that all animals can detect and appreciate melody and rhythm simply because they have a nervous system comparable to that of humans. He therefore had no doubt that human musicality had a biological foundation and a long evolutionary history, an idea that inspired a new field of scientific study — biomusicology — and set me on the path to writing my book, “The Evolving Animal Orchestra.”
My journey began in 2009 when, together with a group of Hungarian researchers, I discovered that human infants have beat perception, a prerequisite for being able to dance or make music together. Both the brains and the hearing capacity of human infants turned out to be primed for music. This conclusion raised the question of whether musicality was exclusively human or perhaps a trait possessed by all animals, as Darwin suspected.
To answer this question, I asked numerous behavioral biologists and neurobiologists whether it was possible to perform the same listening experiment with rhesus macaques as we had done with human newborns. In this way, I hoped to be able to discover whether rhesus macaques, whose ancestors had split off from other nonhuman primates at about the same time as our human ancestors — some 23 million years ago — also respond to the beat of music.
Most of the primatologists I spoke with were skeptical about the idea of using a measurement method on monkeys that had once been used on human infants, namely, an EEG (involving electrodes attached to the skull). But the neurobiologist Hugo Merchant leapt at the idea. Within a few weeks, his research group at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México had assembled all the necessary software and hardware to make the first trial measurements. Unfortunately, after more than a year of setbacks and new insights, we had had to conclude that rhesus macaques do not have beat perception. This finding ran totally contrary to what I had expected and to Darwin’s assumption.
Until then, scientists had widely believed that the heartbeat was the source of beat perception. After all, all mammals, including rhesus macaques and humans, hear their mother’s heartbeat in the womb. Our research findings made that hypothesis much less likely. Apparently, specific neural networks are necessary to enable beat perception. In rhesus macaques, these networks are weaker or perhaps even nonexistent. The brain, therefore, rather than the physiology, is the decisive factor here.
Our study and others led to the development of the gradual audiomotor evolution (GAE) hypothesis, which posits that neural networks allow for beat perception in humans, a result of strong bidirectional connections between the auditory cortex and the motor cortex (these connections are present only with limited properties in other nonhuman primates). Chimpanzees, GAE predicts, also have a rudimentary form of beat perception, owing to a more gradual development of the same connections that developed as nonhuman primates evolved.
This theory led me to visit the Primate Research Institute in Inuyama, Japan, where the primatologist Yuko Hattori was investigating the musicality of chimpanzees. Her initial findings suggested that chimpanzees do indeed have beat perception, thus allowing us to date the origins of human beat perception to the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, some five to ten million years ago. Last month, the study was published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences and confirmed the GAE hypothesis.
All this research happened several years after the discovery of Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo who could dance to the beat of music. Snowball was responsible for a renewed global interest in the biological foundations of musicality and the discovery represented a first major step forward in support of Darwin’s hypothesis. It also generated new questions, among them: Why did humans and cockatoos but not rhesus macaques develop beat perception?
Ani Patel, a neuroscientist at Tufts University, offered one theory: The ability to hear regularity in music, he proposed, may be based on vocal learning — that is, the ability to learn and imitate new sounds. The “vocal learning as precondition for beat perception” (VL) hypothesis predicts that, rather than sharing beat perception with other mammals, such as horses, dogs, and rhesus macaques, humans may share it with specific bird species, such as cockatoos (including the now-famous Snowball), budgerigars (common parakeets), and zebra finches.
However, in 2013, an extensive study from the laboratory of the behavioral biologist Colleen Reichmuth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, unexpectedly appeared and fueled the debate about the VL hypothesis. The publication compellingly demonstrated that Ronan, a California sea lion, had beat perception, whereas this species is believed not to be a vocal learner. Although it is difficult to prove the absence of a trait — in this case perhaps the undiscovered vocal learning ability of sea lions — there were many indications that sea lions do not have this ability. Yet Ronan appeared to be able to move convincingly to the beat of the music. Ronan, it turned out, was an exception, a counter-example falsifying the VL hypothesis.
While not all animals appear to have musical skills like beat perception or relative pitch, it has become increasingly likely that musicality has a biological basis and a long evolutionary history. After a decade of exciting new findings, then, it seems that Darwin was at least partly right.