If we ask the question why humans behave in a certain way, or for that matter think or feel in a certain way, we first have to consider the good old nature-nurture debate: is the behaviour we´re looking at something we could classify as innate, human nature; or is it a mere product of how our society is made up? For music, the evidence for nature is compelling. Some sort of music has been found in all human cultures known. Evidence for musical instruments like flutes and drums has been found starting from about 50,000 B.C., but the ability to sing, for example, is estimated to be 250,000 years old! Almost all humans have the capacity to perceive or produce music, and we are also really good at it. If music were not part of our nature, would composers like Johann Sebastian Bach been able to write such complex structures, and would we be able to perceive, enjoy, and appreciate them? The exemption is a condition called “amusica”, which is rather rare and also related to brain damage. The final and I think most compelling argument for music as human nature comes from babies. They are relatively blank and under little influence of society, yet they are very receptive to music. Studies have even shown that music preference is shaped inside the womb!

Therefore, it is safe to say that music lies in our genes, which are in turn the product of evolution. Typically when we talk about evolution, we think of the adaptive benefits that genetic traits have. For example, colour perception used to be very useful for our hunter-gatherer ancestors in order to distinguish foods, and therefore this ability is deeply embedded in our gene pool. But music? What adaptive value can it have? If you imagine living in the savannah, as humans did for the majority of our evolutionary history, music is unlikely to get you food or protect you from predators. However, there have been several ideas how music ability might have evolved.

1. Because life used to be an opera

Music and language are very closely related. Both share features like rhythm, melody (in speech it’s called prosody), changes in volume, and emphasis. And both also serve as a means of communication. Music is rather global; we are able to communicate moods and feelings vaguely with it, or certain movements, but that is about it. With the complexity that language inherits, we can express almost anything we need to. Therefore, it could be that music was a predecessor of language. Most emotions are closely tied to aspects crucial for survival, for example fear of dangers, and therefore communicating them might have been important.

2. Because it’s sexy

Survival is not the only mechanism how genes are passed on. In order for a gene to be distributed, the individual not only needs to survive, but also to reproduce. That means, after our ancestors got food, and fought off some lions, they also needed to find a suitable partner to lay with in order to pass their genes on.

We know from other animal species that music can be part of mating rituals. These rituals usually serve the purpose of assessing a mate´s qualities. Many exotic birds for instance do a complicated dance to woo their adored ones. They thereby boast with their abilities, which signal good physical and mental health, and therefore good genes. Good genes in turn are desirable traits in mates.

This could apply similarly to us humans. The music that we find in most hunter-gatherer societies often consists of prolonged musical sessions that also involve a lot of dancing, and therefore require quite some stamina. Besides dancing, musical ability can express creativity or dexterity, which hint at intelligence, and that in turn is again associated with good genes. Another piece of evidence is how a lot of songs pertain to love, and the fact that dancing is (arguably) still used as a sort of mating ritual. It is therefore thought that music might have evolved as a fitness assessment device.

3. Bands bond

Another adaptive value of music could lie in the social aspect of it. The music that predominated most of our evolutionary history does not resemble that overproduced synthetic stuff that comes out of the radio (no offense), but was more like those campfire songs you might remember from summer camp. It was mostly a group activity that involved some sort of drumming, clapping, and singing. Considering the lower intelligence with which our ancestors wandered around, such activity was actually quite complex. If you break down this task, it requires significant social coordination: you need to track what the others are singing, and imitate them. If you start a jam, you might need to fulfil a different role, thus sing or stomp a different part, while still tracking what the others are up to. Such social coordination skills might not only been useful in music, but also in other tasks, for example hunting down prey, or gathering fruit. Therefore, musicians might have been great team players, and people who were in favour of the group also had good chances of not dying, and getting lucky with the other sex, which hence passed on their musical genes.

4. Music education

Another theory that received less support than the aforementioned ones, is that music was adaptive because it aided general learning skills. Listening to and imitating music could have been a useful skill that could also be used, for example in the acquisition of languages. But also the dexterity of playing an instrument, or more simply, just clapping, could have been a good exercise for fine motor skills. Theorists also stress that mothers probably sang to their babies a lot, which in turn helped their speech development. The biggest setback to this theory, however, is that the role of music in aiding general learning is still heatedly debated. Nevertheless, we cannot fully rule out that this contributed to the evolution of music in humans.

Summary

So in summary, music might have evolved as a form of communication, a mating ritual/fitness indicator, as a social exercise, and/or as a learning exercise. These ideas are not mutually exclusive. Over the myriads of time humans spent evolving, music might have had all of these adaptive functions, perhaps different ones at different times.

Or maybe none of them. Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker claims that music does not have an adaptive function, but evolved as a by-product. As an analogue, we like chocolate, but we did not evolve to like chocolate in particular. We evolved to like fat and sugar, and chocolate happened to have these components. Similarly, Pinker argues that we evolved in order to be able to perceive a large range of frequencies, tones, and timbres, and detect patterns in them, but not particularly for music. The fact that we enjoy music might therefore only be incidental.

Obviously we cannot go back in time and validate these theories. So, what do you think? Comment below!