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MirceaKitsune

What makes us like music?

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This is one thing I was always curious about regarding the evolution of life and people. It's known that most things which define living beings descend from features that were essential for survival. We have limbs, eyes, ears, etc. because with them we could fight or escape predators (or be predators) and avoid dangerous environments. From a psychological point of view, we developed a language because it allowed us to work in teams and survive. Moving away from features essential to survival, people also developed activities / games / fun ways of passing the time, but which can also be explained as they satisfy certain features of the mind and body.

 

For example, sport requires physical effort which in turn releases hormones related to positive feelings. Combining that with the joy of a victory, it makes sense from a biological perspective why sport existed since the earliest days of mankind. Or let's take art, which is a way for people to visualize scenarios which can't happen in their physical reality... a desire once again explainable by how the brain works. Yet there's one... which I can't understand how biology and the brain lead to, but which also doesn't feel like something learned; Music.

 

It's an obvious fact... everyone likes music, and we couldn't imagine the world without it! Of different types and genres, by different artists, and for different messages it transmits. But unlike other things, it's hard to understand how this came to be. After all, music is just a precise arrangement of various overlapping sounds in a logical loop... with voice added on top in some cases. It also doesn't describe an actual place or object like drawn art, so it's not an efficient method of transmitting essential information. Somehow, the brain takes liking to translating those precise noise patterns, rather than finding it all a senseless sound.

 

One could argue that our like for music might be taught. For example, the ancestors of humans would play the war drums to announce their people of an upcoming war. Not with the intent to compose music, but as a way of making noise to attract attention. From that, people could have later developed a liking for sorted beats. It sounds logical after all.

 

But personally, I tend to disbelieve that. Primarily because no one is taught to like music. People like it simply because they like it... it's something which is part of them. Even if you take a man who lived isolated in a forest all his life and play him a nice song, he will enjoy it and not find it some gibberish noise. The official theory of evolution also ruled out the idea that learned experiences become part of the genetic code in offspring. Further more, it doesn't appear to be just a human thing either. I remember a cat expert confirming that symphonic music calms cats down and makes them feel happy. Yet to cats found in nature, nothing similar to symphonic music is ever heard, which could explain them associating the sound of a violin with a happy feeling... after all it's not that close to purring and meowing.

 

So has anyone figured out how this works? What is it in our genes and the structure of the brain that makes us like music?

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Thank you. That's pretty useful and complete... at least in describing the little known at this stage.

 

The fact that music triggers areas of the brain involved in creating pleasure or sorrow makes sense, although how and why that happens is the interesting thing. I imagined it might be a feature that randomly appeared during the evolution of humans from apes. Yet it feels like there's more than that somehow, and that it might have a precise purpose or be the result of crucial brain functionality.

 

One article said "it might have given an evolutionary advantage". Although I can't easily imagine how that could be, it does sound possible. Perhaps music could cheer up and motivate people, making them better at hunting or offering them better senses and reflexes, therefore increasing chances of survival?

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Thank you. That's pretty useful and complete... at least in describing the little known at this stage.

 

The fact that music triggers areas of the brain involved in creating pleasure or sorrow makes sense, although how and why that happens is the interesting thing. I imagined it might be a feature that randomly appeared during the evolution of humans from apes. Yet it feels like there's more than that somehow, and that it might have a precise purpose or be the result of crucial brain functionality.

 

One article said "it might have given an evolutionary advantage". Although I can't easily imagine how that could be, it does sound possible. Perhaps music could cheer up and motivate people, making them better at hunting or offering them better senses and reflexes, therefore increasing chances of survival?

I have my own pet theory on this.

It goes like this:

Our ears work all day long (even when asleep) because they are warning devices. They gather information about our environment, as predators but also as a prey.

A most inconfortable situation is when you are in absolute silence, then you hear the sounds of your own body.

So IMO music is a situation where the sounds of our environment are covered, as if there was no danger to care about (like when you whistle to give yourself some courage) which means that you can relax, and the sounds you get are coherent.maybe predictable.

Edited by michel123456

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There are at least two currently observable roles of human music that provide evolutionary advantage in other animals:

 

sexual selection (for health and vigor, obviously, but also in humans and some birds etc for intelligence and capability);

 

and social bonding, pack formation (wolves famously, but hyenas and whales and probably many other mammals also).

 

Something to note - it's standard and expected for the features playing such roles in a social animal to be "useless" otherwise. It's very important, for example, that the social bonds be made and maintained well in advance and outside of anything of consequence depending on them. It's too late to start practicing being a coordinated group of known and reliable buddies when the tiger appears or the tree trunk needs to be picked up, and as for sexual selection it often rides on features not merely useless but actually expensive and handicapping.

Edited by overtone

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Interesting research, but the OP appears to be more focused on the potentially adaptive explanations for why we love music and those links are limited in helping us understand and generate plausible theories about the adaptive function of music.

 

There are at least two currently observable roles of human music that provide evolutionary advantage in other animals:

 

sexual selection (for health and vigor, obviously, but also in humans and some birds etc for intelligence and capability);

 

and social bonding, pack formation (wolves famously, but hyenas and whales and probably many other mammals also).

 

Something to note - it's standard and expected for the features playing such roles in a social animal to be "useless" otherwise. It's very important, for example, that the social bonds be made and maintained well in advance and outside of anything of consequence depending on them. It's too late to start practicing being a coordinated group of known and reliable buddies when the tiger appears or the tree trunk needs to be picked up, and as for sexual selection it often rides on features not merely useless but actually expensive and handicapping.

It's hard to imagine how there could have been a strong adaptive pressure in prehistory that allowed music to become a central human experience in regard to social bonding or sexual selection. Perhaps singing as a sexual selective trait, that eventually evolved into music via culture, utilizing the same biological mechanisms, but that doesn't appear especially intuitive and I have never heard of any authority proposing it.

 

Generation after generation of selection (natural or sexual) for music appreciation in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, It is hard to see it. It really is a fascinating dilemma. I remember reading a popular science writer, Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works, and while he could provide solid and plausible theories for the adaptive function for a wide range of human emotions and cultural phenomena, he was able to offer little regarding music, and he freely admitted it.

 

It seems to me that the answer may very well rest away from a direct adaptive function, perhaps some form of a spandrel, a byproduct, a welcome one at that, from our complex mental machinery. Machinery, that is so flexible and useful in survival and reproduction, that all sorts of non-adaptive functions arise from it with no evolutionary justification required.

Edited by tantalus

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I have not read much regarding this topic but think it is an interesting question.

My guess is that humans are drawn to the repetitiveness of it. Our unconscious is constantly working to judge distance, triangulate the source, and evaluate the meaning of sounds we hear. Music with its tempos and rythemes probably makes it easy and relaxing to for our unconscious to follow. Plus the multitude of tones makes triangulation easier.

In terms of an evolutionary advantage, assuming there is one, repetitive sounds are typically artificial. So perhaps consciously being aware of the difference between a naturally occurring and artificial sound helped us.

I will certainly read up on this.

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Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works, and while he could provide solid and plausible theories for the adaptive function for a wide range of human emotions and cultural phenomena, he was able to offer little regarding music, and he freely admitted it.

Pinker is famously dismissive of hardwired evolutionary mental adaptations with complex culturally mediated expression, even in animals (he requires operant conditioning to explain mental phenomena) and the inability to discover even a potential evolutionary origin and role for human music with that approach is one of the major pieces of evidence that it is fundamentally mistaken.

 

The two most obvious possibilities, sexual selection and pack bonding, are not at all mutually exclusive and are both supported with quite bit of evidence.

 

To paraphrase Robbie Robertson's account of how he was persuaded as a young man to dump his schooling and job prospects and family and all sensible future prospects to join the rock and roll group called "The Band": 'the manager said I'd have a great time on tour with the guys, and I'd get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.'

 

Or to approach things another way: How do you think a wolf feels when it's howling with the pack?

Edited by overtone

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Pinker is famously dismissive of hardwired evolutionary mental adaptations with complex culturally mediated expression, even in animals (he requires operant conditioning to explain mental phenomena) and the inability to discover even a potential evolutionary origin and role for human music with that approach is one of the major pieces of evidence that it is fundamentally mistaken.

 

In this context, what do you mean as mental phenomena?

 

The two most obvious possibilities, sexual selection and pack bonding, are not at all mutually exclusive and are both supported with quite bit of evidence.

 

I would be interested to read on this if you could cite some.

 

To paraphrase Robbie Robertson's account of how he was persuaded as a young man to dump his schooling and job prospects and family and all sensible future prospects to join the rock and roll group called "The Band": 'the manager said I'd have a great time on tour with the guys, and I'd get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.'

 

 

Or to approach things another way: How do you think a wolf feels when it's howling with the pack?

I don't see the wolf comparison as being especially instructive. Obviously sound and individual recognition are important in coordination and bonding in many species, sexual selection and song in the birds, that doesn't prove anything except that they should be considered. That said, the more I think about it, the more I think your 2 proposals are valid possibilities, especially as it isnt clear regarding the evolution of language. Music and its predecessors may have been even more important in a world with a small vocabulary, although one would think we might be seeing something in the other primates but I have never heard of anything equivalent to our fondness to music in their behaviour. It appears that there has been a relatively rapid burst in evolution regarding music, surely linked to the expansion of our brain. The other primates have "passed" on it and that is why I dont think the wolf example is especially meaningful.

 

Most importantly I think is your point about explanations not being mutually exclusive.

 

That said, our brains give us much more flexibility in dealing with our environment, most importantly with each other, with that, we should expect that a wide range of phenomena emerges with no adaptive purpose or a weak one, as a result of that great flexibility, which on balance produces a fitness gain. Of course I am massively oversimplifying and treating the brain as a single unit for selection to act upon, I understand that there is nothing further from the truth than that, but the strong possibility should be considered that other more powerful adaptive functions of the brain have provided the majority or even all of the fitness gain and that they also are useful in appreciating music, which could almost be considered a discovery. or, it could be one or more theories, including your two, helped channel in part what was mostly a non-adaptive phenomenon.

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although one would think we might be seeing something in the other primates but I have never heard of anything equivalent to our fondness to music in their behaviour. It appears that there has been a relatively rapid burst in evolution regarding music, surely linked to the expansion of our brain. The other primates have "passed" on it and that is why I dont think the wolf example is especially meaningful

1) We, like howling wolves and coyotes, are nomadic pack hunters - so are hyenas, famous for vocalizing, and pack hunting whales or dolphins, famous for vocalizing. Pack foraging mammals howl and sing, in general - even marsupials, such as Tasmanian Devils. We are the only nomadic pack hunting primate - if there is going to be a pack howling primate, we're the most likely candidate.

 

2) Many primates and similar creatures put great emphasis on vocalizing in a variety of contexts (howler monkees are named for it, lemurs in general are elaborately vocal, etc). Several of them, like humans, have special larynx and throat structures to abet their vocalizing.

 

But the point was not that we are like wolves; it was that there are well known roles for apparently "useless" singing etc in relevant natural and evolutionary contexts. They may not be the right or sole or most significant explanations in our case, but they are obvious possibilities - to say the whole situation is completely mysterious and without apparent possible explanation is to overlook some plain and standard stuff.

 

 

 

That said, our brains give us much more flexibility in dealing with our environment, most importantly with each other, with that, we should expect that a wide range of phenomena emerges with no adaptive purpose or a weak one, as a result of that great flexibility,

Of course. But one does not expect such phenomena to emerge wholly from nothing in particular and take over an entire global species as universally and ubiquitously and significantly as music has humans. If we adopt music so flexibly and casually, as an empiphenomenon, for no particular reason or benefit, how come we always, everywhere adopt it, and at such a basic level of social functioning, and at such expense in time and effort and attention?

Edited by overtone

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Interesting... this isn't something I've thought of before. Many animals simply make loud noises to attract attention about a danger, and sometimes transmit extra information that way. But others do something that can be considered closer to singing.

 

Wolves howling to the moon are a good example. First of all, it doesn't seem to be something they do for a practical reason... such as attracting attention toward danger. They appear to do out of enjoyment if anything, somewhat similar to why singers enjoy singing. Second, howling has sort of a pattern to it. If barking is more like yelling at someone, howling is like playing the violin in a simple pattern so to say. So I imagine that's something that can become part of wolves the same way modern music is part of our lives basically. And of course the concept can apply to many species out there, which are past a certain level of intelligence. This might bring more insight into how humans evolved to like music as well.

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1) We, like howling wolves and coyotes, are nomadic pack hunters - so are hyenas, famous for vocalizing, and pack hunting whales or dolphins, famous for vocalizing. Pack foraging mammals howl and sing, in general - even marsupials, such as Tasmanian Devils. We are the only nomadic pack hunting primate - if there is going to be a pack howling primate, we're the most likely candidate.

 

2) Many primates and similar creatures put great emphasis on vocalizing in a variety of contexts (howler monkees are named for it, lemurs in general are elaborately vocal, etc). Several of them, like humans, have special larynx and throat structures to abet their vocalizing.

 

But the point was not that we are like wolves; it was that there are well known roles for apparently "useless" singing etc in relevant natural and evolutionary contexts. They may not be the right or sole or most significant explanations in our case, but they are obvious possibilities - to say the whole situation is completely mysterious and without apparent possible explanation is to overlook some plain and standard stuff.

All animals have “specialised” structures for making their vocalisations, not proof of anything but the obvious and there are other clear and potential adaptive explanations for the way the larynx is without needing to evoke music. Other primates use vocalisations for territorial displays, a clear adaptive function, but they have nothing equivalent to music, if we discussing only vocalisation, than the level of insight your providing would be more constructive, but music is different.

 

It's important I don't get caught up playing the devil's advocate. You have helped convince me that both your theories have enough merit to be considered viable potential players. This article offers both your theories as strong possibilities, as well as the non-adaptive avenue, I have cherrypicked it to my own ends but I recommend a full read, MirceaKitsune, i reckon you will find it informative.

 

In difficulty of learning, music lies somewhere in between speaking and writing. Most people have some musical ability, but it varies far more than their ability to speak. Dr Patel sees this as evidence to support his idea that music is not an adaptation in the way that language is, but is, instead, a transformative technology. However, that observation also supports the idea that sexual selection is involved, since the whole point is that not everyone will be equally able to perform, or even to learn how to do so.
Such a multiplicity of effects suggests music may be an emergent property of the brain, cobbled together from bits of pre-existing machinery and then, as it were, fine-tuned. So, ironically, everyone may be right—or, at least partly right. Dr Pinker may be right that music was originally an accident and Dr Patel may be right that it transforms people's perceptions of the world without necessarily being a proper biological phenomenon. But Dr Miller and Dr Dunbar may be right that even if it originally was an accident, it has subsequently been exploited by evolution and made functional.

http://www.economist.com/node/12795510

 

 

Originally posted by Overtone

Of course. But one does not expect such phenomena to emerge wholly from nothing in particular and take over an entire global species as universally and ubiquitously and significantly as music has humans. If we adopt music so flexibly and casually, as an empiphenomenon, for no particular reason or benefit, how come we always, everywhere adopt it, and at such a basic level of social functioning, and at such expense in time and effort and attention?

Emerge wholly from nothing, no, never from nothing, I never suggested that. Non-adaptive has a source as much as adaptive.

 

An entire global species, we weren't always that way, we have our own narrow origin, in geography and time (bottlenecks), universality for anything in humanity isn't surprising with that in mind.

 

Music has exploded with aid of civilisation, culture and technology. There is no mystery there, even if there was a completely adaptive origin proven and accepted, the modern state of music would still be completely disproportionate in "time and effort and attention" from its past adaptive function, many of us have all the luxury in the world to enjoy our modern inventions. In other words, because we like it.

Edited by tantalus

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In difficulty of learning, music lies somewhere in between speaking and writing. Most people have some musical ability, but it varies far more than their ability to speak.
It does? Not that I've noticed. I think the researcher may be underestimating the normal level of musical competence people have historically displayed - the background level - and underestimated as well the variance in people's ability to speak.

 

People who put the time into music that any child puts into speaking can sing at least as well as that child can talk, universally, in my experience. How many English speaking children do you know who cannot sing the alphabet song recognisably, based on maybe three repetitions - and thereby halve or better the time necessary to learn the alphabet? They are learning to read via music - a trick that also works for other academic subjects, contributes to learning to speak, and so forth. Speech pathologists use music frequently, with stutterers etc, to ease the process of learning to speak by way of something any child can do. Hundreds of thousands of people who have seen the appropriate episode of the old TV comedy "Cheers" can tell you which sea Albania borders on, and its main export at the time, to this day.

 

 

 

Music has exploded with aid of civilisation, culture and technology.
Debatable. Early literature - thousand page epics - were composed in poetry and essentially sung or chanted (with musical instrument accompaniment, normally). People just a few generations ago knew on average dozens of songs, and had sung them. The role of spectator, audience, consumer, of music may have expanded and encroached into everyday life, but the practice of making music oneself and with others has become much less common and ubiquitous than it was.

 

We write prose novels and read them silently now. We do not sing at work, in chorus and coordination with others.

 

Meanwhile, essentially musical abilities are fundamental to speech - not only in tonal languages, but in production and comprehension of all speech. It's almost certain that they predate speech, for one thing because it's difficult to conceive of speech without them. Birds, that sing, can be taught to speak; chimpanzees, that do not sing, cannot.

 

 

 

Other primates use vocalisations for territorial displays, a clear adaptive function, but they have nothing equivalent to music,
And they don't routinely pack hunt big game. Mammals that do, pack howl as well.

 

We're a pack hunting primate.

 

 

 

An entire global species, we weren't always that way, we have our own narrow origin, in geography and time (bottlenecks), universality for anything in humanity isn't surprising with that in mind
Maintaining an expensive feature over thousands of generations in a global variety of circumstances and crises spread over hundreds of genetically isolated populations almost certainly requires adaptive value, or at minimum a serious cost to its disappearance (as with the human appendix).

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On 5/6/2014 at 5:03 PM, MirceaKitsune said:

This is one thing I was always curious about regarding the evolution of life and people. It's known that most things which define living beings descend from features that were essential for survival. We have limbs, eyes, ears, etc. because with them we could fight or escape predators (or be predators) and avoid dangerous environments. From a psychological point of view, we developed a language because it allowed us to work in teams and survive. Moving away from features essential to survival, people also developed activities / games / fun ways of passing the time, but which can also be explained as they satisfy certain features of the mind and body.

 

For example, sport requires physical effort which in turn releases hormones related to positive feelings. Combining that with the joy of a victory, it makes sense from a biological perspective why sport existed since the earliest days of mankind. Or let's take art, which is a way for people to visualize scenarios which can't happen in their physical reality... a desire once again explainable by how the brain works. Yet there's one... which I can't understand how biology and the brain lead to, but which also doesn't feel like something learned; Music.

 

It's an obvious fact... everyone likes music, and we couldn't imagine the world without it! Of different types and genres, by different artists, and for different messages it transmits. But unlike other things, it's hard to understand how this came to be. After all, music is just a precise arrangement of various overlapping sounds in a logical loop... with voice added on top in some cases. It also doesn't describe an actual place or object like drawn art, so it's not an efficient method of transmitting essential information. Somehow, the brain takes liking to translating those precise noise patterns, rather than finding it all a senseless sound.

 

One could argue that our like for music might be taught. For example, the ancestors of humans would play the war drums to announce their people of an upcoming war. Not with the intent to compose music, but as a way of making noise to attract attention. From that, people could have later developed a liking for sorted beats. It sounds logical after all.

 

But personally, I tend to disbelieve that. Primarily because no one is taught to like music. People like it simply because they like it... it's something which is part of them. Even if you take a man who lived isolated in a forest all his life and play him a nice song, he will enjoy it and not find it some gibberish noise. The official theory of evolution also ruled out the idea that learned experiences become part of the genetic code in offspring. Further more, it doesn't appear to be just a human thing either. I remember a cat expert confirming that symphonic music calms cats down and makes them feel happy. Yet to cats found in nature, nothing similar to symphonic music is ever heard, which could explain them associating the sound of a violin with a happy feeling... after all it's not that close to purring and meowing.

 

So has anyone figured out how this works? What is it in our genes and the structure of the brain that makes us like music?

 

One theory I've read is that it allows us to pick up on and mimic the various bird and animal calls. This would have given our ancestors a sizable advantage both in their own hunting and knowing when a predator was about.

 

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Harmonization comes mind for me when reading the thread topic / subject. Some sounds harmonize with what’s going on inside of us. Our heartbeat. Our breathing. Our brain patterns. Our emotion. Our belly gurgles... they all have rhythms and consistent wavelengths. 

Sometimes music harmonizes with all of that and we feel a sense of belonging and oneness with the pressure waves hitting our ears 

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I don't know the answer myself, but coincidentally I'm reading a fascinating book about this exact topic. It's called This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin (https://www.amazon.com/This-Your-Brain-Music-Obsession/dp/0452288525). The book tries to answer questions like "What is music", "Where does it come from", "Why do certain sequences of sound make us feel emotional and others just bother us, like a car honk or a dog bark". The author is a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, and before that he worked in the music industry for many years as a musician, sound engineer and music producer, which is cool because he provides a mix of experience from both worlds. The book is very scientific, which seems to be what you seek, listing all the scientific sources used in each chapter for example, and is a very good read, I'm having a lot of fun. I'm very early on, so I can't really tell you for sure if it serves to answer your queries, sorry for that, but I think you should definitely look into it. It might be a little much about music theory in the beginning, but you can probably skip that part if you want.

Cheers

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