The mystery of why it is we humans can achieve such plateaus of pleasure when listening to music has plagued me for years.
Since learning about the mechanism of natural selection, I have found so many features of human psychology at least partially explicable in terms of the survival, or reproductive benefit they conferred to our ancestors.
Yet music remained this enigmatic outlier – always eluding my attempts to grasp a satisfying theory – with any purported explanations I found throughout my (admittedly) tepid research striking me as either specious, or sorely inadequate.
But at last I have happened upon an explanation that is to me, at least, sufficient to lay this persistent mystery to rest.
The solution, as you will see, is that music is inextricably tied to human language – and once we understand this connection, we can finally answer the question of why we find music so enjoyable.
The prevailing theories suggest that our love of music has something to do with our innate delight in pattern recognition – the pleasurable dopamine rush that is concomitant with a successful prediction.
Supposedly, listening to music facilitates this kind of dance between our mind’s anticipation of the next note, and the pleasing confirmation of that micro-prediction when the note is revealed. In the course of an entire song, an unbroken procession of these harmoniously vindicated expectations send cascades of intoxicating neurotransmitters rippling across out brains’ reward centers – hence the ascendant pleasure that accompanies this musical expedition.
Indeed, this appears to make some sense. Our ancient, evolutionary environment was the treacherous crucible in which our genetic traits were sculpted. And in this environment of scheming predators, cunning prey, and the capricious vicissitudes of weather, the ability to recognize complex patterns to predict aspects of the future would have greatly benefited our survival.
But there are a number of problems with this theory. In fact, in this article, I will cite three different factors that not only dispute the ‘pattern recognition’ theory as a sufficient hypothesis, but which also allude to the ultimate source of music’s powerful effects – the evolution of language.
1) Why are humans the only animal that experiences such transcendent joy when listening to music? Even our close relatives, the chimpanzees, derive nothing remotely like the pleasure that we do when exposed to music.
Yet chimpanzees were forged in same kind of tempestuous environment as us – where complex pattern recognition would have been similarly beneficial for their survival.
2) Why is it that different kinds of music can elicit such a diverse array of different emotions?
3) Why do different cultures seem to have their own, specific musical preferences?
For example, we know that the music from an Indian man’s childhood carries for him highly specific emotional associations, which are not present when he listens to the triumphal chords of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.
Thus music is undoubtedly associative. A particular tune is able to provoke certain associations of conceptual, and emotive imagery within the mind’s eye.
Many of us know a song that, as soon as its familiar melodies have enfolded us in their lambent embrace, can transport us back to a bygone time in our lives – eliciting the image of a sunny beach, or a bucolic mountainside, together with an ineffable feeling that summarizes an entire summer – as if the entirety of your various emotional experiences throughout that period have been distilled into a single exquisite essence.
Simple pattern recognition does not even begin to account for this phenomenon.
This associativity also explains why music is an acquired taste.
Why might our first encounter with a particular genre evoke in us utter indifference, yet, once we have been acclimated to the flavor of the sound over time, this very same music can become a source of delicate, or profound meaning?
For instance, why is it that the first time you hear the mellifluous flourishes of a Bach tune, it will be devoid of the rich significance that accompanies your eightieth listen?
So then, although the pattern recognition theory seems to have some explanatory power for the ‘acquired taste’ aspect of music: i.e. the more we hear a certain song, or genre, the better our minds will be able to anticipate the tunes, it has nothing to say about the diversity of emotional experience elicited by music, or the fact that humans appear to be the only animals who have this experience.
But as it happens, the considerations noted above can actually lead us to a much more satisfying explanation than simple pattern recognition – one that, unlike the pattern theory, can adequately account for them.
Language is the key
Communication among members of a species is a highly successful tool used by complex organisms throughout nature – from the pheromone signaling of ants, to the spirited gibbering of marmots.
But importantly, there is crucial difference between the language of ants, and the language of, for example, chimpanzees.
The ‘language’ of an ant is very rigid. If evolution is a programmer – tweaking the neural networks within its creations to encode ever more complex behavior – then the ‘coding language’ of an ant’s brain is relatively unsophisticated.
Let me show you what I mean.
If it is important for ants to communicate, for example, the location of a particular food source, then evolution must code relatively simple, yet specific instructions:
“IF (food is discovered) THEN (release pheromone x)”
And when sensing pheromones:
“IF (pheromone x detected) THEN (follow pheromone trail)”
For any given thing worth signaling – a source of food, or an invading ant from a different colony, evolution must program a unique algorithm (such as the one above) into the ant.
But this system of communication is rather limited.
Each new thing to be communicated must evolve its own encoded neural pathway – between sensory inputs (a new food source, perhaps), and pheromone output, as well as the pathways in which that output signal can then be interpreted and implemented (as an input signal) by other ants.
On an evolutionary scale, this system of encoding communication is extremely inefficient. If any new environmental developments occur (the arrival of a new ‘enemy’ ant species, perhaps), which could be navigated via some new symbol of communication, it would take evolution many generations to craft an algorithm within the ants’ neural structure to account for it.
This limitation is overcome in more complex species, like the chimpanzee.
A chimp’s language system is rather more malleable, and can be adapted for use in specific situations that natural selection could not foresee – in real time, not evolutionary time.
This is the mechanism of associative learning – specifically regarding language and communication.
A baby chimp need not have every individual ‘signal’ of communication hard-coded into its neural circuitry, like the ant. Instead, it can learn the meaning of various signals throughout the course of its life.
If the baby chimp observes that its family members let out a certain grunt, or howl, in response to a particular danger, then after this associative conditioning process has occurred, the next time it hears that same call, a flood of associations will rush into the chimp’s mind – the image of a predator, the feeling of fear, and the impulse to flee into the trees.
That is, the neurobiology of chimpanzees facilitates an intimate connection between its auditory system, and various other emotive and conceptual systems in its brain.
Thus over time, a given auditory stimulus can be encoded in the brain, with high connectivity to unique neural pathways that bring about certain emotions, images, and concepts.
This high level of plasticity in the chimp’s brain allows it to learn the language of its society over time, and allows for new auditory signals to be developed in response to new environmental stimuli.
The survival benefits of this associative language system are abundant.
Now, if we are to claim a connection between this associative language system, and music, then we need to explain why a chimpanzee does not derive the same pleasure from music as we do.
The language of humans is inordinately more complex even than that of the chimpanzees. We have the capacity to learn tens of thousands of words, with surprising ease.
How do we do this?
Like the baby chimp, a baby human can hear a particular auditory signal – a spoken word – and form associations between that word, and whatever other stimuli were present at the time.
The difference between this associative system in humans and chimpanzees, is perhaps the degree of interconnectivity.
Whereas the chimp might form relatively simplistic associations, there seems to be no limit to the jumbling, intertwining connections that we can make between our own symbolic sounds, and other areas of our psyche.
Over time, evolution had endowed us with a tremendous capacity to form rich associations – so that the word ‘ocean’, when spoken loud; a particular pattern of vibrating air, could elicit such a visceral, meaningful response in us: the sound of crashing waves, the refreshing, cool, blueness of the water, a feeling of calmness, and peace.
The more recursive and intricate our network of language became, the more readily we could store and access different parts of it; the more it was able to grow and evolve. Our language snowballed in complexity, and our own ability to endow sounds with meaning surpassed that of the chimps’ by a country mile, and more.
But so what?
Well, consider this for a moment. We possess a cognitive system for language whereby we can parse novel sounds, so that they form this vivid, textural meaning within our minds.
This system doesn’t suddenly go offline when we listen to music. No, it continues to work away, taking in the rich variety of sounds: the inflections and progressions of notes – harmonious or discordant, and establishing meaningful connections between the sounds, and other areas of the mind.
This explains why an Indian man can be so emotionally touched by a musical composition from his childhood – which renders itself to an American as nothing more than ‘uninteresting Indian music’.
The Indian man has formed these associative connections between the specific sounds of his music, and whatever existed within the sphere of his perception throughout the period where he listened to it – the joy of a playful childhood, the love of his parents, and the warm camaraderie of his peers. All of these variegated emotions had been intertwined with the music of his time, such that they can now be invoked whenever he hears it.
What evidence is there to suggest the theory might bare fruit?
One possibility is to observe the neural correlates of music – the areas of the brain active when listening to or producing music – and compare them to the neural correlates of speech.
As it happens, such investigations have already been carried out – and the overlap between the neural infrastructure active in both phenomena is substantial [Brown. S, 2006].
Is this the whole story?
Clearly there is a marked difference between the emotional stirrings of a soothing voice versus the triumphal melody of a musical composition.
Music has many vastly different characteristics from any human speech: music has rhythm, and a much wider variation in pitch. Music has tension: As the notes stray from the tonic chord, giving rise to a tense expectation, which is allayed with soothing relief as they settle back once again to land on the final resolution tone.
Yet these intricacies seem to be absent in speech. Clearly this is indicative of some fundamental difference between the two.
Music is Sexy
It is quite possible that after music established its initial tentative place alongside language, it quickly became a sexually selected trait.
With the capacity to elicit powerful emotions in the opposite sex by issuing a series of noises from your throat, perhaps it was possible to endear yourself to someone so completely that they would be subconsciously drawn to mate with you.
If this were the case, then music would have been suddenly established as a sexually selected trait, and so its gradual, yet significant divergence from normal speech might be explained.
So what grounds might we have to believe that musical ability is indeed a sexually selected trait?
Well, perhaps a comparison of the average number of sexual partners of a rock star, versus your average Joe would illustrate the point?
Or what about the apparent genetic basis of musical ability; how some people can scarcely hold a rhythm, while from others, pleasingly rhythmic melodies flow effortlessly and naturally?
It is difficult to deny the evolutionary fitness that musical ability would confer – given our knowledge of its attractiveness.
In our ancient evolutionary environment, the costs of our music: the loud signaling to predators, would not have been sufficient to outweigh its reproductive benefit, and thus, several millennia later we harbour such sophisticated musical talent in our collective gene-pool as Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John.
Music is Plumage
The eccentricities of music; the variations and vicissitudes of pitch; the punctuation of tension and release, nested within a flowing, cohesive rhythm, may simply be the exuberant flourishes that the process of sexual selection is capable of producing:
They are the ostentatiously gaudy feathers of a bird-of-paradise; small quirks in sexual taste that have been elaborated and amplified by the inexorable process of sexual selection.
Just as the electric blue of a bird’s feather has no apparent teleology, other than to satisfy the female’s arbitrary taste, so this might be the case with rhythm in music, and any other inexplicable quirks that might be present.
Sexual selection is a powerful tool for change, and importantly, these changes need not improve the survival fitness of a creature. When trying to solve the mystery of music in terms of its survival benefit, whether as an exercise in ‘pattern recognition’ or otherwise, we are hard-pressed to explain it adequately. Yet as soon as we consider that many of the quirks in music may be more like the plumage of a bird – sexually selected features that are otherwise devoid of purpose – we are well equipped to solve some of the mystery.
Conclusion: Music is a sexy spandrel
If this theory is correct, music has its genesis as a spandrel – an unintended side effect of the adaptive evolution of language.
In its primitive form, music was simply the repurposing of the associative mechanism of language – the exploitation of an ability to evoke conceptual and emotional imagery through sound.
Much like refined sugar is an unexpected glut for our enjoyment of sweet tastes, not accounted for when our gustation system was designed in an impoverished environment by natural selection, so too is music a glut for our language system – an unexpected, but delightful manipulation of the existing neural structure – capable of tapping into the heady, intoxicating liquor of our deepest emotions.
And the ability to elicit such an emotional banquet in others is very likely to have bolstered one’s sexual fitness, and thus the pieces were in place for music to evolve and thrive – to take on a life of its own as a sexually selected trait.
Our love of music can therefore be explained.
It is the tapping into of our emotional systems via the circuitry that was first laid out for use in language, and communication. But it has surpassed language in this evocative capacity, after millennia of refinement and decoration by sexual selection.
Yes folks, the conclusion here is that music is a sexy spandrel.
And while this theory hasn’t been outlined in meticulous scientific and theoretical detail in this article, I hope it has been presented with sufficient justification to demonstrate its explanatory merits.
Further elaboration and investigation is undoubtedly needed to bolster or refute the theory, but for me at least, the mystery of music is (very likely) solved.
- Brown. S. et al (2006) – “Music and language side by side in the brain: a PET study of the generation of melodies and sentences.”