If we examine music recordings using a spectral analyser we reveal very little about the beauty of music. There’s nothing inherently good or bad, or happy or sad about the notes themselves. But when they are received by the human ear, processed in the auditory system and presented to the areas of the brain that deal with memories, emotions, patterns and physical movements we experience something whole, but wondrously intangible. What is it about patterns of vibrating air, perceived as pitch, timbre, rhythm and harmony that evoke emotional responses?
The scientific fields of psychoacoustics and auditory neuroscience have begun to unveil how music affects the brain to give rise to our subjective experience. However, to address the reasons behind music being so deeply and profoundly ingrained in the human condition, we have to rely on the theories of anthropologists, psychologists and evolutionary scientists.
The purpose of music
The ultimate purpose of music has been debated since Charles Darwin wrote on the subject and it remains controversial. Among the many varied opinions, two prominent arguments dominate current thinking on the topic. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and popular science writer, asserts in his book How the Mind Works (W W Norton, 2009) that music was not a unique driver of human evolution. He uses the metaphor ‘auditory cheesecake’ to describe how music creates joy and allows communication by piggy- backing on our language systems. According to Pinker, music is an indulgence for our language system in the same way that cheesecake overstimulates our taste for sugars and fats that were scarce in our ancestor’s diet. This argument proposes that language is a faculty of the mind that evolved because of its obvious benefits to primate social living. Music, Pinker argues, is better explained as a by-product of language having no clear advantage itself.