The Human Experience

While music can be analysed physically and mathematically, its purpose is the subject of intense debate. Alan Sanderson of the University of Southampton explores the arguments. 


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. 

There’s nothing inherently good or bad, or happy or sad about the notes themselves.

A contrasting argument for the origin of music originates from Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, which operates by the preference of the opposite sex. The reasoning is that musical ability is attractive and increases an individual’s chances of mating. The interesting spin to this concept is that the musical trait such as the ability to play piano might only serve as evidence of the individual’s wider fitness. An analogy found in nature is the peacock whose tail feathers are produced at a significant cost with no clear functional advantage to the male. The message to the potential mate is that he is healthy enough to construct this luxurious ornament and have energy to spare. In a similar way, musical skills demonstrate physical and mental capacities to our potential mates. Daniel Levitin, a prominent figure in the field of auditory neuroscience, places himself in the Darwinist camp. He argues in his This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession (Atlantic Books Ltd, 2013) that music has many roles that have arisen through their evolutionary advantage. An important example is that listening and playing music together promotes group bonding, which is essential for the formation of society. Individuals exhibiting this capacity for performing and listening in groups would have reaped the benefits of team working which increased their chances of passing their genes into the next generation.

The fact is that music plays a central role in most of our lives. The evidence discussed here shows the universality of music in human populations and in our personal lives. Its origins are complicated and interwoven with language but there is no doubt about its importance. Scientists and clinicians are now making the most of the language-music relationship by developing musical training schemes that help people with problems processing speech. Participation in musical activities will not improve our hearing but it will expand our ability to listen which is an investment in our future wellbeing.

• Alan Sanderson is a teaching fellow at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton. His background is in neuroscience, audiology and music production. 

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