Did Music Evolve?
Nature is running a nine-part series on music. The most recent entry by Josh McDermott, psychologist at University of Minnesota, asked how music might have evolved.1 The theme, with variations, is that nobody knows.
Music is a uniquely human trait. It is ubiquitous across cultures. Bird songs and animal calls, while musical to us, do not appear to have a music-appreciation function to the animals themselves. The great apes have nothing like it. McDermott stated the theme in paragraph one:
We think we understand why we are driven to eat, drink, have sex, talk and so forth, based on the uncontroversial adaptive functions of these urges. The drive to engage in music, a compulsion that is arguably just as pervasive in our species, has no such ready explanation. Music was one human behaviour that Charles Darwin was uncertain he could explain, writing in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex: “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man … they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.”
With access to all the latest insights from evolutionary biologists and psychologists, was McDermott at least able to suggest a leading explanation? No; “Music’s origins have remained puzzling in the years since, although there is no shortage of speculation on the subject.” Speculation is cheap. Science demands a more convincing body of evidence.
McDermott ran through the list of short answers: attracting mates, pacifying babies, a spin-off of language evolution (which only creates two problems). “These discussions run the risk of being mostly ‘Just-So’ stories, as there are few data with which to test or constrain theories.” He didn’t have much more to say other than to suggest ways future studies might suggest possible answers.
For his finale, he called music an “enduring puzzle” that may never have an evolutionary explanation.
Music is universal, a significant feature of every known culture, and yet does not serve an obvious, uncontroversial function. As such it stands in contrast to other universal human behaviours. Speculation about its possible adaptive functions has been popular since the time of Darwin, and shows few signs of resolution. Empirical approaches offer a promising alternative. There is no guarantee that a full account of music’s origins will ever emerge; in fact, that seems quite unlikely at present. Nonetheless, the right experiments will reveal a great deal – about the innate core of musical behaviour, the traits that might be unique to music, and the possible origins of those components that are not. All of which promises to enrich our appreciation of this human obsession.
His coda thus repeated the theme allargando in minor.
1. Josh McDermott, “The evolution of music,” Nature 453, 287-288 (15 May 2008) | doi:10.1038/453287a.
Do you want to follow the Darwinians, who admit that after 149 years they have nothing but speculations and just-so stories? How much time should they get before admitting defeat? Why not come back to the theists who love music as a gift of God to sentient creatures? Music demonstrates that we are more than physical bodies. Music is the expression of souls and spirits who are able to communicate rationally on a divine level. Drive a Darwinist crazy: sing a hymn.
May we suggest a short piece to cleanse out of your mind all thoughts that music evolved? Of the thousands of beautiful pieces of music that could be selected (and we are sure each person has their favorites), here is one that approaches musical perfection – a blend of human voice and orchestra that, to a well-trained ear, will lift one’s soul to heaven. It achieves a perfect balance of simplicity and complexity, melody and harmony, dynamism and tranquillity, loud and soft, orchestral tone color, alternating masculine and feminine voices, and a designed structure that enhances its spiritual message. It’s the fourth movement from the Brahms German Requiem, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.”* English versions are available, but a particularly superb performance is sung in German by Gachinger Kantorei of Stuttgart, conducted by Helmuth Rilling, available for just 99 cents on iTunes or at eMusic. This gem is only 5 minutes long. Listen through good headphones and try to convince yourself that musical artistry this superb is a product of evolution.
*Text: How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. O my soul; it longeth, yea fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed are they that dwell in the house of the Lord; they will ever praise Thee.