In Part 1, we began to consider the questions below, and concluded that there is an evolutionary basis for the existence of music.  In Part 2, we found that there is no single, easy answer to the question of what makes music beautiful.  So are there multiple difficult answers?  Here we approach the question from another direction – what is it about ourselves that gives music the power to provide pleasure, or move us in other ways?

  1. Why does music even exist?  Is it an evolutionary adaptation, or an accident — an evolutionary parasite?
  2. What makes music “beautiful”?
  3. Why do we derive pleasure from music?  What is it about music that “moves” us?
  4. Why do individuals prefer one type of music over another?

Pinker’s Six Ingredients of Music Magic

Steven Pinker does not believe there is an evolutionary basis for music, so he is left to explain where it comes from and how it works:

I suspect that music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.  A standard piece tickles them all at once, but we can see the ingredients in various kinds of not-quite-music that leaves one or more of them out.

Pinker’s ingredients can be summarized as follows:

  1. Language – Pinker compares music to “heightened speech.”  He notes that some singers like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed slip into “talking on pitch” instead of singing a melody, and points to Rap music as an intermediate form.
  2. Auditory Scene Analysis – This is the process of sorting out sounds in the environment and making associations among them.  “Perhaps melodies are pleasing to the ear for the same reason that symmetrical, regular, parallel, repetitive doodles are pleasing to the eye.  They exaggerate the experience of being in an environment that contains strong, clear, analyzable signals from interesting and potent objects.”
  3. Emotional Calls – Melodies may make evoke emotional responses because they have the “acoustic signatures” of whimpering, whining, moaning, growling, cooing, and other emotional outbursts.  We are referring back to language again, and Pinker points out that soul musicians mix growls and cries with their singing, and singers of torch songs use catches, cracks, hesitations, and other emotional tics.
  4. Habitat Selection – Just as we pay attention to visual cues that signal safe, unsafe, or changing environments, auditory signals such as thunder, birdsong, rushing water and footsteps can portend changing habitats.  Some program music and tone poems try to evoke environmental sounds
  5. Motor Control – Music may recreate the motivational and emotional components of movement, such as dancing, walking, running, and swinging.
  6. Something Else – Pinker suggests here that music may affect our emotions essentially by accident.  Among the possibilities he suggests: “perhaps a resonance in the brain between neurons firing in synchrony with a soundwave and a natural oscillation in the emotion circuits?”

In the end, Pinker admits that his analysis is speculative, but repeats his assertion that music is not an evolutionary adaptation.

As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world.  Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.

~ Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct

Levitan and the Music Instinct

Levitan believes there is an evolutionary basis for music, and he puts forward several arguments to support his case.  In addition to the idea that music plays a role in sexual selection as covered in Part 1, he offers two more possibilities:

  1. Social Bonding and Cohesion – collective music-making can promote feelings of group togetherness, and may have been a way to stay awake, ward off predators, and develop cooperation within the group.
  2. Cognitive Development – music may have prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech and other forms of communication.  Singing, instrumental, and rhythmic activities may have helped to refine motor skills, and develop the muscle control needed for vocal or signed speech.  And because music is a complex activity, it may help infants prepare for other mental work.

Taken by themselves, Pinker’s ingredients do not conflict with Levitan’s proposals.  The differences are in matters of context and primacy.  Where Pinker finds meaningless contemplation of auditory scenes, Levitan sees cognitive development and survival skills.  As a linguist, Pinker unsurprisingly believes that language came first, then music popped up by accident and came along for the evolutionary ride. Not everyone agrees.

Rhythm is gonna get’cha

In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks writes about the communal experience of music, suggesting that there is an actual “binding” of nervous systems, or to use a word favored by early mesmerists, a “neurogamy”.

The binding is accomplished by rhythm — not only heard but internalized, identically, in all who are present.  Rhythm turns listeners into participants, makes listening active and motoric, and synchronizes the brains and minds (and, since emotion is always intertwined with music, the “hearts”) of all who participate.

What came first – the words or the music?

Sacks later discusses the work of Merlin Donald, who believes that human evolution moved from the “episodic” life of apes to a “mimetic” culture that flourished for tens or hundreds of thousands of years before language and conceptual thinking evolved.  Sacks writes: “Donald proposes that mimesis — the power to represent emotions, external events, or stories using only gesture and posture, movement and sound, but not language — is still the bedrock of human culture today.”

Rhythm is an integrative-mimetic skill, related to both vocal and visumotor mimesis…Rhythmic ability is supramodal, that is, once a rhythm is established, it may be played out with any motor modality, including the hands, feet, mouth, or the whole body…

Rhythm is, in a sense, the quintessential mimetic skill…Rhythmic games are widespread among human children, and there are few, if any, human cultures that have not employed rhythm as an expressive device.

~ Merlin Donald – Origins of the Modern Mind

Music is more than just rhythm of course, and its emotional power can be more fully realized when melodies and harmonies are introduced.  Studies have shown intrinsic emotional qualities in music that are recognized across cultures.  Discovery Health reports on a study which found that that indigenous Mafa tribes from Cameroon could consistently identify emotions in Western music such as happiness, sadness, and fear.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

So far we’ve seen that music can make you more sexually desirable, and that rhythm can bind people together, but what about the pure pleasure part?  How can listening to an ordered succession of tones, alone — with a pair of headphones — produce chills, or musical “frisson“.

With drugs, as it turns out.  You may have suspected this all along (and so did many others, including Levitan), but a group of researchers from McGill University just proved it:

Our results provide, to the best of our knowledge, the first direct evidence that the intense pleasure experienced when listening to music is associated with dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system…One explanation for this phenomenon is that it is related to enhancement of emotions. The emotions induced by music are evoked, among other things, by temporal phenomena, such as expectations, delay, tension, resolution, prediction, surprise and anticipation

~ – “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music” – January 9, 2011

Using a combination of positron emmission photography (PET) scanning and autonomic nervous system (ANS) monitoring,  the authors studied a group of people who consistently experienced objectively verifiable chills during their peak emotional responses to music.   And where previous studies used experimenter-selected music, the subjects at McGill chose their own “highly pleasurable music.”

So in one sense, Pinker is correct: music does have self-reinforcing pleasure properties.  But unlike heroin, it is not associated with fatal overdoses, HIV/AIDS, or painful withdrawals.  And given all of music’s positive associations with cognitive development, social cohesion, and physical and mental health, it seems a little silly to categorize it as “useless”.  Would your world be virtually unchanged if music disappeared?