Music: The Heart of Human Nature, or Auditory Cheescake?

Among the big questions, one of the biggest is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  Think about music for a moment, and several questions naturally follow:

  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?

Searching for answers to these questions will lead us through the field of evolutionary pyschology, fields of sunflowers and dragonflies, and Tool’s Lateralus.  Let’s go!

Music and the Meaning of Life: Darwin vs. Pinker

In This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitan outlines the evolutionary argument for the existence of music.  In order for genes to be successful, two conditions must be met: 1) an organism must be able to successfully mate, passing on its genes; and 2) the offspring must be able to survive in order to do the same.  From his theory of natural selection, Darwin came up with the notion of sexual selection.

I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.  Thus musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions and animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively…

~ Charles Darwin – The Descent of Man

In “The Meaning of Life” — chapter 8 of How the Mind Works, the usually sensible Steven Pinker proposes that music is essentially a byproduct of evolution: “auditory cheescake” that serves no real purpose.

What benefit could there be to the diverting time and energy to the making of plinking noises, or to feeling sad when no one has died?  As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless…[it] appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.

~ Steven Pinker – How the Mind Works

Levitin counters: “The number of sexual partners for rock stars can be hundreds of times what a normal male has, and for the top rock stars, such as Mick Jagger, physical appearance doesn’t seem to be an issue.”

Advantage: Darwin.

Music and Beauty:  The Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Mean

You would hope that there are deeper meanings and pleasures in music beyond increasing the count of sexual conquests.  (Otherwise, how to explain bassoonists and banjo players?)  Many of us find pleasure in music for its own sake — whether playing or listening, together or alone.  Studies have shown health benefits from playing music as well as from music listening and music  therapy.  But is there something intrinsic to music that provides meaning, or makes it “beautiful”?  Time to trot out Fibonacci.

Nature by Numbers

First, let’s do the math.  Take zero and add one: 0 +1 = 1.  Now extend the sequence by adding the previous two numbers (e.g., 1 +1 =2; 1 +2 = 3; 2 +3 = 5) and you get the Fibonacci sequence:

 0  1  1  2  3  5  8  13  21  34  55  89  144  233  377  610  987  1597... 

Easy enough.  The Golden Mean is a little trickier.  Take a line, divide it into two sections so that the ratio of the total line to the longer section is the same as the ratio of the longer section to the shorter section.  And voilà: you are golden.  That is, you have arrived at the Golden Mean (or Golden Ratio), an irrational mathematical constant approximately equal to 1.6180339887…

How is the Golden Mean related to the Fibonacci sequence?  More important, how is any of this related to music?  We will explore those questions in Part 2.  Until then, enjoy the Fibonacci sequence and Golden Mean in action from Cristóbal Vila below.  If you just can’t wait for more, check out the excellent exposition on Vila’s eterea studios site, and a well-done YouTube short from Jane Weavis.