The importance of music, and how it has made us evolve.
In one way or another, music is present in almost every sphere of our lives. It can be, for example, inserted into a scene from a horror movie to increase tension and anguish, or it can be used during a fitness class so that your attendees follow the right pace.
On the other hand, in any social event worth its salt, a melody cannot be missing, even in the background. From Richard Wagner’s famous bridal march at a wedding to the bands and singer-songwriters that set nighttime bars, musicality is always present.
Individuals in all human societies can perceive musicality and be emotionally sensitive to sound (Amodeo, 2014). It is easy for anyone to know when a song pleases them, causes them sadness or even euphoria. And, like many other things in our lives, we accept the existence of music as something natural. However, when analyzed from a scientific point of view, the ability to create and enjoy music is quite complex and has attracted the attention of researchers from many different fields.
- Recommended Article: “What Music Do Smart People Listen to?”
Music could favor survival
For a few decades, evolutionary scientists have set out to find the origin of music in the biological history of the human being. This perspective starts from the theory of natural selection, affirming that it is the needs imposed by the environment that shape the design of all species, since the individuals with the best adaptations (physiological or psychological) at all times will survive.
These beneficial traits arise from various genetic mutations, which if positive for survival will have a greater chance of being transmitted from generation to generation. In the case of humans, the pressure of natural selection has affected the structure and functions of the brain over thousands of years , surviving the design that allowed carrying out more functional behaviors.
However, our species is much more complex. Although natural selection has shaped the biological design of the organism, it is culture and what we learn throughout life that ends up defining who we are.
With these ideas in mind, many ethologists, neuroscientists, musicologists, and biologists agree that there was a moment in history when music helped our ancestors survive in a harsh and hostile environment. In a review of the subject, Martín Amodeo (2014) affirms that the ability to appreciate sound art could even have an essential role in the emergence of the human species. These statements may be surprising since, currently, the use that is given to music is apparently playful and does not involve a matter of life and death, fortunately.
When did music emerge?
Musicality would be prior to the appearance of art and language, the latter two being the almost exclusive property of Homo sapiens. The hominids before the human being would not have the necessary mental capacity to elaborate a complex language, having to stick to a pre-linguistic communication system based on sounds that changed rhythm and melody. In turn, they accompanied these sounds with gestures and movements, representing as a whole simple meanings about the emotions that they wanted to convey to their classmates (Mithen, 2005). Although there was still a long way to go in history to reach the current level, music and verbal language would have their primitive starting point here.
However, although music and verbal language have a common origin, there is a great difference between the two. The sounds we assign to words have nothing to do with their meaning in real life. For example, the word “dog” is an abstract concept that has been attributed to this mammal randomly through culture. The advantage of language would be that certain sounds can refer to very precise propositions. On the contrary, the sounds of music would be in a certain way natural and it could be said that: “music seems to mean what it sounds like” (Cross, 2010) although the meaning of this is usually ambiguous and cannot be expressed with exact words.
In this regard, researchers from the University of Sussex (Fritz et. Al, 2009) conducted a cross-cultural study in support of this thesis. In their research, they studied the recognition of three basic emotions (happiness, sadness and fear) present in various Western songs by members of the African Mafa tribe, who had never had contact with other cultures and, of course, had never heard the songs that were presented to them. The Mafas recognized the songs as happy, sad, or scary, so it seems that these basic emotions can also be recognized and expressed through music.
In summary, one of the main functions of music, in its origins, could be the induction of moods in other people (Cross, 2010), which can serve to try to modify the behavior of others based on certain objectives .
We carry music inside since we are born
Another of the pillars of today’s music may be in the mother-child relationship. Ian Cross, professor of Music and Science and researcher at the University of Cambridge, has studied the age of acquisition, by babies, of all the faculties that allow musical perception, concluding that before the first year of life they already they have developed these capacities to the level of an adult. The development of verbal language, on the other hand, will be more time consuming.
To cope with this, the child’s parents resort to a peculiar form of communication. As Amodeo (2014) describes, when a mother or father speaks to a baby, they do so differently than when they establish an adult conversation. When speaking to the newborn while being rocked rhythmically, a higher-than-normal voice is used, using repetitive patterns, somewhat exaggerated intonations, and very marked melodic curves. This way of expressing themselves, which would be an innate language between the son and the mother, would help to establish a very deep emotional connection between them. Parents who had this capacity in hostile times would see their descendants care easier since, for example, they could calm the cry of a child, preventing it from attracting predators. Therefore, those with this pre-musical ability would be more likely that their genes and characteristics would survive and be spread over time.
Martín Amodeo maintains that the rhythmic movements and the singular vocalizations that the father performed would give rise to the song and music. In addition, the ability of babies to capture this would be maintained throughout life and would allow, in adulthood, they could feel emotions when listening to a certain combination of sounds, for example, in the form of musical composition. This mechanism of mother-child interaction is common to all cultures, which is why it is considered universal and innate.
Music makes us feel more united
There are also theories based on the social function of music, since this would favor the cohesion of the group. For ancient humans, cooperation and solidarity in a hostile environment was key to survival. A pleasant group activity such as the production and enjoyment of music would cause the individual to secrete a high amount of endorphins, something that would occur together if the melody is heard by several people at the same time. This coordination, by allowing music to transmit basic feelings and emotions, would allow obtaining a “generalized emotional state in all members of a group” (Amodeo, 2014).
Various studies affirm that group interaction through music favors empathy, consolidates the identity of the community, facilitates integration in it and, as a consequence, maintains its stability (Amodeo, 2014). A cohesive group through activities such as music would therefore facilitate its survival as it would promote cooperation between large groups of people.
Applying it to our days as well, the beauty of music when enjoyed in a group is based on two factors. On the one hand, there is a biological factor that allows us to elicit shared emotions before, for example, the same song. This favors the feeling of mutual affiliation (Cross, 2010). The second factor is based on the ambiguity of the music. Thanks to our complex cognitive abilities, human beings have the ability to attribute meanings to what they hear based on their personal experience. Due to this, in addition to promoting basic emotions, music allows each person to give a personal interpretation to what she hears, adjusting it to her current state.
Musical practice improves our cognitive abilities
The last factor that seems to have helped the development of music as such a complex cultural factor is its ability to influence other cognitive abilities. Like almost any skill that is learned, music training modifies the brain in its functions and structure.
In addition, there is a solid basis that indicates that musical training has a positive influence on other domains such as spatial reasoning, mathematics or linguistics (Amodeo, 2014).
Similar in other species
Finally, it should be mentioned that animals such as belugas and many birds have followed similar evolutionary processes. Although the main function of song in many birds (and in some marine mammals) is to communicate states or to try to influence other animals (for example, in courtship through song or to mark territory), it seems that sometimes they sing only for fun. In addition, some birds keep an aesthetic sense and try to make compositions that, when analyzed musically, follow certain rules.
In conclusion, since music seems to be something as natural as life itself, knowledge of it should be encouraged from childhood, despite the fact that it has unfortunately lost weight in the current educational system. It stimulates our senses, relaxes us, makes us vibrate and unites us as a species, so those who classify it as the greatest heritage that we have are not very far from reality.
- Amodeo, MR (2014). Origin of Music as an Adaptive Trait in the Human. Argentine Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 6 (1), 49-59.
- Cross, I. (2010). Music in culture and evolution. Epistemus, 1 (1), 9-19.
- Fritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A. & Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal recognition of three basic emotions in music. Current biology, 19 (7), 573-576.
- Mithen, SJ (2005). The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind and body. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.