Why Does Music Exist?

(First published March 14, 2009)

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the book in which Darwin first presented his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s ideas profoundly changed our thinking about our physical origins and our place in the natural world. In the context of Darwin, it is interesting to consider what evolutionary theory has to say about the origins of music and its role in human development. What did Darwin have to say about music? What is the current thinking about the role of music in human evolution? In short: why does music exist?

This isn’t a question that is asked very often. Music is so ubiquitous in our culture that most of us take it for granted. And for musicians, music feels so much a part of us that to wonder about where it comes from and why it exists takes us into unfamiliar territory — contemplating a world before music, or a world where music never came to be.

However, the question has been asked, by Darwin himself and by many researchers after him, and the subject continues to be an active area of research. And while there are many theories, there is not yet — and perhaps cannot ever be — a definitive answer.

The simplest explanation is that there is nothing to explain — that there is nothing special about music. It doesn’t serve any big purpose, it hasn’t played any important role in human evolution; instead, it is an accident, a parasitic phenomenon that lives off of other, more important cognitive abilities like language. In the words of Steven Pinker, it is “auditory cheesecake” — pleasurable, but nothing more.

To many people, and probably most of all to musicians, this view doesn’t make much sense — music feels to important to be an accident, a mere by-product of language or other human abilities. And several more objective observations would seem to support this objection. For example, music is universal, existing across the world in all cultures. And it has been around for a long time — what appear to be musical artefacts have been discovered that are estimated to be 40,000 years old. If the first music used voices or simple percussion, it could be much older since those activities would have left no trace. Music could be as old as Homo sapiens itself.

Music is also a major human activity, something we devote considerable energy to. Tied closely to dance and movement, music literally costs energy — and evolution doesn’t tend to keep things around that are costly without benefit. It is also interesting to note that musical ability may have a genetic component; the rare condition known as amusia, in which an individual is unable to recognize music as anything other than noise, is in some cases heritable. And finally, proto-musical abilities appear very early, showing up in infancy.

If music is more than an accident, then what is it? Here, there are many theories. Darwin thought it had to do with courtship and mate attraction, like a peacock’s plume — the better the chops, the more attractive the guitarist and the more offspring to pass those skills along to. It has also been thought of as a special language important for mother-infant bonding. It has been suggested to play a role in human cognitive, motor, and social development, and to be important for social cohesion.

It seems clear that music is a type of language, but it is distinct from spoken language. Different parts of the brain are used in the two activities. And while music, like spoken language, is communicative, it is not so in a direct, informational way. Its capacity for emotional communication and transformation lends support to a role in promoting group cohesion, something that would be tremendously important for the development of a social species such as our own. In this regard, a recent study is interesting. Researchers at Northwestern University found that musicians were better than non-musicians at picking up on auditory emotional cues. They noted that “musical training enhances the perception of vocally expressed emotion.” So music may prime us to read emotions better, and music itself may be an effective way to communicate emotion, particularly in group settings.

So while there are no clear conclusions and much speculation, research into the role of music in human evolution continues. What is clear — both objectively and subjectively — is that, whatever its origin, music is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.


Daviel J. Levitin’s fascinating book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton, 2006) contains an interesting chapter on music and human evolution.

A review of theories of cognitive evolution and the role of music in human evolution can be found in article by Ian Cross entitled “Is music the most important thing we ever did? Music, development and evolution,” published in Music, Mind and Science (Seoul National University Press, 1999, edited by Suk Won Yi).

An article by Alan R Harvey entitled “Music and Human Evolution,” published by the Music Council of Australia, contains pictures of a “bone flute” dated at 40,000 years old and includes images of brain areas activated during music listening.

The research paper on the enhanced ability of musicians to read emotional sound cues is: Strait, D. L. et al. Musical experience and neural efficiency — effects of training on subcortical processing of vocal expressions of emotion (2009). European Journal of Neuroscience 29:661-668.

A recent article in The Economist contains a general account of current theories.

John Olson