Welcome to the pleasuredome: How we evolved to love music

Part of an ancient cave bear femur flute discovered in Slovenia in 1995
Part of an ancient cave bear femur flute discovered in Slovenia in 1995

In 2008 at Hohle Fels, a Stone Age cave in Southern Germany, archaeologists discovered what is thought to be the oldest example of a man-made musical instrument: a vulture bone flute dating back to the period when ancestors of modern humans settled in the area (~40,000 years ago). This discovery suggests that our ancestors were probably grooving to their own beat long before this time – making music, arguably, one of the most ancient human cognitive traits.

This raises an interesting question: In a time before electric duvets and home pizza delivery, how and why did our ancestors find time to indulge in such a non-essential task as the creation of music?

This was a mystery contemplated by the father of evolution Charles Darwin. In The Descent of Man he questions why a skill which appears to provide no survival advantage should have evolved at all, stating “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed”. However, in his autobiography he later suggests a solution to this mystery while reflecting on his own lack of musical appreciation, lamenting “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature”. Here Darwin seems to have stumbled upon a fact with which many of us would intuitively agree, the notion that music can enrich our life by generating and enhancing emotions. But can we find a biological basis for this assumption?

Do you hear what I hear? – How our brains process and store sounds and melodies:

Scientists believe that we are unique in the way our brains process sounds. Unlike other animals, the auditory centres of our brains are strongly interlinked with regions important for storing memories; meaning, we are very good at combining sounds experienced at different times. This ability may have been crucial for the evolution of complex verbal communication. For example, consider times when the meaning of a spoken sentence does not become apparent until the last word – we’d have a pretty hard time understanding each other if by the end of a sentence we had already forgotten how it started! This is a skill even our closest relatives appear to lack, and one which is necessary for development of both language and musical appreciation.

We are also really good at forming long term memories for sounds – think about your favourite song, are you able to hear the music in your ‘mind’s ear’? Scientists have found that most people are able to imagine music with a surprising level of accuracy.

It is believed that throughout life, as we listen to our own culturally specific music styles, our brains develop a template of what music should sound like. These templates are specific to each individual, depending on what forms of music they are exposed to. From this we develop the ability to predict how certain music styles should sound and are able to tell when something doesn’t quite fit our expectations. The musical templates we develop throughout life provide us with a standard against which we judge the desirability of new melodies.

How music tickles the brain’s pleasure centres:

Life can be a bit of a maze, and there are times when we need something or someone to give us the thumbs up and let us know that we’re doing things right. Like a parent praising a child, our brains provide us with an internal ‘reward’ signal to let us know we’re on the right track. This system, in the brain’s mesolimbic area, is responsible for the hedonistic sense of pleasure produced by evolutionarily desirable behaviours, such as eating, sex or caring for offspring. Scientists are now able to see this reward system and the behaviours which activate it using positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. Interestingly, along with activation caused by behaviours with an obvious survival advantage, researchers have found that the strong emotional response people experience when listening to music (defined as the feeling of chill you get when listening to a particularly emotionally charged piece)  also activates this reward system.

bassImaging studies reveal that the rewarding aspect of music is also a very personal phenomenon, since mesolimbic activation can be initiated by different melodies in different people. This is due to the way our brains are connected. Auditory and frontal cortex regions, which store our musical preferences, are linked to mesolimbic reward pathways meaning that the sensation of music-induced pleasure is defined by your own personal musical preferences.

It is therefore possible that music could have started life as a way of strengthening social groups, through shared preferences – something which still happens today. Groups linked by a shared emotional experience could form stronger bonds which may ultimately have helped group survival. These findings indicate that our ability to enjoy music may be less mysterious than Darwin originally thought.

Post by: Sarah Fox

What songs give you the chills? Have you formed long lasting friendships over shared music tastes? Let us know your stories in the comments below.

9 thoughts on “Welcome to the pleasuredome: How we evolved to love music

  1. It’s an interesting article, but it contains very little in the realm of objective ‘science’. Darwin would agree. First, why does every characteristic of human existence need a survival mechanism to explain it? Maybe Lord Darwin doesn’t have to be included in EVERY scientific paper dealing with ancient history. In The Origin of Species, Darwin suggested that the glaring gaps in the genealogical record would be someday be accounted for with more digs and discoveries…yet this hasn’t happened at all. In fact, we’re finding much more bio-diversity and bigger genetic gaps between species. As good as evolution sounds on paper (and I agree it does). It doesn’t deserve a place in science gospel. It’s a working theory that to this date, is being taken for granted by students and teachers alike-very few of whom have actually researched genetics deeply enough to understand the level of faith science has undertaken to stoop before the facts. Inasmuch as religions. That it occupies any place in your paper suggests you’re on a bandwagon which top scientists continue to privately laugh at. Just sayen’ Also Darwin conceded that evolution may account for species diversification (with further research-which it didn’t) but certainly not the origins of life. Further it may account for some observed results, but no level of causality. but it IS interesting. Sound has tangible physical characteristics that exist in harmonics and scales with corresponding geometries like everything else in the physical universe. Perhaps Darwin’s lack of music appreciation is actually why he went with something as dry and arbitrary as evolution-because it appealed almost strictly to the left brain as a logical, ordered sequence of events. Music on the other hand has always been a love of physicists like Einstein, who allegedly received great mathematical insights from playing his own violin. 🙂

    • You’re talking about evolution as if Darwin came up with the theory of natural selection and we collectively decided that was that and stopped working on it. Darwin said a lot of things, some of which turned out to be true, others which didn’t. The fact is that between then and now we have had over a hundred years of research refining and further investigating his theories (in line with this, the article doesn’t just stop with Darwin and highlights the recent research concerning sound processing etc.). The theory of evolution by natural selection is a “working theory” only in the sense that we are continually discovering more and more evidence to support it, as well as discovering the interesting ways in which it has produced some of our more puzzling brain activities (i.e. enjoyment of music). We’ve even directly observed evolution by natural selection occurring over just a few generations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beak_of_the_Finch

      In other words just because Darwin said a few things that are contrary to our current understanding of evolutionary processes doesn’t mean the whole theory is questionable. He wasn’t a prophet, he was a scientist.

      Darwin’s lack of musical appreciation has nothing to do with his thoughts on how evolution shaped the ability to enjoy music. He and today’s researchers use evolution to account for our behavioural characteristics because by definition our physiology and behaviour is a product of this process. Furthermore, natural selection is an undirected, unsupervised process. So not every behaviour must have a direct link with survival, some traits may have developed by ‘accident’ through their link with a feature more closely linked with reproductive success or survival. This is suggested nicely in the article with the idea that enjoyment of music may be linked to humans’ ability to process relatively long fragments of sound and speech, a trait which has clear evolutionary benefits.

      If you want a nice practical example of this, listen to: http://www.radiolab.org/2007/sep/24/behaves-so-strangely/. Human speech is more musical than we realise, especially in languages that rely heavily on the pitch of syllables (e.g. Chinese).

    • Hi boxcar strainsun
      The amazing thing about science, and something that I really love, is that scientists rarely see things in black and white. We’re academic adventurers; like children we like to put out our hands, touch things, making theories based on what we see (a very basic human trait). However, one problem I find that keeps cropping up is a miscommunication over what the term theory actually means. I like to think of a scientific theory as a jigsaw puzzle, some of them are still in their infancy so you can’t really tell what the final picture is going to be, but others, like evolution are at a point where so many pieces are fitting together, you’re pretty sure you know what the picture is….say 80% of the pieces fit and look like a sheep…then a few people hand you a couple of pieces that look more like bits of a pig…chances are they don’t fit, they may even be from a different puzzle. But, we will keep the extra pieces and see if they start to form a picture of their own, perhaps there’s a pig hiding behind the sheep that we failed to see…We remain open minded, but at the same time logical, while the vast amount of evidence points in one direction it’s sensible to assume that that is the correct path! Thus theory doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t know, it means (certainly in the case of evolution) that the vast majority of evidence points this way so that’s probably the answer, but we always leave things open and, if extraordinarily compelling evidence appears to the contrary, we will have to re-think. However, that is yet to happen. But it’s great that you and many others are interested enough to question to things like this, it’s enquiring open minds who make some of the most interesting discoveries! – you may be interested in this article on the nature of science I wrote when I first started this blog (http://thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/2011/02/04/what-is-science/) ^_^

      I also find it interesting just how many scientists also share a love of music and art, indeed my partner, who is a computational neuroscientist, says that he found his A-level in art significantly more useful to his current research career than his science qualifications, mainly because outside the classroom you learn that things in science are not black and white and that it’s all about exploring and interpreting your findings (something artists and musicians do often)

      Also, just an aside, the whole left brain/right brain thing is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, I may write a post on this some time…it’s a common misconception, much like the idea that we don’t use the whole of our brain (which we certainly do, albeit not all at once): see this interesting article (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-myths/201206/why-the-left-brain-right-brain-myth-will-probably-never-die)


    • I totally disagree on the point that music has no survival advantage according to Sir Darwin. It gives many peoples in history faith, hope, courage, and the strength to come together through what ever the adversity be at the time. People will always need music for we are symbiotic beings tuned to many different vibrations and frequencies of sound the earth’s magnetic field creates.. Sadly though, I believe most of us in the current 21st century music scene nowadays is not to our surviving advantage we are being dumbed down listening to it’s repetitious snare, thus killing us more slowly instead of helping the growth process through the subversive use of sound. We need to come together people and sing more. It’s a human emotion all of its own only explained through the experience itself.

      • Sonni, I agree with your that music has a definite survival advantage. In fact you walked right by the biggest advantage that I see for music. You said “We need to come together people and sing more.” Come together – music encourages, and even implies people coming together and sharing. This is a major advantage – building strong communities.

  2. I have something for you.
    The link I attached is music.
    Pi converted into base 12, and set in the chromatic scale.
    The most beautiful song in the Universe – http://youtu.be/GrsV5dHXeV0

    And when you’re done listening to it, convert Pi into BASE 4 along with the other transcendental constants Phi, and e, and start looking for DNA.
    Maybe all the codes of life are already “written on the wall”. That would be cool, huh? It certainly would explain everything.

    Now if I could just figure out a more elegant periodic table…

    Have a nice day

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