Songs from the Stone Age

No one knows for sure whether music played a key role in human evolution or came about as a kind of ear candy. But there are several scientifically inspired proposals for the origins of music, some included below.

Da ya think I’m sexy? 
Charles Darwin, an avid music fan, suggested in 1871 that humans’ tunes evolved from courtship songs like those of birds, apes and other animals. In 2000, psychologist Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque elaborated on Darwin’s idea, arguing that music-making abilities evolved along with intelligence and creativity as an advertisement of reproductive fitness to potential mates.

I feel good 
Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker thinks of music as a gratifying diversion that offered no survival or mating advantages to human ancestors. In 1997, he dubbed music “auditory cheesecake,” a pleasurable amusement that people concocted from evolved mental faculties such as language, emotions and motor control. Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego also views music as a human invention built on neural circuitry that serves other purposes, but he sees it as having biologically powerful effects.

Let’s get together 
One popular idea posits that music and dance evolved to bind groups of people together. Swedish neuroscientist Björn Merker suggests that musical abilities and activities originated in groups of ancestral males chorusing together, possibly to scare off males from rival groups and to attract migrating females. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford in England has suggested that music and language became increasingly vital social lubricants as hominid groups increased in size over the ages.

Mother and child reunion 
With the emergence of the Homo genus roughly 2 million years ago, pairs of mothers and babies forged emotional ties by communicating musically, says Ellen Dissanayake of the University of Washington in Seattle. Prehistoric groups exploited mom-infant interactions and added music and dance to rituals, she proposes (see “Birth of the beat,”). What people now think of as music emerged much later, in her view.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.