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Music is, of course, just a sequence of sounds. Sounds are vibrations in the air, which our ears detect. So why do we find certain sequences of sounds to be appealing? What makes us want to hear these sounds (turn on a radio, for example), or make these sounds on our own (sing/play an instrument)?
Heck, why do we even move our body strangely when we hear certain music (dancing)?
According to the article Why do we love music?, "No one knows why we love music, or what function, if any, it serves."
Of course, that article was published in 2013, so it's possible someone has found an answer since then. ;)
Some have argued that music is merely an evolutionary byproduct that serves no really important purpose. (Type "auditory cheesecake" into Google.) In a similar vein, one might speculate that music did serve an important purpose at one time (e.g. a mating ritual).
In this spirit, we might ask how one defines music and then ask if we humans are the only species that makes music. When we hear frogs croaking or crickets chirping, are they merely communicating, or are they making music - or are they doing both at the same time?
Though your question focuses on music people listen to, a similar question could be asked about dance. Except I think music is more universally popular than dance, which doesn't interest everyone.
In summary, I haven't really answered your question - which probably can't be answered with any accuracy at this time. But there are actually lots of references on the Internet that offer clues to the puzzle. I suspect there's some overlap between the love of music and the love of poetry, painting, etc.
I just discovered an interesting term - evolutionary musicology - along with another theory to explain music's popularity: It may simply be a welcome break from silence, which may be associated with danger.
Yikes, I know I'm doing a lot of rambling, but here's another thought:
Some researchers believe music served as a sort of group bonding tool. In other words, a particular tribe might have produced a certain kind of music that helped unite members of that tribe. In other words, music could be a form of symbolism, similar to flags.
As a huge fan of Latin music, I've come to appreciate the association between specific genres and their places of origin. For example, flamenco is a product of Spain, while cha-cha-cha and mambo are forever linked with Cuba. There's a fierce debate about the origins of salsa, which was officially born in New York City but which is clearly derived from mambo.
No one can deny that country music sucks. Yet I love a lot of country music, which I was exposed to when I was growing up in rural West Dakota.
What I'm trying to say is that music probably helps us identify with a particular group and connect with our roots.
P.S. It's worth noting that other species do indeed enjoy music. Check out the article What type of music do pets like?
Bad brains: some people are physically incapable of enjoying music
For most people, the mere suggestion that a favorite song fails to evoke an emotional response in another human being sounds preposterous. Sure, that person might not like that song as much as you do, but they'll definitely feel something — right?
Not necessarily, says Josep Marco-Pallerés, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Barcelona and lead author of a new study that explores why some people feel indifferent to music. "Music isn't rewarding for them, even though other kinds of rewards, like money, are," he says. "It just doesn't affect them."
some people don't get a kick out of listening to music
To find out why, researchers recruited 30 university students, each of whom had been identified as very sensitive to music, moderately sensitive, or not sensitive at all thanks to a questionnaire. Researchers also made sure that the study's participants weren't depressed, tone-deaf, hearing-impaired, or otherwise unable to understand music — all factors that would have dampened their pleasure response.
Then, researchers monitored the student's heart rates and sweat levels during listening sessions involving familiar pieces of music (previous studies have shown that people react more strongly to music they know). "We asked them to bring music from home that they like," Marco-Pallerés recalls, "and most of them had problems doing that." Those who were indifferent to music either ended up bringing a smaller number of recordings — some didn't own music at all — or had to borrow music from a family member.
Their heart rate didn't increase with each crescendo
The study's results, published today in Current Biology, are surprising. Although these participants were perfectly capable of perceiving when a tune was sad or happy, they didn't show physical or emotional reaction. They didn't shiver if a singer hit a high note, and their heart rate didn't increase with each crescendo. But when asked to play a game involving a monetary reward, those who were indifferent to music reacted just like everyone else: the thought of winning even a small amount of money was enough to make their hearts race. The results were unchanged a year later, when 26 of the students took the test again.
But we shouldn't mistake an indifference to music for dislike, Marco-Pallarés says. When students were asked to describe their affinity for music on a scale of one to ten, for example, those who were indifferent usually answered with the number five — the mathematical equivalent of a shrug.
Researchers even have a name for the condition: "specific musical anhedonia." The term anhedonia is used by psychologists to describe a person's inability to derive pleasure from activities that most find enjoyable. But as the monetary-reward experiment indicates, this specific anhedonia only affects music perception. "Now that we know that there are people with specific musical anhedonia," Marco-Pallerés says, "we want to know the neural bases that might explain [it]." The research team plans to conduct a new experiment using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the brain's reward system differs in these people.
Hard to explain why we like music in the first place
This is first experiment to demonstrate that anhedonia can be specific to a single form of reward, so many questions remain unanswered. There might be other forms of specific anhedonia that we don't know about yet, Marco-Pallerés says. But the fact that the first form to be identified is related to music is interesting in and of itself, he says, because from an evolutionary standpoint, it's hard to explain why we like music in the first place. "Music doesn't give us access to biologically relevant advantages," he says, the way food or money does. "The emotions are the key point in this reward."
So, from a survival standpoint, there's no disadvantage to being indifferent to music. As Marco-Pallerés puts it, you just end up with "people who don't understand why anyone would pay to go to a concert."
Why does music make us emotional?
(Inside Science) -- From a simple, lonely melody to an intricate sonata, sometimes it feels like music can speak directly to your heart, in a language that you don’t know, but your emotions understand.
And that’s because music is a language. The language of emotion. And I mean that literally. Music has structure, progression and syntax -- just like language. The brain even processes musical syntax using the same area it uses to process language syntax. Next time you hear someone speaking emotionally, listen to the acoustic characteristics of their voice -- they’ll mirror music of the same emotion: fast, loud and high for excitement and happiness, slower and softer for melancholy.
So if music is a language, how does it convey its meaning? After all, it doesn’t have any words, does it? At the very basic, physical level, loud and fast noises excite us more than slow quiet ones because our brain-stem is tuned to attend to these kinds of noises in the environment. Certain chords sound pleasant because of how we divide tones into different pitches: harmonically simple, consonant chords, like majors, are easy to do this for, but harmonically complex chords, like tritones, are harder to distinguish and so we find them dissonant. But these automatic brain mechanisms are only the beginning of how we read meaning into music.
Much of the emotional significance that we find in music comes from our own life experience: whilst still in the cradle we learn to associate the music we hear with the emotional environment we hear it in -- so a mother’s lullaby might imprint us with calm memories for major keys, whilst a lovers’ lament in A minor would remind us of breakups and ex-girlfriends. Although it wasn’t always this way around: After all, western cultures have a very different appreciation of dissonance to Arabic music, or to Indian ragas.
But we don’t just sense the emotions in music we feel those emotions too. How? How can it force us to actually feel the same way? One possibility is that once we’ve understood what the emotional content of the music is, it activates a population of brain cells called mirror neurons. These cells mentally simulate behaviors that we perceive in the world around us, which helps us with social understanding and empathy. In this case they allow us to empathize with the emotion of the music, triggering the same emotions in us by activating the limbic system -- the emotion hub of the brain.
Another theory has it that the beat of rhythms, and the frequency of soundwaves, actually drive the intrinsic oscillations of neurons in the brain. Different groups of neurons synchronize their firing at different rates – some slower, around one to five times a second, others closer to 20 times a second – and different rates are associated with different mood states. Through auditory stimulation, music could drive neurons to fire at a specific rate -- as though our brains are resonating to a beat -- that sets our overall mood.
But some of our most powerful responses to music come from expectation, tension, then resolution. But calculating something that complex requires much more of our brain’s vast processing power. Humans are expert predictors -- we are always trying to figure what’s going to happen next and why. As we listen to music, our brains are continuously trying to guess what’s coming up, based on what we’ve just heard and on our experience of music over our lives. You can even see the moment we’ve realized the meaning in the music by a spike in the recorded electrical activity across the brain.
To make simpler harmonic and melodic predictions, we use our auditory cortex. But for more abstract syntactic and structural changes, we use the frontal lobes. These areas are heavily interconnected with the limbic system as well -- which both aids in processing the music, and adds emotional texture as information loops back and forth between the regions, with the ebb and flow of the piece.
Using these circuits, our brains try to calculate what’s coming next, and to judge the accuracy of those predictions we use the brain’s reward system -- dopamine. A correct guess gets a little pleasurable puff of dopamine, an incorrect guess gets nothing, and an unexpected, pleasurable resolution gets a great big burst! You know the thrill you get at a particularly beautiful musical moment? That chill that runs across your skin? You can predict when you’ll feel that from a rush of dopamine to the nucleus accumbens -- a key node in the reward system. The nucleus accumbens then triggers the physical response that you feel, by activating the autonomic nervous system.
So why did we become the musical species? No other animal does this. This is an evolutionary question that flummoxed Darwin and is still argued about today. It might be a great and lucky accident -- a happy quirk of our brain’s development that it can appreciate this complex integration of sound waves. Or maybe there is something more. Music is exceptionally good at provoking emotion -- far more than language. People with autism can have great problems perceiving emotion, but can have their limbic systems activated through music. Communication of our emotional worlds, through music, could be as important for social cohesion as communication about the physical world is through language. It has been suggested that before music and before language, there was one mixture of the two -- musilanguage -- that sounded across the savannah. That musilanguage split and specialized into two different forms of communication – one for ideas, one for emotion. Whatever the reason is, our ancestors have been playing music for longer than any of us knew -- recently a bone flute was found near the Danube in Germany, from over 40,000 years ago. Music is in our blood, our bones and our brains.
Why do we like to dance--And move to the beat?
Many things stimulate our brains' reward centers, among them, coordinated movements. Consider the thrill some get from watching choreographed fight or car chase scenes in action movies. What about the enjoyment spectators get when watching sports or actually riding on a roller coaster or in a fast car?
Scientists aren't sure why we like movement so much, but there's certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest we get a pretty big kick out of it. Maybe synchronizing music, which many studies have shown is pleasing to both the ear and brain, and movement&mdashin essence, dance&mdashmay constitute a pleasure double play.
Music is known to stimulate pleasure and reward areas like the orbitofrontal cortex, located directly behind one's eyes, as well as a midbrain region called the ventral striatum. In particular, the amount of activation in these areas matches up with how much we enjoy the tunes. In addition, music activates the cerebellum, at the base of the brain, which is involved in the coordination and timing of movement.
So, why is dance pleasurable?
First, people speculate that music was created through rhythmic movement&mdashthink: tapping your foot. Second, some reward-related areas in the brain are connected with motor areas. Third, mounting evidence suggests that we are sensitive and attuned to the movements of others' bodies, because similar brain regions are activated when certain movements are both made and observed. For example, the motor regions of professional dancers' brains show more activation when they watch other dancers compared with people who don't dance.
This kind of finding has led to a great deal of speculation with respect to mirror neurons&mdashcells found in the cortex, the brain's central processing unit, that activate when a person is performing an action as well as watching someone else do it. Increasing evidence suggests that sensory experiences are also motor experiences. Music and dance may just be particularly pleasurable activators of these sensory and motor circuits. So, if you're watching someone dance, your brain's movement areas activate unconsciously, you are planning and predicting how a dancer would move based on what you would do.
That may lead to the pleasure we get from seeing someone execute a movement with expert skill&mdashthat is seeing an action that your own motor system cannot predict via an internal simulation. This prediction error may be rewarding in some way.
So, if that evidence indicates that humans like watching others in motion (and being in motion themselves), adding music to the mix may be a pinnacle of reward.
Music, in fact, can actually refine your movement skills by improving your timing, coordination and rhythm. Take the Brazilian folk art, Capoeira&mdashwhich could be a dance masquerading as a martial art or vice versa. Many of the moves in that fighting style are choreographed, taught and practiced, along with music, making the participants more adept&mdashand giving them the pleasure from the music as well as from performing the movement.
Adding music in this context may cross the thin line between a killing machine and a dancing machine.
Why sing to baby? If you don’t, you’ll starve
Researchers develop evolutionary case for the music parents make for children
“It seems like all humans make music in some way or another,” Mehr said. “But there’s not great empirical evidence for whether or not the different types of music they make share features across cultures. One way to test that is with this type of naïve listener experiment … and the results suggest that, in some cases, the answer is yes.”
The findings are based on a wide-reaching experiment in which 750 online participants in 60 countries listened to brief excerpts of songs collected from nearly 90 small societies around the globe, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers.
Participants then answered six questions, rating each clip on a six-point scale according to whether they believed the song was used for dancing, soothing a baby, healing illness, or expressing love. Two additional uses — mourning the dead and telling a story — were included as controls.
A data science postdoctoral fellow with the Harvard Data Science Initiative, Mehr said the data showed that — despite participants’ unfamiliarity with the cultures, the random sampling of each song, and the short duration of the samples — people were able to reliably infer the songs’ functions, and their ratings were consistent across the globe.
The findings ran counter to expert expectations.
Mehr, Glowacki and Krasnow had also surveyed academics — including ethnomusicologists, music theorists, performers, composers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists — about whether they believed people would be able to identify the song types.
“We gave them an idealized version of the experiment we ran,” Mehr said. “Imagine you have unlimited time and resources, and the ability to record every song that’s ever been sung from every culture, and could take those and play them for people all over the world.
“The question we asked was, if we play those recordings for people, are they going to be able to tell … this is a lullaby or this is for dancing?” he continued. “Predominantly among ethnomusicologists, the answer was no. And not only that, but they predicted that people’s responses will be inconsistent with one another. That’s not what we found.”
Singh also wanted to know whether listeners were recognizing certain non-musical characteristics of the songs — lullabies are typically sung by one woman, for example, while dancing songs more often involve a group.
“The question then was if people are able to do this, how on earth are they doing it?” Singh said. “How is it that a guy in Tallahassee can recognize a dancing song from a hunter-gatherer tribe from Southeast Asia whose culture he knows nothing about?”
To test that, the team conducted a second study. This time, they asked listeners about a number of contextual and musical features, ranging from the number and gender of the singers to the tempo and melodic complexity of the song.
“From all these, we get a very simple and rudimentary analysis of each song,” Mehr said. “It turns out when you ask people these very simple questions about songs, they agree with each other very highly. Even on really subjective musical features, like melodic complexity, they tend to make consistent ratings with one another.”
When data from the two studies were combined, the results showed that songs of the same function shared similar characteristics — lullabies, for example, tended to be slower and melodically simpler than dance tunes — suggesting that something about musical characteristics crosses cultural boundaries.
Mehr said the researchers were able to draw their wide-reaching conclusions because the songs used in the study were drawn from the discography of the Natural History of Song, a Harvard-based project that creates rigorously constructed databases of ethnographic text about music and audio recordings of music.
Samuel Mehr is a psychology research associate and Harvard Data Science Initiative fellow. Jon Chase/Harvard file photo
“We assembled all of the examples of music in a systematic way, so that inferences drawn from the whole discography are generalizable to humans as opposed to merely the cultures that were studied,” said Mehr, who directs the project with Singh and Glowacki, who is now a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. “This has been a problem in music research in general. The studies that have been pitched as studies of universality in music have typically included only a handful of cultures, or didn’t systematically sample different genres of music in a principled fashion.”
Going forward, the team hopes to conduct more in-depth analysis of the music collected for the Natural History of Song, and do additional studies to improve the inferences about music’s ability to cross cultural boundaries.
“One weakness of this study is that the listeners we’re sampling from are people on the internet, so they all have access to things like YouTube, and they probably are all familiar, say, with Taylor Swift,” Mehr said. “Do the results tell us about the design of the human mind, or do they tell us about what modern listeners hear in the music of the world?”
To address that, the team is working to translate the studies into more than two dozen languages and run online experiments in many more countries. Singh and Glowacki are also working to bring the study into the field by playing song excerpts for members of small-scale societies in Indonesia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere.
“That is the most exciting part,” Mehr said. “Because these are people who have had little exposure to the internet or radio or Western culture. The only music they know is their own music. We’ll find out whether they share the same conceptions of form and function in music with our English-speaking internet users.”
In the end, Mehr said, the study and others like it will enable scientists to form a foundation for answering a number of long-running questions about music and its evolution.
“That’s one of the most important contributions we’d like to make to the field,” he said. “This kind of basic, cross-cultural fact-finding about human behavior is the first step in developing a new science of music.”
Why restaurants play music while you eat
Research in India has found that restaurateurs in different food establishments there can influence how long their customers stay, how much they eat and whether or not they come back for seconds. The study of music as an accompaniment to a meal has been well visited in the West but not so completely in emerging markets. Now, writing in the International Journal of Indian Culture and Business Management, R.K. Srivastava of the University of Mumbai, described how he has studied 27 local restaurants serving fast food, Indian, Thai, Chinese or Italian food in order to find out how music choice influences customers.
Srivastava suggests that it is well known that background music influences the amount of time and money spent by consumers. It helps reduce anxiety, improves mood and reduces stress associated with queuing. His study looks at the impact of the tempo and type of music being played in an eaterie and its effect on consumers. He has now tested four hypotheses.
The first: That appropriate music will improve restaurant footfalls. The second that slower music will increase the time people stay in a restaurant. The third that customers will return if they enjoyed the music on their first visit. Finally, the music has to match the type of food to have the most influence.
The study showed that Indian and Chinese restaurants prefer to play soft music, while fast food and Thai restaurants prefer hard rock and this correlates with what consumers in those establishments expect. Srivastava confirms the four hypotheses but also shows that a proportion of those eating in restaurants serving Indian food would prefer to hear rock music while they eat.
"Understanding of the effects of music is particularly useful to service managers, as this element of the environment is relatively inexpensive and easy to control. The results from this study have wider implications for retail and service environment," he concludes. "The use of music is likely to be most effective when it integrates with other atmospheric elements in a holistic manner in order to convey a coherent message and consistent positioning strategy."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Scientists at Harvard have just published the most comprehensive scientific study to date on music as a cultural product, which supports the American poet’s pronouncement and examines what features of song tend to be shared across societies.
The study was conceived by Samuel Mehr, a fellow of the Harvard Data Science Initiative and research associate in psychology, Manvir Singh, a graduate student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, and Luke Glowacki, formerly a Harvard graduate student and now a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.
They set out to address big questions: Is music a cultural universal? If that’s a given, which musical qualities overlap across disparate societies? If it isn’t, why does it seem so ubiquitous? But they needed a data set of unprecedented breadth and depth. Over a five-year period, the team hunted down hundreds of recordings in libraries and private collections of scientists half a world away.
“We are so used to being able to find any piece of music that we like on the internet,” said Mehr, who is now a principal investigator at Harvard’s Music Lab. “But there are thousands and thousands of recordings buried in archives. At one point, we were looking for traditional Celtic music and we found a call number in the [Harvard] library system and librarian told us we needed to wait on the other side of the library because there was more room over there. Twenty minutes later this poor librarian comes out with a cart of about 20 cases of reel-to-reel recordings of Celtic music.”
Mehr added those reel tapes to the team’s growing discography, combining it with a corpus of ethnography containing nearly 5,000 descriptions of songs from 60 human societies. Mehr, Singh, and Glowacki call this database The Natural History of Song.
Their questions were so compelling that the project rapidly grew into a major international collaboration with musicians, data scientists, psychologists, linguists, and political scientists. Published in Science this week, it represents the team’s most ambitious study yet about music.
Manvir Singh, a graduate student in Harvard’s department of Human Evolutionary Biology, studied indigenous music and performance as a part of his fieldwork. Here Mentawai children in Siberut Island, Indonesia, are practicing in a kitchen.
Video courtesy of Manvir Singh
Music appears in every society observed.
“As a graduate student, I was working on studies of infant music perception, and I started to see all these studies that made claims about music being universal,” Mehr said. “How is it that every paper on music starts out with this big claim, but there’s never a citation backing that up … Now we can back that up.”
They looked at every society for which there was ethnographic information in a large online database, 315 in all, and found mention of music in all of them. For the discography, they collected 118 songs from a total of 86 cultures, covering 30 geographic regions. And they added the ethnographic material they’d collected.
The team and their researchers coded the ethnography and discography that makes up the Natural History of Song into dozens of variables. They logged details about singers and audience members, the time of day and duration of singing, the presence of instruments, and more for thousands of passages about songs in the ethnographic corpus. The discography was analyzed four different ways: machine summaries, listener ratings, expert annotations, expert transcriptions.
They found that, across societies, music is associated with behaviors such as infant care, healing, dance, and love (among many others, like mourning, warfare, processions, and ritual). Examining lullabies, healing songs, dance songs, and love songs in particular, they discovered that songs that share behavioral functions tend to have similar musical features.
“Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous, and they are also highly stereotyped,” Singh said. “For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define the space of what music can be. They do very different things with features that are almost the opposite of each other.”
How Do Our Brains Process Music?
I listen to music only at very specific times. When I go out to hear it live, most obviously. When I’m cooking or doing the dishes I put on music, and sometimes other people are present. When I’m jogging or cycling to and from work down New York’s West Side Highway bike path, or if I’m in a rented car on the rare occasions I have to drive somewhere, I listen alone. And when I’m writing and recording music, I listen to what I’m working on. But that’s it.
From This Story
Byrne sees music as the social glue that holds cultures and communities together. (Clayton Cubitt)
I find music somewhat intrusive in restaurants or bars. Maybe due to my involvement with it, I feel I have to either listen intently or tune it out. Mostly I tune it out I often don’t even notice if a Talking Heads song is playing in most public places. Sadly, most music then becomes (for me) an annoying sonic layer that just adds to the background noise.
As music becomes less of a thing—a cylinder, a cassette, a disc—and more ephemeral, perhaps we will start to assign an increasing value to live performances again. After years of hoarding LPs and CDs, I have to admit I’m now getting rid of them. I occasionally pop a CD into a player, but I’ve pretty much completely converted to listening to MP3s either on my computer or, gulp, my phone! For me, music is becoming dematerialized, a state that is more truthful to its nature, I suspect. Technology has brought us full circle.
I go to at least one live performance a week, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. There are other people there. Often there is beer, too. After more than a hundred years of technological innovation, the digitization of music has inadvertently had the effect of emphasizing its social function. Not only do we still give friends copies of music that excites us, but increasingly we have come to value the social aspect of a live performance more than we used to. Music technology in some ways appears to have been on a trajectory in which the end result is that it will destroy and devalue itself. It will succeed completely when it self-destructs. The technology is useful and convenient, but it has, in the end, reduced its own value and increased the value of the things it has never been able to capture or reproduce.
Technology has altered the way music sounds, how it’s composed and how we experience it. It has also flooded the world with music. The world is awash with (mostly) recorded sounds. We used to have to pay for music or make it ourselves playing, hearing and experiencing it was exceptional, a rare and special experience. Now hearing it is ubiquitous, and silence is the rarity that we pay for and savor.
Does our enjoyment of music—our ability to find a sequence of sounds emotionally affecting—have some neurological basis? From an evolutionary standpoint, does enjoying music provide any advantage? Is music of any truly practical use, or is it simply baggage that got carried along as we evolved other more obviously useful adaptations? Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and biologist Richard Lewontin wrote a paper in 1979 claiming that some of our skills and abilities might be like spandrels—the architectural negative spaces above the curve of the arches of buildings—details that weren’t originally designed as autonomous entities, but that came into being as a result of other, more practical elements around them.
Dale Purves, a professor at Duke University, studied this question with his colleagues David Schwartz and Catherine Howe, and they think they might have some answers. They discovered that the sonic range that matters and interests us the most is identical to the range of sounds we ourselves produce. Our ears and our brains have evolved to catch subtle nuances mainly within that range, and we hear less, or often nothing at all, outside of it. We can’t hear what bats hear, or the subharmonic sound that whales use. For the most part, music also falls into the range of what we can hear. Though some of the harmonics that give voices and instruments their characteristic sounds are beyond our hearing range, the effects they produce are not. The part of our brain that analyzes sounds in those musical frequencies that overlap with the sounds we ourselves make is larger and more developed—just as the visual analysis of faces is a specialty of another highly developed part of the brain.
The Purves group also added to this the assumption that periodic sounds— sounds that repeat regularly—are generally indicative of living things, and are therefore more interesting to us. A sound that occurs over and over could be something to be wary of, or it could lead to a friend, or a source of food or water. We can see how these parameters and regions of interest narrow down toward an area of sounds similar to what we call music. Purves surmised that it would seem natural that human speech therefore influenced the evolution of the human auditory system as well as the part of the brain that processes those audio signals. Our vocalizations, and our ability to perceive their nuances and subtlety, co-evolved.
In a UCLA study, neurologists Istvan Molnar-Szakacs and Katie Overy watched brain scans to see which neurons fired while people and monkeys observed other people and monkeys perform specific actions or experience specific emotions. They determined that a set of neurons in the observer “mirrors” what they saw happening in the observed. If you are watching an athlete, for example, the neurons that are associated with the same muscles the athlete is using will fire. Our muscles don’t move, and sadly there’s no virtual workout or health benefit from watching other people exert themselves, but the neurons do act as if we are mimicking the observed. This mirror effect goes for emotional signals as well. When we see someone frown or smile, the neurons associated with those facial muscles will fire. But—and here’s the significant part—the emotional neurons associated with those feelings fire as well. Visual and auditory clues trigger empathetic neurons. Corny but true: If you smile you will make other people happy. We feel what the other is feeling—maybe not as strongly, or as profoundly—but empathy seems to be built into our neurology. It has been proposed that this shared representation (as neuroscientists call it) is essential for any type of communication. The ability to experience a shared representation is how we know what the other person is getting at, what they’re talking about. If we didn’t have this means of sharing common references, we wouldn’t be able to communicate.
It’s sort of stupidly obvious—of course we feel what others are feeling, at least to some extent. If we didn’t, then why would we ever cry at the movies or smile when we heard a love song? The border between what you feel and what I feel is porous. That we are social animals is deeply ingrained and makes us what we are. We think of ourselves as individuals, but to some extent we are not our very cells are joined to the group by these evolved empathic reactions to others. This mirroring isn’t just emotional, it’s social and physical, too. When someone gets hurt we “feel” their pain, though we don’t collapse in agony. And when a singer throws back his head and lets loose, we understand that as well. We have an interior image of what he is going through when his body assumes that shape.
We anthropomorphize abstract sounds, too. We can read emotions when we hear someone’s footsteps. Simple feelings—sadness, happiness and anger—are pretty easily detected. Footsteps might seem an obvious example, but it shows that we connect all sorts of sounds to our assumptions about what emotion, feeling or sensation generated that sound.
The UCLA study proposed that our appreciation and feeling for music are deeply dependent on mirror neurons. When you watch, or even just hear, someone play an instrument, the neurons associated with the muscles required to play that instrument fire. Listening to a piano, we “feel” those hand and arm movements, and as any air guitarist will tell you, when you hear or see a scorching solo, you are “playing” it, too. Do you have to know how to play the piano to be able to mirror a piano player? Edward W. Large at Florida Atlantic University scanned the brains of people with and without music experience as they listened to Chopin. As you might guess, the mirror neuron system lit up in the musicians who were tested, but somewhat surprisingly, it flashed in non-musicians as well. So, playing air guitar isn’t as weird as it sometimes seems. The UCLA group contends that all of our means of communication—auditory, musical, linguistic, visual—have motor and muscular activities at their root. By reading and intuiting the intentions behind those motor activities, we connect with the underlying emotions. Our physical state and our emotional state are inseparable—by perceiving one, an observer can deduce the other.
People dance to music as well, and neurological mirroring might explain why hearing rhythmic music inspires us to move, and to move in very specific ways. Music, more than many of the arts, triggers a whole host of neurons. Multiple regions of the brain fire upon hearing music: muscular, auditory, visual, linguistic. That’s why some folks who have completely lost their language abilities can still articulate a text when it is sung. Oliver Sacks wrote about a brain-damaged man who discovered that he could sing his way through his mundane daily routines, and only by doing so could he remember how to complete simple tasks like getting dressed. Melodic intonation therapy is the name for a group of therapeutic techniques that were based on this discovery.
Mirror neurons are also predictive. When we observe an action, posture, gesture or a facial expression, we have a good idea, based on our past experience, what is coming next. Some on the Asperger spectrum might not intuit all those meanings as easily as others, and I’m sure I’m not alone in having been accused of missing what friends thought were obvious cues or signals. But most folks catch at least a large percentage of them. Maybe our innate love of narrative has some predictive, neurological basis we have developed the ability to be able to feel where a story might be going. Ditto with a melody. We might sense the emotionally resonant rise and fall of a melody, a repetition, a musical build, and we have expectations, based on experience, about where those actions are leading—expectations that will be confirmed or slightly redirected depending on the composer or performer. As cognitive scientist Daniel Levitin points out, too much confirmation—when something happens exactly as it did before—causes us to get bored and to tune out. Little variations keep us alert, as well as serving to draw attention to musical moments that are critical to the narrative.
Music does so many things to us that one can’t simply say, as many do, “Oh, I love all kinds of music.” Really? But some forms of music are diametrically opposed to one another! You can’t love them all. Not all the time, anyway.
In 1969, Unesco passed a resolution outlining a human right that doesn’t get talked about much—the right to silence. I think they’re referring to what happens if a noisy factory gets built beside your house, or a shooting range, or if a disco opens downstairs. They don’t mean you can demand that a restaurant turn off the classic rock tunes it’s playing, or that you can muzzle the guy next to you on the train yelling into his cellphone. It’s a nice thought though—despite our innate dread of absolute silence, we should have the right to take an occasional aural break, to experience, however briefly, a moment or two of sonic fresh air. To have a meditative moment, a head-clearing space, is a nice idea for a human right.
John Cage wrote a book called, somewhat ironically, Silence. Ironic because he was increasingly becoming notorious for noise and chaos in his compositions. He once claimed that silence doesn’t exist for us. In a quest to experience it, he went into an anechoic chamber, a room isolated from all outside sounds, with walls designed to inhibit the reflection of sounds. A dead space, acoustically. After a few moments he heard a thumping and whooshing, and was informed those sounds were his own heartbeat and the sound of his blood rushing through his veins and arteries. They were louder than he might have expected, but okay. After a while, he heard another sound, a high whine, and was informed that this was his nervous system. He realized then that for human beings there was no such thing as true silence, and this anecdote became a way of explaining that he decided that rather than fighting to shut out the sounds of the world, to compartmentalize music as something outside of the noisy, uncontrollable world of sounds, he’d let them in: “Let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for manmade theories or expressions of human sentiments.” Conceptually at least, the entire world now became music.
If music is inherent in all things and places, then why not let music play itself? The composer, in the traditional sense, might no longer be necessary. Let the planets and spheres spin. Musician Bernie Krause has just come out with a book about “biophony”—the world of music and sounds made by animals, insects and the nonhuman environment. Music made by self-organizing systems means that anyone or anything can make it, and anyone can walk away from it. John Cage said the contemporary composer “resembles the maker of a camera who allows someone else to take the picture.” That’s sort of the elimination of authorship, at least in the accepted sense. He felt that traditional music, with its scores that instruct which note should be played and when, are not reflections of the processes and algorithms that activate and create the world around us. The world indeed offers us restricted possibilities and opportunities, but there are always options, and more than one way for things to turn out. He and others wondered if maybe music might partake of this emergent process.
A small device made in China takes this idea one step further. The Buddha Machine is a music player that uses random algorithms to organize a series of soothing tones and thereby create never-ending, non-repeating melodies. The programmer who made the device and organized its sounds replaces the composer, effectively leaving no performer. The composer, the instrument and the performer are all one machine. These are not very sophisticated devices, though one can envision a day when all types of music might be machine-generated. The basic, commonly used patterns that occur in various genres could become the algorithms that guide the manufacture of sounds. One might view much of corporate pop and hip-hop as being machine-made—their formulas are well established, and one need only choose from a variety of available hooks and beats, and an endless recombinant stream of radio-friendly music emerges. Though this industrial approach is often frowned on, its machine-made nature could just as well be a compliment—it returns musical authorship to the ether. All these developments imply that we’ve come full circle: We’ve returned to the idea that our universe might be permeated with music.
I welcome the liberation of music from the prison of melody, rigid structure and harmony. Why not? But I also listen to music that does adhere to those guidelines. Listening to the Music of the Spheres might be glorious, but I crave a concise song now and then, a narrative or a snapshot more than a whole universe. I can enjoy a movie or read a book in which nothing much happens, but I’m deeply conservative as well—if a song establishes itself within the pop genre, then I listen with certain expectations. I can become bored more easily by a pop song that doesn’t play by its own rules than by a contemporary composition that is repetitive and static. I like a good story and I also like staring at the sea—do I have to choose between the two?
Excerpted from How Music Works by David Byrne, published by McSweeney's Books, © 2012 by Todo Mundo Ltd.
Did early humans, or even animals, invent music?
Chimpanzee lead guitarists are thin on the ground. The stage at London&rsquos Royal Albert Hall sees few lemur violin virtuosos. Conventional wisdom has it that music is a relatively modern human invention, and one that, while fun and rewarding, is a luxury rather than a basic necessity of life.
This appears to be borne out by the archaeological evidence. While the first hand axes and spears date back about 1.7 million years and 500,000 years respectively, the earliest known musical instruments are just 40,000 years old.
But dig a little deeper and the story becomes more interesting. While musical instruments appear to be a relatively recent innovation, music itself is almost certainly significantly older. Research suggests it may have allowed our distant ancestors to communicate before the invention of language, been linked to the establishment of monogamy and helped provide the social glue needed for the emergence of the first large early and pre-human societies. There is also emerging evidence that music might have even deeper origins: some monkeys can distinguish between sound patterns in ways similar to how humans can recognise slight differences between melodies.
There is a clear musical tradition
A literal reading of the prehistory of music begins about 40,000 years ago, with Europe on the brink of a momentous change. The region was then home to the Neanderthals, who had inherited it from earlier human species stretching back a million years. But now a new species of human - our own - was racing across Europe. Homo sapiens were clever in a way that Neanderthals were not. Perhaps most importantly, they were armed with much more effective weapons. Within about 5,000 years our species had spread and multiplied so effectively that it may have outnumbered the Neanderthals 10 to one. Not long afterwards the Neanderthals vanished entirely.
The dramatic pace of this change suggests there were some fundamental differences between our species and the Neanderthals. The evidence on (and in) the ground strengthens the case. For instance, the Neanderthals sometimes lived in caves but for the most part didn&rsquot bother to decorate them, although evidence published in September 2014 suggests they may have created some rudimentary, abstract art, etched into a wall of a cave in Gibraltar (see video below: credit: S. Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum).
However when our species arrived cave walls became canvases for impressively ambitious paintings. Modern humans also began carving human figurines and animals out of bone and ivory shortly after they arrived in Europe. And, to go with their new fascination with the visual arts, they began making bone and ivory musical instruments.
&ldquoThere is a clear musical tradition,&rdquo says Nicholas Conard at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who helped discover many of the best examples of these early instruments. &ldquoIn southwest Germany we have eight flutes from three different sites.&rdquo
These artistic endeavours might at first glance seem irrelevant to our species&rsquo remarkable success at the Neanderthals&rsquo expense. Indeed, some researchers have argued that music is little more than a useless byproduct of our intellectual advancement. For Conard and others however, music and art were important in helping those early modern humans forge a sense of group identity and mutual trust that enabled them to become so successful.
&ldquoI&rsquod say the symbolic artefacts we find show that there were more people on the ground and this was social glue that helped hold people together and contributed to their adaptive advantage,&rdquo he says.
Our poor Neanderthal cousins may have struggled to build that level of social unity and failed to compete partly because they lacked art and music.
There is growing evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of modern humans
In truth, Conard and others think the story is probably more complicated than that because, they argue, the art and musical instruments that appeared in Europe 40,000 years ago are so sophisticated that they must have evolved out of earlier artistic traditions. In 2011, for example, archaeologists revealed they had found tools and shells probably used to mix up body paint 100,000 years ago in a cave in South Africa.
It&rsquos also likely that Neanderthals were not the uncultured brutes of popular imagination. A reassessment of the available evidence carried out by a Dutch group suggests it does not support widely held ideas about the species having only primitive tools and weapons, lacking the ability to communicate using signs and symbols, having a narrow diet and only basic forms of social organisation.
&ldquoThere is growing evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of modern humans,&rdquo says Ruth Biasco at the Gibraltar Museum. It&rsquos not inconceivable that Neanderthals might have made and used musical instruments, she says - although until solid evidence is found to back up the suggestion, she prefers to remain cautious.
In fact, there is at least one candidate Neanderthal musical instrument - a 43,000-year-old bone flute found at a Neanderthal site in Slovenia. The find is controversial, though, with many researchers arguing that the flute&rsquos &ldquofinger holes&rdquo are nothing more than puncture wounds left when a large carnivore chewed on the bone.
It&rsquos a debate that highlights some of the difficulties in identifying early musical instruments. For one thing, they may not have been made entirely from scratch but from materials that, through natural processes, were suitable for making music. Even today, for example, didgeridoo craftsmen begin making their instruments by searching for trees that have been hollowed out by termites. Recognising instruments like this at ancient human sites is not impossible, says origin-of-music researcher Francesco d&rsquoErrico at the University of Bordeaux in France. &ldquoBut it requires a lot of effort and dedicated research.&rdquo
When the vocal anatomy looked like ours you can conclude that they had vocal abilities rather like ours
Iain Morley at the University of Oxford, UK, who has studied the music created by modern hunter-gather groups, identifies another obstacle to finding the earliest musical instruments. In his book The Prehistory of Music, published last year, he emphasised the point that many traditional instruments are made from perishable materials that rot away relatively quickly. This means it may be very difficult to find the earliest objects used for making music, let alone establish whether Neanderthals made use of them.
But in a sense this doesn&rsquot really matter. There is one musical instrument researchers can say with some confidence substantially predates 40,000 years - and it&rsquos one that Neanderthals almost certainly had at their disposal. The human voice may have gained its full vocal range at least 530,000 years ago, suggesting several species of extinct human - including Neanderthals - had the potential to sing.
We know this because of some remarkable fossil finds made within the last decade or so. There is a tiny horseshoe-shaped bone in our neck called the hyoid, and some researchers think its shape changed when our voice box moved down our throat to take up a position that allows us to talk and sing. Archaeologists have now found a small number of these fragile hyoids belonging to Neanderthals and to another, earlier human species called Homo heidelbergensis: they have the same shape as the modern human hyoid.
&ldquoI take the view that when the vocal anatomy looked like ours you can conclude that they had vocal abilities rather like ours, as long as they could control it,&rdquo says Morley.
The voice box may actually have begun to descend even earlier. Its soft tissue doesn&rsquot preserve in human fossils, but its lower position in our necks affects the shape of the base of our skulls. A careful look at ancient skulls suggests even those belonging to our 1.8-million-year-old forerunners had slightly descended voice boxes. This means our ancestors may have had some crude ability to sing for a very long time, and that the ability gradually improved through time. If so, this would imply that humans had something to gain from using the pitch and tone of their voice - but what?
Charles Darwin, the 19th century naturalist and father of evolutionary biology, was one of the first to try to explain why humans became musical. In his 1871 book on evolutionary theory The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, he proposed it was analogous to bird song, in that it helped males attract mates and warn off rivals. The idea has now largely fallen out of fashion, though, because singing is not an exclusively male pastime: in almost three-quarters of songbirds, for instance, females sing too.
More recently Thomas Geissmann at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, came up with another interesting theory. In a book published in the year 2000, he pointed out that the four other singing primates (some lemurs, tarsiers, titi monkeys and gibbons) all form monogamous breeding pairs - as do many humans, and amongst birds duetting mainly occurs in monogamous species. Perhaps, Geissmann suggested, singing is somehow related to the evolution of monogamy - although exactly how or why is still unclear.
Other explanations for the origin of music emphasise the obvious similarities between human song and language. Most of us recognise that music can communicate to us - even a wordless melody can make us feel happy or sad. Dean Falk at Florida State University in Tallahassee, US, points out that we can also often understand the emotional state of someone from the tone of their voice, even if they are speaking a language we are unfamiliar with.
Perhaps music and language both evolved out of the need for early humans to communicate their emotional state to other members of the group. Other primates often rely on grooming to connect emotionally with their peers - but at some point in our prehistory, humans began to come together in larger groups, and needed a way to broadcast their emotional state to a greater number of individuals to keep the group united.
The case for mothers and infants jump-starting the evolution of motherese, which eventually evolved into proto-language and proto-music, is supported by strong evidence
In the 1990s Leslie Aiello and Robin Dunbar, both then at University College London, suggested our ancestors began communicating with emotional tones they called &lsquovocal grooming&rsquo to cement social ties on a large scale. Aiello and Dunbar were really looking for a way to explain the evolution of language, but others including Morley think their emphasis on the early importance of tone shows that the use of emotional tones to strengthen social cohesion might equally explain the origin of music.
Falk thinks a better way to look for the origins of music might be to explore how our anatomy differs from that of our primate relatives. One of the biggest differences is that human babies are born in a far less developed and more helpless state than many other primates. There are obvious reasons why this is the case: even as infants we have large brains that can make childbirth a painful experience for the mother. If our skulls grew any larger in the womb, it would become almost inevitably lethal.
One consequence of our helplessness as newborns is that human babies can&rsquot cling to their mothers for protection and reassurance in the same way that baby chimps can. Human mothers have to carry their babies, which interferes with their ability to perform daily tasks. Falk thinks that mothers in prehistory had to put their babies down at regular intervals to free up their hands for other activities, and that they used an early form of baby talk, or &lsquomotherese&rsquo, to keep them reassured.
I want to investigate to what extent their natural drumming resembles ours, and see what kind of musical patterns chimpanzees can imitate
It might be no coincidence that our ancestors&rsquo brains became particularly large, and their babies perhaps especially helpless, around 1.8 million years ago. This is the same time that researchers who have examined ancient skulls say the human voice box first began to descend in a way that would have made the voice more versatile. &ldquoI think the case for mothers and infants jump-starting the evolution of motherese, which eventually evolved into proto-language and proto-music, is supported by varied and strong evidence,&rdquo says Falk.
Any, or all, of these hypotheses for the origin of music might be true. There are differences between them, but they all suggest our ability to make and appreciate music was an important step in early human evolution. Many also highlight music&rsquos role in social bonding &ndash fitting neatly with the idea that the 40,000-year-old musical instruments are evidence of the strong social ties that contributed to modern human success in Europe.
But there is still some way to go before scientists have a comprehensive picture of the origins of music. For instance, some primates that don&rsquot use music nonetheless seem to have an ear for a tune. Last year Andrea Ravignani at the University of Vienna in Austria and the University of Edinburgh in the UK found that squirrel monkeys can recognise subtle differences in sound patterns in much the same way that humans can distinguish between different melodies or different word phrases in spoken language.
Why would the monkeys have this ability when they don&rsquot seem to use it in the wild? &ldquoI don&rsquot have an easy answer for that,&rdquo says Ravignani. He is now studying the musical talents of other primates, beginning by giving captive chimps access to a custom-built electronic drum machine. &ldquoI want to investigate to what extent their natural drumming resembles ours, and see what kind of musical patterns chimpanzees can imitate.&rdquo
&ldquoAbilities that underlie some of our musical traits seem to be showing up in animals more and more,&rdquo says Morley. Perhaps that&rsquos because the brain circuits we now use to process music originally had some other purpose. If that turns out to be the case, those researchers ignoring Stone Age flutes in favour of listening to the primal tattoos drummed out by chimpanzees might be in with a better chance of finding the true origins of music.
We stop discovering new music at age 30, a new survey suggests — here are the scientific reasons why this could be
It's a simple fact of life that older people reminisce about the glory days. You might believe you'll stay young and free-spirited forever, but one day you'll find yourself grumbling about not understanding the latest slang words and asking a young person what a meme is.
For some it might be happening earlier than they thought. That's according to a new survey from Deezer, which suggests people stop discovering new music at just 30 and a half.
The music streaming service surveyed 1,000 Brits about their music preferences and listening habits. 60% of people reported being in a musical rut, only listening to the same songs over and over, while just over a quarter (25%) said they wouldn't be likely to try new music from outside their preferred genres.
The peak age for discovering new music, the results suggested, was 24. This is when 75% of respondents said they listened to 10 or more new tracks a week, and 64% said they sought out five new artists per month. After this, though, it seems people's ability to keep up with music trends peters off.
Some of the reasons the survey revealed were people being overwhelmed by the amount of choice available (19%), having a demanding job (16%), and caring for young children (11%). Nearly half of respondents said they wished they had more time to dedicate to discovering new music, so at least for that 47% it wasn't due to a lack of interest.
"With so much brilliant music out there, it's easy to feel overwhelmed," said Adam Read, the UK & Ireland music editor at Deezer. "This often results in us getting stuck in 'musical paralysis' by the time we hit our thirties."
In 2015, the Skynet & Ebert blog looked at data from US Spotify users and Echo Nest. On average, teen music taste was dominated by popular music, then this steadily dropped until people's tastes "matured" in their early 30s. By age 33, it was more likely they'd never listen to new music again.
Rather than having less time, some research suggests we listen to the same songs over and over again because of musical nostalgia. For example, one major study, published in the journal Memory & Cognition, found that music had a very powerful effect on the mind to evoke memories, conjuring up old echos of the past at school or university.
Earlier this year, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz analysed Spotify data in the New York Times. Essentially, he found that if you were in your early teens when a song was first released, it will be the most popular among your age group a decade later. Radiohead's "Creep," for example, is the 164th most popular song among 38-year-old men, but it doesn't even reach the top 300 for those born 10 years earlier or later. It's because men who are 38 now were in that musical sweet spot when the song was released in 1993.
As for why this happens, research has shown how our favourite songs stimulate our pleasure responses in the brain, releasing dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other happy chemicals. The more we like a song, the more of these chemicals flow through our body.
This happens for everyone, but during our adolescent years our brains are going through a lot of changes. We're also incredibly hormonal and sensitive, so if we hear a song we really love, it's more likely to stay with us forever.
That isn't to say you won't hear a new song you love in later life — it just might not elicit the same strong response because you aren't such a sponge anymore.
Another reason we listen to the same songs over and over could be because of something called the "anticipation phase." If you get goosebumps when you hear your favourite songs, it could be because of the hormonal responses, but it could also be because you know the good part is coming up.
For example, just before the song peaks, or there's a dramatic chord change, our brain perceives it as a reward and releases dopamine. However, over time we start to lose the same feeling of euphoria because we musically gorge ourselves.
If you haven't heard a song for several years, the euphoria may return, particularly if you first heard it when your brain was soaking everything up between the ages or 12 and 22.
So if you have a penchant for music from your youth, it's probably wired deep into your psyche. You can indulge in that throwback Thursday playlist full of Panic! At The Disco and Blink-182 without shame because it'll make your brain happy — it deserves it.