How did music evolve? Harvard study reveals a surprising theory. No, it’s not a sexual mating call

By Arianne Cohen

A battle is brewing among musical anthropologists. A plucky new article in the academic journal Behavior and Brain Sciences argues that the prevailing views on the evolution of music are “incomplete or wrong.” In academia, those are fighting words.

Music has long been hypothesized to have emerged either as a tool of social bonding, as a mating call, or as an inadvertent byproduct of other brain abilities like speaking and hearing. Psychologist Steven Pinker took the latter view, memorably describing music as “auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.”

Now, two Harvard psychologists, a UCLA cognitive scientist, and an anthropologist from Washington State have joined forces to swat down those theories: “I don’t think we can completely dismiss the ‘auditory cheesecake’ hypothesis, but it really doesn’t offer a very compelling explanation for the entire package of evidence,” says coauthor Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University, pointing out that many species make similar vocal signals.

Slam. The paper also points out that if social bonding is the goal, there are numerous more efficient paths than composing and performing music; if mating calls were the root, one gender would likely have superior musical abilities while the other sported superior listening skills, which is not the case (men and women have roughly equal musical aptitude). Boom.

The authors draw on extensive evidence to suggest two other likely roots for music: territorial signaling and infant care.

In warfare, rhythm and melody allow tribal groups to signal their strength, numbers, and coordination across far distances, to both allies and foes. This is not unlike how animals commonly use vocalizations to signal their territory or scare off others. “If we study music in traditional societies, we see it used consistently to form political alliances,” says Hagen. By this logic, military bands and marching bands are a late-stage adaptation of this dominance signaling: If the band can’t hold a beat, the football team probably can’t hold a ball.

In infant care, the researchers note that parents use sing-song language to communicate with their helpless infants. “The parent or caregiver needs a reliable way to signal to the infant that they are attending to them,” says coauthor Samuel Mehr, a psychologist and director of Harvard’s Music Lab. “But attention is a covert property of the mind. It’s hard to determine if someone is actually paying attention to you.”

But when that someone breaks their normal speaking patterns and starts crowing about you in song, it’s easy. Mehr adds that this song cannot be maintained while talking to others.

More beats in this intellectual battle are sure to come. Stay tuned.


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