Henrico Prins/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0
Source: Henrico Prins/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Researchers in England have taken a stab at answering one of life’s unanswered questions: Why do we make music? What drives us to sing? Why do we spend years learning to play instruments?

The people most interested in tackling this problem are evolutionary psychologists. Darwin believed music evolved as a display to attract mates. This has come to be known more recently as the Mick Jagger theory of sexual selection.

“The problem is, that’s a theory of Mick Jagger,” the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker told me in an interview. “The typical use of music is not Mick Jagger, it’s a 50-year-old guy giving trombone lessons to nine-year-olds in his spare time.” He went on to say the Mick Jagger theory has nothing to do with music; people who excel at anything, especially sports and making money, are sexy. (Pinker famously believes music is not evolutionary adaptation at all but is, instead, in his now infamous words, “auditory cheesecake.”)

The authors of this study, from Goldsmiths College and Oxford University, set out to test a competing theory—that music evolved among humans because it fosters group cohesion, and that singing together is especially good at promoting strong social bonds in progressively larger groups. Their jumping-off point was evidence from the archeological record. It seems our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in bands of roughly 50 people, and periodically they would join together in larger groups that involved ceremonial singing. You might think of these as caveman jamborees.

The researchers found a modern-day equivalent in the form of small community choirs, 20 to 80 people in size, that meet occasionally as a large “megachoir” numbering in the hundreds. Before and after rehearsals the choristers filled out questionnaires—about feelings of inclusion and connectedness—and they submitted to pain threshold tests to measure endorphin release. Across the board, in both the small and large choirs, people felt better after they sang, but the rise was significantly more dramatic in the megachoir. The researchers concluded that music fueled the growth of social groups among early humans, larger than what you find among other primates. 

Although it might be fun to speculate about whatever evolutionary reason may or may not have prompted our ancestors to start singing, this study gives us valuable information about how to live our lives in the present. Research consistently provides scientific measures that confirm what we already know: Creating music makes us feel good. That, for me, is reason enough to do it. As we move into the hard work of adulthood, it’s all too easy to drop the musical activities from our school years because we can’t justify the time. Oddly, with a study such as this one, it’s science, more than our present-day culture, that reminds of the value of taking part in community choirs and bands. It’s self-administered music therapy.

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