Jenni Ogden Ph.D.

Trouble in Mind

Prince Or His Music: Which Will You Miss More?

Why is music so important in our lives?

Posted Apr 29, 2016, Flickr, Creative Commons
Source:, Flickr, Creative Commons

Prince or Prokofiev, Beatles or Bach, Elvis or Elgar. Almost everyone enjoys some form of music. It has been part of human culture for thousands of years. A fifty-thousand-year -old Slovenian bone flute made from the femur of a European bear species which is now extinct, is amongst the earliest man-made artifacts known. Archaelogical records suggest that percussion instruments including drums, rattles and the like were in use thousands of years before flutes, along with singing and dancing. So to the everyday person it is no surprise that music, rhythm and dancing are part of being human; perhaps as essential even as verbal language. So many of us use music or dance to take us away from the realities of daily life and transport us to somewhere else, at least emotionally. Two year-olds dance spontaneously when they hear music. People who are too shy to sing or dance bcause they have been told they can’t sing in tune, or that they dance out of time, may sing and dance when no-one is watching. How well you perform something is not necessarily related to how important it is to you.

Does the musicality of the human race suggest that music is adaptive? That it has been encoded in our genes because it is important for the survival of our species? Darwin believed that, like language, music evolved through natural selection. Spoken language developed because it allowed humans to communicate more efficiently without using their hands to make gestures, and without even looking at each other. Thus they could use their hands for other tasks at the same time as they were speaking.

Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us that most of the genes that exist in us today are those that were passed on to us through sexual reproduction over hundreds of generations. In addition we will have a small number of genes that may have mutated, some of which may confer an advantage and be passed on, and others that will be lost. So the essential behaviour that must occur if our genes are to be passed on is reproduction. Therefore any gene that gives us a reproductive advantage is one worth having.

Today we have a choice over whether we will reproduce, but never-the-less thousands of years of genetic adaptation may still influence our behaviors. In the evolutionary scheme of things, we select our sexual mates because they show us they are biologically and sexually fit, and thus joining their genes with our own is likely to provide us with healthy children who will grow up and pass those ‘fit’ genes to their children. There is no point in reproducing if our offspring don’t also reproduce, so genes which convey a nuturing characteristic may also be important. As well as genes that convey an obvious survival advantage, such as strong limbs, child-bearing hips, and intelligence, there are many other characteristics that are coded in our genes that do not confer a direct survival advantage but rather an indirect one, especially that of making oneself more attractive to the opposite sex. In the well-known example of the peacock’s tail, the peahen chooses the male with the largest and most flamboyant  tail because it is correlated with the bird’s age, health and fitness. It also perhaps signals that he has the energy and time to be frivolous and dance about displaying. This can be likened to the attraction of the wealthy male with his fancy car and house—this signals to the woman that he has money to spare to protect her and their future offspring. Hopefully most of us value diffferent characteristics in our mates, and this too is a good thing because it leads to variability in the gene pool, also essential for species survival. Many of us might value a sense of humor, for example, above monetary wealth.

It has been estimated that it takes fifty thousand years or more for an adaptive characteristic to show up in the human genome. And we know that fifty thousand years ago humans were making and playing flutes. We are still playing flutes or enjoying listening or dancing to them, so this is strong support that music is adaptive for our survival. Darwin suggested that singing and dancing may have even preceded speech as a courtship behavior; a means of charming the other sex. Later theories have suggested that the ability to sing may have helped humans develop the fine muscle control required for communicative gestures and then vocal language.

Many evolutionary biologists have hypothesized other adaptive functions for music and rhythm—an energetic dancer must be physically fit, a fine singer must have abundant resources given he had the time to perfect the skill—unlike a less well-resourced man who had to spend all his time finding food. Creativeness, whether it is cave painting, fashioning beautiful tools, making music or rhythm, or dancing or singing, may signal a form of intelligence that is attractive to a sexual partner. Social evolutionary biologists hypothesize that music and dancing is cohesive and binds groups of people together. This can be important for the upbringing of offspring; the more people there are to look out for them, the better their chances of survival. Creativity and free-form or complex dancing in particular stimulates brain health and cognitive sharpness.(See my Psych Today post on this.) Then there is the excitement of singing and dancing in a crowd; the surge of neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers; two people are more likely to feel sexually attracted when they are sharing in the same pleasurable experience. Anyone in today’s world who has lost themselves in a Beethoven symphony or danced in a frenzy of joy with thousands of others during a Rolling Stones (or Prince) concert, will readily identify with these functions of music.

But not everyone agrees that music is adaptive. In the late 1990s, cognitive neuroscientist, Steven Pinker, shocked the scientific world and especially those who sepcialized in music perception and cognition, with his assertion that music is not adaptive but is simply “auditory cheesecake.” Pinker’s ability to express ideas elegantly and vividly has never been in doubt, but this metaphor proved one of his most controversial. Humans didn’t evolve a liking for cheesecake, but they did evolve a liking for small amounts of fats and sugars in the diet, necessary for their health when these were in short supply. A neural system evolved so that when they tasted fats or sugars neurons would fire in the pleasure centers of the brain. So now when we eat cheesecake we obtain lots of pleasure even if the excess amounts of fat and sugar in cheesecake is unnecessary, and even deleterious to our health. Music, said Pinker, was, in a similar way, not adaptive but simply a by-product of language; an evolutionary accident that just happened to be pleasurable. He didn’t suggest that like cheesecake it was also deleterious, just that it was uninteresting in an evolutionary context. Food for thought indeed, but if you are a fan of Prince, and his music was the main attraction to the man, then you may think that music has an adaptive purpose as a sexual attractant.

So to return to the questions I posed in the title to this post; perhaps it is impossible to know who you will miss more, the man or his music—for Prince’s fans the two are likely inseparable. Of course, in our modern world, the music will always be available, along with Prince’s enormous store of unreleased music stashed away so that his fans will have original music to discover into the future. As for the question, why is music so important in our lives, that is for you to decide. But for me, it is not simply auditory cheesecake!

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