What Is Music For?

Unlike most pleasures it doesn't encourage us to meet any obvious survival needs

Posted Apr 26, 2013

Why do we take pleasure of bathing our ears in certain frequencies of sound, modulated at various tempos? What, exactly, is this thing called music?

Given how ubiquitous music is in our daily lives, you might be surprised to learn that scientists have come up with no really solid explanations of what it’s all about. Archaeologists tell us our species has been enjoying it for a long time—the oldest known musical instrument, a flute, was made out of an extinct bear’s thigh bone some 50,000 years ago—so it’s clearly a deep-seated part of our psyche. But no one knows why we love it.

And this is strange, because most of the things we enjoy are obviously useful from the perspective of natural selection. We like looking at attractive members of the opposite sex because they are crucial to reproduction. We enjoy playing sports because they involve skills (throwing, hitting, moving in coordination with a group) that were crucial in Neolithic hunting and warfare. We enjoy novels and movies because they allow us to learn about the interpersonal dynamics that are crucial to our survival as social mammals.

Music, in contrast, doesn’t seem to help us do anything.

The phenomenon is strange in other ways, too. Though we respond to music primarily at an emotional level, without needing to think through our response, it turns out that deep in our subconscious music follows a surprisingly rigorous and sophisticated logic. The notes of a chord only sound good together if their frequencies obey a strict mathematical relationship to one another. And the unfolding of a melody must obey its own law, revealing to the listener a gradually emerging pattern while also breaking that pattern from time to time. This balance between order and chaos is what makes a piece of music enjoyably surprising.

These rough parameters have been understood for centuries. The greater mystery, how we came to possess a music instinct and why, remains elusive. To be sure, psychologists have come up with their theories. One is that music survives as a relic from a stage of human evolution that preceded language. Long ago, perhaps, our ancestors once called out to one another across the African savanna, wordless singing their happiness, their sadness, or their loneliness. If this view is correct, music survives as a kind of relic of an intermediary stage between the hoots and chirps of animals and the full complexity of modern language.

A competing theory is that music didn’t precede language, but rather sprang from it as a byproduct. The idea is that, as our ancestors gradually became attuned to the rhythms and frequency of language, particular areas of the brain became specialized in processing these attributes. Our ancestors developed music as a way to hack into these modules. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, famously promoted this view by likening to music to “auditory cheesecake”: it cropped up by evolutionary accident, he suggested, and though pleasurable serves no useful function.

For scientists, the key to deciphering what music is all about may ultimately lie in studying those who don’t understand it at all. About 1 person in 25 suffers from a condition called “amusia,” whose effects range from tone-deafness to the total inability to find any pleasure in music. People can be born with with amusia or come down with it after sustaining a brain injury. Such people tend to have damage to certain areas of the brain, including the primary auditory cortex and the frontal lobe. These areas are located far apart within the brain and serve a range of different functions, including memory and the perception of time. Music also engages both the primitive parts of the brain that handle emotion and the more recently evolved areas that carry out reasoning and planning. You could say that music offers something to every part of us. It ties us together inside.

It ties us together collectively, too. Music turns a crowd into a community. It’s no accident that soldiers once marched off to battle singing to the accompaniment of pipers and drummers, or that an entire stadium’s worth of spectators stands and belts out “The Star Spangled Banner” at the start of every baseball game. Nothing can match the power of music in spreading an emotion across a crowd of people and binding them together. And this, some have suggested, might be the real purpose of music after all.

If that's the case, then it makes a lot of sense that going to a concert or a music festival is so much more intense an experience than simply listening at home. In the collective environment, we're able not just to enjoy the music, but to be a part of it, to be swept away into something greater than ourselves and ineffable. To be, for a moment, carried along in a great ocean of collective feeling.