Why does music play such a big role in our lives? Blame evolution
By Doug Sweet
James McGill Professor of Psychology Dan Levitin, who is also the Director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise, has written two hugely popular books on how music affects our brains – This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs – in addition to a just-published psychology textbook, among other work. A former record producer, he has had Sting wired up in his lab to see what happens to his brain when he hears different types of music and worked with a host of musical luminaries to try to figure out why music plays such a big part in our brains and, by extension, our lives. Which is exactly the question the McGill Reporter wanted to put to him.
Do we know whether humans spoke or sang first?
We don’t know. We know a lot about the development of visual symbols and art because drawings and cave paintings leave a residue – we can carbon-date a cave painting and we know how old it is and we can compare it to other things – but sound, at least until 120 years ago being ephemeral and unrecordable, left no trace.
Paleontologists and biologists look at things like the fossil record for the position of the larynx in the developing throat of humans and proto-humans and Neanderthals to make inferences about [speech capability] and then you look at things like bone flutes, which are dated to 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, and you make inferences – well, before humans came up with this technological way of making music, they were probably singing for tens of thousands of years before they thought of carving holes in a bone.
But I think the emerging consensus among scholars is that both language and music are very, very old in the species and we might never know which came first, but you could certainly argue either way. I’m persuaded by the arguments of Steven Mithen that in fact music probably preceded speech – some form of vocal communication with pitch and rhythm. It might have sounded something like the teacher in the Peanuts specials [imitates the trombone-like voice of the teacher].
Has music always been important to us or has its importance or its place in society ebbed and flowed?
It’s imperfect, but we can look at contemporary hunter-gatherer societies as one source of evidence and we make the inference … maybe that’s the way our own hunter-gatherer ancestors acted and behaved and lived.
And you look at them and music is woven into the very fabric of their daily life. So, they’ve got basket-weaving songs and go-fetch-the-water songs and campfire songs and music is really part of the daily routine. The interesting thing there is that they’ve got a repertoire of songs that may number in the dozens, maybe in the hundreds. And that’s all the songs they ever know or all the songs they sing in a lifetime. The average 12-year-old [today] will hear more songs in a month than your great-grandfather heard across his whole life, probably.
So that’s an extraordinary shift – the sheer quantity of music. In terms of its meaning, it probably has ebbed and flowed through history and different cultures value it differently. I think one of the most interesting things that’s happened in your lifetime and mine is that there’s more music available than ever before and it’s available in more places and at more times and, now we carry around these devices … so music is more ubiquitous, it’s more common, there’s more of it and it’s in many more hours of our day.
But I think an interesting point that Len Blum made the other day was that when he and I were kids, music listening was a kind of ritualized, focal activity where you would do nothing but listen to music.
Any of us who were born in the ’50s or ’60s would describe that as one of the most important activities of our lives. One of the most important things we did with our lives was to listen to music. It was something that was deeply meaningful to us. And from talking to kids today, I don’t think they feel that same way about it. Music isn’t a defining part of their personality. So that’s part of the ebb and flow.
We don’t need music to survive. But we devote enormous resources to creating, marketing and developing new technologies for it. Why does music play such a huge role in our lives?
In a different form, that’s the question that impelled me to write The World in Six Songs – why do humans have this relationship with music?
I think music’s important to us because it was important to our ancestors for reasons that we may not be able to fully understand, but it’s a product of evolutionary processes. So, you know, why do we have eyebrows? There’s some evolutionary reason … But if you find something that’s ubiquitous, it’s reasonable to ask the question was there some reason evolutionarily why this is there?
I think because of music’s ubiquity and its antiquity, it’s a reasonable question to ask what role it might have served across evolutionary time scales. So the simple answer, I think, is that we have it now because it performed some important function for our ancestors. And natural selection acted on our ancestors to create music-loving humans. And that propensity was passed on to us.
You can ask what those evolutionary functions might have been, that’s really the point of my book. My idea is that it was six different things, at least that it wasn’t one thing that evolution was selecting for … but one was a kind of primal, emotional communication, where music was able to communicate either better than language or before language, certain things.
If I just say one word to you – “Abba” – all of a sudden you’re thinking, Mama Mia. [Levitin: “Thanks a lot, Doug.”] Exactly. Why does that happen?
We don’t know. We know something about [earworms]. We know that they tend to be short little snippets, 10 to 20 seconds of a piece of music, not the whole thing. Nobody’s got an earworm that’s three and a half minutes long. We know that they tend to be relatively simple, so people don’t have Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, usually, don’t have the Rite of Spring, they’ve got Who Let the Dogs Out or It’s a Small World After All [Sweet: “Stop!”] And, again, I think actually the fact that it happens is sort of a byproduct of the evolution of music. I think music sticks in our head because it was intended to, it had to. When you had to remember things like how to boil this plant so it’s not poisonous or how to lash together logs to make a floating raft, how to tie knots …. Whatever it was that was set to music was made to stick in your head. So this is just an artifact of that.
Music can elicit a physical response in us. Why?
This is what we’re all trying to figure out. One thing we know is that music hits some of the most primitive parts of the brain, the limbic system, the so-called reptilian brain, more directly than many other things that we experience. So it has a tight grip on the emotional centres of our brain within just milliseconds of when it enters the ears. So that doesn’t tell you why it’s music that does it and not something else, but it does tell you why, to some degree, we have this physiological reaction. It’s not like music is in some other part of the brain and then has to work its way into that emotional centre. It’s there from the beginning. My personal view – speculative – is that it has something to do with the way we evolve sound in general. … The evolution of our sound percept is that it’s a very important alerting signal. Sound can travel around corners that light can’t. Sound travels in the dark; light doesn’t. So, for a number of reasons, sound was evolved as an early-warning system for danger.
You hear the opening bars from the theme from Jaws and it scares the crap out of you. So it takes the genius of a John Williams to know how to do that?
That’s right. And John Williams probably doesn’t know the limbic system from the spleen. He doesn’t have to.
He understands how to make drama out of music?
People ask where did classical music go? That’s where. They say how come we don’t have any Beethovens any more? We do. They’re John Williams and Danny Elfman. They’re Hans Zimmer. It’s music for film. Those are symphonies. I mean people will be playing those 100 years from now – the Star Wars theme, the Batman theme.