What Function Music?

Darwin argued that music evolved mainly by sexual selection through mate choice—and that we’re uncomfortable acknowledging that fact. (more)

My students … don’t talk about music very eagerly. In class I can get a conversation going about God with no problem. And students love talking about alcohol and its effects on the human mind and spirit, theirs in particular. A conversation about sex is easy to start and quickly goes way further than I’d imagine — and sometimes further than I want. … [Yet] when I ask what role music plays in their lives or why they listen to what they do, there is silence. (more)

I can also feel in myself a reluctance to analyze music, a fear that awareness might kill something precious. Yet this also suggests there’s an important hypocrisy here, a truth we’d rather not face. Digging, I found a summary of music’s functions:

Seven main functions of music listening were identified: music in the background, memories through music, music as diversion, emotions and self-regulation through music, music as reflection of self and social bonding through music. (more detail below)

Anything that we can do several different ways can help to identify us and our groups. Anything we can do together can bond us. And anything that can be done well or badly can signal ability. Any different activity could be a diversion. And any stimulation can sit in the background while we do other things. Because these functions can apply to most anything, they seem last-resort explanations for why we developed a musical capacity. More likely, such functions were layered onto an activity that had a more unique base function.

It certainly feels helpful that music can adjust our mood and emotions. The question is why we’d be built with something so expensive as our mood adjustment knobs. If we needed conscious control of mood, why not just evolve a direct control? I’m also struck by how important lyrics are to music – none of the above functions explain why we prefer songs with meaningful words.

Compared to other sorts of speech, we especially like stories to be accompanied by music. And the lyrics of songs are similar to stories in many ways. This suggests that stories and music perform similar or complementary functions.

If the lower levels of our minds tend to treat story events like real events, then we can use our stories to influence our beliefs about what happens in the real world. By consuming stories socially, and preferring stories preferred by our leaders and created by impressive story tellers, we coordinate to believe what our associates believe, and what our high status leaders choose us to believe, even against the evidence of our eyes. And by letting others see the stories we consume, we can signal this choice to others.

Thus we can use stories to signal our allegiance to our leaders’ and groups’ norms. Of course if some people evolved an ability to prevent stories from influencing their expectations about real events, they’d be able to fake this conformity signal. Which might be why we feel revulsion for “inhuman” folks who are not moved by stories.

Similarly, imagine music can directly influence our emotions and moods, but that we have only limited direct conscious control over such things. In this case by associating music with people and verbal claims, we can influence our attitudes toward such things. And by sharing music with our groups, and preferring music preferred by our leaders and created by impressive artists, we can coordinate to have have the attitudes our associates do, and the ones our high status leaders prefer. By consuming music together, we can signal this choice to others. And we’d naturally feel revulsion against those who could fake this signal, because music didn’t influence their moods.

Homo hypocritus likes to think that his beliefs and attitudes are based only on his evidence; he doesn’t believe things just to please his associates or leaders. But he in fact needs to believe what his associates do, and what his leaders like, often against his evidence. And he needs to signal this fact to his associates and leaders.

By visibly exposing himself to shared stories and music, that directly influence his beliefs, while consciously believing that stories and music do not change his beliefs, homo hypocritus can accomplish all these things. This can also explain why we are reluctant to seriously examine the function of music (and stories) in our lives.

Those promised function details:

Seven main functions of music listening were identified: music in the background, memories through music, music as diversion, emotions and self-regulation through music, music as reflection of self and social bonding through music.  Across all sub-samples the self-regulation function was the most important personal use of music, bonding was the most important social use of music and the expression of cultural identity was the most salient cultural function of music regardless of listeners’ cultural background. …

Music is often used as a background; … it can also fill gaps and help pass the time. … Music can bring back memories of events, life stages, relationships and emotions or memories of loved ones. … Music is … used for feeling good and enjoying oneself. … Music has the capacity to convey emotions and to trigger emotions or emotional and physical reactions. Particular songs are … specifically chosen … in order to express a particular emotional state of the participants. …  Music can help to relax and relieve stress and to enhance creativity and intellectual focus. Listening to music can reduce loneliness, while offering a means of escape. … Certain music can assist in venting frustration and aggression. … It allows for the expression of a person’s individuality and lifestyle. … music expresses and influences values and attitudes; it can act as inspiration. … music indicates social identity by signifying group membership, for instance, belong- ing to a particular social group (like alternative or rave) or the current ‘cool group’ in school. … Music can provide an opportunity for a collective activity, such as discussing and listening to music or going to concerts together. These shared musical activities can … create a special bond. (more)

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