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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  • Thursday

    I wholeheartedly agree that music can be used for signalling as you set out.  However, I don’t think that is the primary function it arose out of.  The fact that non-human species (birds, mice, whales) seem to create music-like things seems pretty dispositive.

    Music seems to have primarily evolved out of our use of vocal tonality to a. communicate our own emotions to others and b. to evoke certain emotions in others.  There seems especially to be some relation to wooing mates.

    • adrianratnapala

       Birdsong is pretty clearly “signalling”.  It is just not so wierd and complicated as human-song.

      • daedalus2u

         Says a non-bird who is unable to perceive the rich complexity of a birdsong. 

  • Additional hypothesis: Music is used for seduction and for group-bonding, but it’s also used for lullabies. It’s reasonable that babies have very limited ability to self-sooth,

    • The question is *why* music can seduce, bond, and soothe.

  • How would you reconcile this discussion with the fact that people often hold beliefs or ideologies that are at odds with the lyrics and themes of their favorite songs and artists?

  • Faul Sname

    I don’t see how that adds any function to music beyond the functionality that’s already there for stories. As for why it sounds good, that’s probably just the pleasure we get from pattern recognition and the fact that harmonies sound good (which is in turn just a fact about complementary frequencies).

  • Kith Pendragon

    How many of your classes contain a large number of art students?  It may  be that your students simply lack the practice and vocabulary to discuss music in a critical or personal way.  On the other hand it would be hard _not_ to have detailed opinions on religion unless we made some serious alterations to our culture.  Likewise, sex and alcohol produce immediate physical sensations that are easy to describe and discuss.  I kind of feel you may be falling victim to selection bias here.

    Moreover, are you starting the same discussions about God, sex, alcohol and music?  People don’t often ask “what kind of sex are you having and what about it do you like” as they do about music.

    • Oliver Beatson

      They should.

  • The basic premise of the article is flawed.

    Listing to songs by impressive artists isn’t something that people 10,000 years ago did. When our ancestors made music they made music as part of rituals.
    If you drum to get a bunch of folks into the mood to raid a neighboring tribe than it’s very crucial that all people get into the right mood.

    • Even in groups of size 150, some people are better at music than others. And of course mood is important – the question is why we are built so that music controls our mood.

      • The fact that differences in skill exist doesn’t imply that there’s evolutionary pressue. 
        Given that meme’s like music can change a lot faster than our genetics it’s perhaps more worthwhile to ask:
        “Why did music evolve in a way to be able to control mood in group sizes of 150.”

  • Mark Tiedemann

    Leonard Bernstein was once asked “What good is music? What’s it for?”  He had an answer and I still think it’s a pretty good one:

    “Music is the best tool we have for exploring the geography of the psyche.”

    In some ways, that’s a bit abstract, but it’s an abstract phenomenon we’re talking about.  Music can certainly be attached to all of the mentioned attributes and used—and certainly we all know people who only seem to appreciate it for one or two of those uses—but none of them explain its longevity, its persistence across cultures, or (I think most importantly) its continual modification, recomplication, and reinvention.

    Music is the one form we have that persistently refuses to be sublimated to predetermined social uses.  It cuts through the filters we put in place to block the impact of other forms of communication.  When you take the time to really listen, it does things in your head nothing else does.  In some ways, this is like a narcotic effect.  In other ways, it is similar to what we might call enlightenment or revelation in effect.  It seems to me that it works levers and pushes buttons that are otherwise left unused or suppressed.  My inclination is to compare this to the effects of deep reading, only it happens Now, in situ, and seems global.

    Just my opinion.

  • Drdave944

    I don’t know. Maybe the classroom is not the place.you can find plenty of discussion on the internet. but it is mostly about on the same level as Bevis and Butthead. It is either cool or it sucks. Yet Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde was condemned as immoral,too emotional,corrupting, but how is that better than saying it sucks?  There are many interesting things to discuss. No time now but maybe later

  • mtraven

    Your colleague Daniel Klein wrote about this in The People’s Romance:

    When we think of the action of the primitive band, the family, or the organization, 
    we think of the whole acting as an integrated entity. We may fail to consider that the 
    posited entity consists of constitutive elements or members. We may neglect to think 
    about how each member experiences his membership in the entity and achieves with 
    the other members the consonance in action that permits us to say that the entity acts 
    in this or that way. 
    Georg Simmel comments on perhaps the most manifest exhibition of the human 
    social organism: 
    It is interesting to observe how the prevalence of the socializing impulse in 
    primitive peoples affects various institutions, such as the dance. It has been 
    noted quite generally that the dances of primitive races exhibit a remarkable uniformity in arrangement and rhythm. The dancing group feels and 
    acts like a uniform organism; the dance forces and accustoms a number of 
    individuals, who are usually driven to and fro without rime or reason by 
    vacillating conditions and needs of life, to be guided by a common impulse 
    and a single common motive. ([1904] 1957, 546) 

    • Douglas Knight

      That reminds me of a more recent book, William H. McNeill’s Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History.

  • Douglas Knight

    I’m not sure it’s so important to most of your claims, but I do not buy the claim that words are important to music. 

    People who like and are good with words care about lyrics a lot more than normal people; and there is serious selection bias in who writes about music. I’m not just talking about the English prof you cite, but also RH and really everyone commenting on this blog.

    I do agree that if music and stories are good for propaganda that combining them is even better.

  • Faaze

    The reason this English professor’s students wouldn’t talk to him about music is probably generational.  They know pretty much that tastes in popular music are pretty much confined to specific age groups. If they told this teacher, “Oh yeah, I just love Arcade Fire”, first he’d snort and say “Who the hell is that?  In my day, we listened to … ” And it would be pretty tedious pretty fast.  Intergenerational discussion of music is impossible.

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  • OnlyASong

    As a songwriter I have come to the conclusion that the musical sense, the awareness of melody and rhythm is more fundamental to humans than language.  When you ask if music evolved to share stories you are getting the chain backwards.  Our use of language is an adaptation of our ability to make music.  The inherent musicality of language is pretty strong evidence of that.  If not for a basic sense of rhythm and melody we would not be able to form sentences, much less tell stories.  It is this ancient primitive source of musical sense which makes it so hard to explain and verbalize.  I can hum a soft sweet tune and everyone will feel calm, i can even sing disturbing lyrics over it and no one will notice.

    The ability of the brain to remember a song, to string together phrases into meaning, is the foundation of language.  If you stop and listen to your thinking for a while you may notice there is always an audio track running in the background.  Sometimes it is more noticeable (particularly when it gets some annoying ear worm playing), but it is always there, keeping rhythm in the mind.  This seems so obvious to me as a layman interested in music and the mind, I’m surprised more research hasn’t gone towards this phenomenon. 

  • Curious

    For some reason, folks (probably like many of your students, Robin) who are comfortable discussing or even criticizing many of society’s sacred cows (religion, morality, patriotism, etc.) tend to hold MUSIC as their own most sacred cow. 

    To put it another way: show me a staunch atheist, and I’ll show you someone who is obsessed with their own music collection.

    Am I stereotyping the typical Bonnaroo festival attendee? Yes… but why do these ideas always negatively correlate (music: traditional values)? Music as a signal of subculture membership?

    Point is not to throw grenades from my own philosophical camp but to ask: why? Has anyone observed something similar?

  • Martin

    I’ll throw another idea out there: Music drowns out ambient noise.

  • Erik

    Interesting article. Found this as a Google search result for “music listener biases”, something I’ve been interested in for a while.

    The part about signaling allegiance to leaders’ or groups’ norms is very much in line with what I’ve been considering. I think people “try” to like certain songs or types of music, while not giving others a chance…out of desired identity, wanting to align with a certain group or individual, etc. More often than not, the actual musical content is a very small sliver of what is considered when “deciding” whether to “like” something or not. I think what goes on under the hood is often clannish and sometimes ugly in both fans and musicians, of anything from chamber, to jazz, to pop, to the most obscure underground niche genres. Some relationship to mating rituals, almost always an acute awareness of “who else” is listening to the genre or artist.

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