Are Sexy Musicians a Product of Evolution?

Illustration for article titled Are Sexy Musicians a Product of Evolution?

Music is one of those things that feels truly universal—it's in every culture, and it has existed in some form or other for thousands upon thousands of years. And yet it was something that evolved, just as surely as the humans who make it did.


In a very cool article at The Atlantic, scientists Geoffrey Miller and Gary Marcus have a conversation about the origins of music, whether or not we have a music gene, and why humans began playing music in the first place.

Marcus believes that music is what he calls "cultural technology." That is to say, it's something that humans have created on their own rather than something that evolved genetically (which is what Miller thinks.)


Here's marcus on why that may be:

The oldest known musical artifacts are some bone flutes that are only 35,000 years old, a blink in an evolutionary time. And although kids are drawn to music early, they still prefer language when given a choice, and it takes years before children learn something as basic as the fact that minor chords are sad. Of course, music is universal now, but so are mobile phones, and we know that mobile phones aren't evolved adaptations. When we think about music, it's important to remember that an awful lot of features that we take for granted in Western music-like harmony and 12-bar blues structure, to say nothing of pianos or synthesizers, simply didn't exist 1,000 years ago.

"Music isn't just compelling to the listener; musical performance is also romantically attractive in a way that playing video games isn't."

Miller responds by pointing out that while instruments may be 35,000 years old, musical performance may be a lot older. He puts forth Darwin's argument that music evolved as a means with which to attract sexual partners, calling it "the theory to beat."

Darwin argued that music evolved mainly by sexual selection through mate choice-and that we're uncomfortable acknowledging that fact. He wrote back in 1871 that, "The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which his half-human ancestors long ago aroused each other's ardent passions, during their courtship and rivalry." He knew that music didn't need to have a "survival value" for the individual or the group; it could spread through purely reproductive benefits. He suggested that the more musically talented proto-humans attracted more sexual partners, or higher-quality sexual partners, than their less-musical rivals. We see sexual selection for music in many other species-insect song, frog song, bird song, whale song, and gibbon song-so I think that's a reasonable default theory for how humans evolved music. It's the theory to beat.


Well, playing music does help meet girls, it's true.

After that, the two begin to discuss other cultural artifacts, including video games. When Miller points out that kids are more passionate about music than they are about other cultural inventions like chess and algebra, Marcus responds by pointing out that lots of kids are indeed passionate about chess, and also about more recent "versions" of chess like, hey! Video games.


In support of the notion that music is at least in part due to Darwinian evolution, Miller makes the (possibly not intended to be as funny as it is) observation that "Music isn't just compelling to the listener; musical performance is also romantically attractive in a way that playing video games isn't."

Ha! Playing a real guitar solo is a bit more romantically attractive than playing Guitar Hero. Also true.


In addition to contributing to this article, Gary Marcus is the author of "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning," a book about how we learn music. In the book, he talks about how he didn't learn guitar from a teacher or a music institute, but rather from the video game Guitar Hero:

From a New York Times Profile:

What finally pushed him wasn't seeing Springsteen in concert or listening to the "Goldberg" Variations. It was a video game, Guitar Hero, that rewards players who can press the correct buttons in time with recorded music. He was terrible at first, but through sheer repetition he improved just enough to think that maybe rhythm could be learned after all. But real guitars, he was frustrated to learn, weren't designed by computer engineers.

Compared to his Guitar Hero controller his Yamaha felt heavy and awkward. The musical scale isn't perfectly linear. (Quick: what's another name for C flat?) And the guitar has the same notes at different frets along different strings. "That's something the brain doesn't want to deal with," he said. "There's no one-to-one relationship on where the notes are. You have all these memory traces that interfere with one another."


Very cool! So when Marcus says in The Atlantic, "I think of talented musicians as being like Steve Jobs: grand cultural engineers who design entertainment technology that appeals to brains that evolved for millions of years before the technology was developed," you know where he's coming from.

It's a very cool discussion, and while of course the two scientists don't arrive at a single conclusion, they raise a lot of interesting questions about music, evolution, and the brain.


One of the coolest things that Marcus reminds people of is that playing music lights up a lot of different parts of the brain... and the same thing happens when we play video games.

Say! That sounds in line with something I've been saying for a long time now.


Did Humans Invent Music? [The Atlantic]

Applied Neuroscience, the Six-String Method [NYT]

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I suppose the evolution process makes sense.