Music and Evolution
View music from evolutionary perspective
• From an evolutionary perspective, ask
question why is there music at all?
• Parallel with Chomsky’s analysis of
• Problem of grammaticality
• All speakers can make distinctions
implies operation of principles that define
sentence structure
• Principles are unconscious – “knowledge
of language”
• Chomsky’s framework devoted to
understanding principles
Music is superficially similar to language
• Recognize “musical” from non-musical
• Idea of “knowledge of music”
Three main questions about
music and evolution
What is the initial, innate state of knowledge
about music prior to experience?
• Idea of universal constraints
• Ex, Idea of scale structure
How is this initial state of knowledge
transformed by relevant experience into the
mature state of knowledge?
• Is there a critical period for acquisition of
musical knowledge?
• Is there a “poverty of the stimulus” problem?
• Problem of grammaticality
What is the evolutionary history of the initial
state and the acquisition processes that guide the
development of musical knowledge?
• Question of music as an adaptation
The evolution of music
Is music an “adaptation”?
• Adaptation – a feature that becomes
important for the survival and reproduction
of the organism
• In what way is music adaptive
The evolution of music
Steven Pinker’s, How the mind works (1997)
• The arts have two functions – instruction and
• Instruction may have adaptive value
• Music is primarily entertainment
• The arts respond to “a biologically pointless
challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure
circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of
enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing
bona fide fitness increments from the harsh
world” (p. 524)
“music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite
confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at
least six of our mental faculties” (p. 534)
“Compared with language, vision, social
reasoning, and physical know-how, music could
vanish from our species and the rest of our
lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music
appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a
cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest
through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure
circuits at once" (p. 528).
The adaptive functions of music
Music promotes group cohesion
• Music developed from mother-infant
• Strengthens emotional bonds
• Music transmits emotional information to a
group of people simultaneously
Music is a product of group selection
• Individual interests often served by cooperating rather than competition with other
individuals of species
• Thus, likelihood of individual surviving and
procreating depends on “cultural fitness”,
how they behave in relation to others in
social group
Music promotes sexual selection
• musical behaviors indicate sexual fitness on
variety of levels (Miller, 2000a, 2000b)
Evidence for innate
mechanisms in music
Developmental evidence
• Difficulties with interpreting developmental
• Issues with idea of lack of exposure
• Issues with methodology
• Developmental evidence of innate sensitivity
to musical structure
• Sensitivity to basic musical parameters –
pitch, intervals, contour, rhythm
• Issue of rapid learning and experience in
Evidence for innate
mechanisms in music
Cross-cultural evidence
• Two lines of investigation
• Search for cross-cultural universals
• Music in ancient cultures
• Cross-cultural universals?
• Aspects of pitch:
• The distinction between relative and
absolute pitch
• Melody recognition
• Scale structure
• Musical intervals
• Lullabies
Evidence for innate
mechanisms in music
Comparative evidence
• Why study animals?
• See if trait is unique to humans
• Homology vs. Homoplasy
• Homology: A trait that’s inherited from a
common ancestor
• Homoplasy: A trait with distinct lineages,
lacking a common ancestor
Powerful tool for evolutionary arguments
• Can control exposure
• Animals do not naturally produce music, thus
any perceptual effects cannot be part of
adaptation for music
• Nature of the evidence?
• Production of musical passages by animals
• Birds, gibbons and whale songs
• Perception of musical structure in animals
• Pitch perception, consonance and dissonance,
musical styles
• Concerns with overstating evidence
Evidence for innate
mechanisms in music
Neural evidence
• Neuropsychology and imagining techniques
• Evidence for distinct neural structures related to
musical processing – distinct mechanisms for
Are these brain structures innate, or do they come
about through experience?
Suggestive evidence that structure of music
constrained by innate features of brain
• Work on pitch
Question of whether music is an adaptation or
byproduct of auditory process still remains
• Octaves vs. musical intervals

Music and Evolution - University of Toronto Scarborough