Fanning the Flame: Does Music Hold Survival Value?

IMG_1407In honor of the approaching Music, Mind and Meaning conference held at The Peabody Institute, I’d like to take a look into the work of a few select speakers. Dr. David Huron is a professor at Ohio State University where he researches in the field of music cognition. As his current research interest focuses on the ways in which music evokes emotion, I have found his unique exploration of cognitive science of particular interest.

I’d like to briefly visit a presentation given by Dr. Huron at the University of California, Berkeley in 1999 from the Ernest Bloch lectures entitled An Instinct for Music: Is Music an Evolutionary Adaptation? Within this talk, Dr. Huron provides an informative social account in regard to the origins of music specifically linked to the theory of evolution by natural selection.

As many originally Darwinian theories remain among the most resiliently powerful known bodies of work, it would seem prudent to apply these ideals to not only the physiological, but psychological (and thus emotional) realms. Evolution has affected far more than objective, corporeal progress. When we feel, we become alive. Huron makes a great point in that we “love life, fear death, and nurture our children” [1] as any person or group lacking these characteristics would compromise` their capacity for survival.

He then goes onto question: Does music have survival value? As many human behaviors are connected to endurance, it is only fitting to include those of music in addition. Any human manner that “enhances survival and procreation” should be taken into account. Although the answer to this question is obviously heavily disputed by intellectuals like Karl Popper, Antonio Damasio, Ani Patel and Steven Pinker (although I tend to strongly disagree with the latter), Huron argues that music’s unique presence in our lives remains an inquiry of just pursuit.

Jonathan's PianoHowever, in the quest to extend a musical history, it is essential to recognize and take our current limitations into account. Although post hoc theories may eventually become a priori, one must exercise caution in jumping on one of the two bandwagons, which Huron introduces as

A) Music as a form of non-adaptive pleasure seeking or

B) Music as an evolutionary vestige. [2]

If we look at some non-adaptive pleasure-seeking (NAPS) behaviors, the first examples that come to mind are food, and sex. Although these behaviors have specifically evolved to provide pleasure reward and thus encourage continuance, they may also be carried out in ways that do not directly pertain to survival. Where, then, does musical creation and enjoyment fall? To elucidate an “NAPS Theory of Music,” Huron states the following:

“If music itself has no survival value (and merely exploits an existing pleasure channel) then any disposition towards musical behaviors would tend to worsen one’s survival. Spending inordinate amounts of resources (such as time and money) on music might be expected to place music-lovers at an evolutionary disadvantage. In other words, if the NAPS Theory of Music is true, then we might predict that music appreciation would be correlated with marginal existence: as in the case of alcohol, people on “skid row” might be expected to be disproportionately music enthusiasts.

“If music is non-adaptive, then the likelihood is that music is a modern invention; otherwise music-lovers would have become extinct some time ago. As we will see, the archaeological evidence indicates that music is very old — much older than agriculture — and this great antiquity is inconsistent with music originating as a non-adaptive pleasure-seeking behavior. In short, there is little evidence that musical behaviors have been selected against. All of this suggests that there is little support for the NAPS Theory of Music.”

Huron goes on to describe several evolutionary theories of music: mate selection, social cohesion, group effort, auditory development, conflict reduction, safe time-passing, and transgenerational communication (mnemonic verse set to music, folk ballads, etc). In addition, one may consider a few of the varying types of currently consultable evidence: biological, biochemical (for example, pleasure mechanisms found in the release of endorphins that stimulate the brain’s opiate receptors), archeological, anthropological, ethological (in the studying of particular animal behaviors) and psychological. It is the final realm that I choose to focus on above all, and I’m very excited to move toward his views on social bonding and hormones, oxytocin and the underlying biology of social bonding, and most critical to my own interests: music and mood regulation.

Though it is evidentially apparent that music has revealed its antiquated roots far beyond what was once widely accepted, much remains to be said concerning the various hypotheses and evolutionary facets. I look very forward to sharing more of what I learn from Dr. Huron in his work and lecture later on this week.


[1] Huron, D. 1999, September. Is music an evolutionary adaptation. The Ernest Bloch Lectures. Lecture conducted from Music Department, University of California, Berkeley.

[2] ibid

Photos by Diana Hereld

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