How We Evolved to Love Music

Written by

Tatiana Baez

Photo via Flickr / CC. 

Who doesn’t love music? It’s there for you any time you need it, intensifying your emotions and providing a soundtrack to your life. But even as know why we love sad music, and why heart-wrenchingly depressing songs make us happy, it’s still hard to say what drew us to any music in the first place. Why did we evolve to love music?

In a word, to belong. 

That's according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that says we love music because it helps to strengthen bonds within a community. The study established “human musicality as a special form of social cognition," the authors write, "and provides the first direct support for the hypothesis that music evolved as a tool of social living." Music acts as a tool to share information about a group of people with another.

It’s not an exact science. And the researchers knew as much, probing over a half-dozen previous studies as a way to string together something as close to fact as possible. The studies explored the connection between reactions to music and the desire to belong. In one of the studies, Internet users completed online surveys that measured their need to belong, their emotional reactivity, and their emotional and physical reactions to music, according to Pacific Standard. The other studies involved similar tests. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of the theory, showing that those who claimed to have a greater desire to belong also had deeply visceral reactions to music. Which is in stark constrast to all the other studies and working theories that over the years have come to paint a very different picture about why we like music. 

For example, there's this study says we enjoy music because of a correlation with a reward system in the brain. The brain’s activity is similar to the reward responses we experience from addictive drugs, sex, and food. 

And then there's something like Emotion and Meaning in Music, where philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer explores the idea that emotion in music is all about what we expect. Meyer uses an earlier theory of emotion, one that says emotion arises when we can’t satisfy a desire, to explain how certain sonic patterns prime listeners to make predictions about what will come next in an arrangement. The result is an enthralling series of emotions that makes us enjoy the music we’re feeding our ears.

The American scene

So who's to say the idea that music's alleged reinforcing of social bonds will ever rise above the noise? And yet this new JPSP research points to a theory that's perhaps more plausible, if still lacking in credibilty, than other theories of how we evolved to live music. Think about it. Even when listening to music alone it’s hard to deny that we just feel it, feel some sort of connection to someone or something bigger.

It's like that scene from --wait for it--Almost Famous. You know, the one right before Anita Miller leaves home to pursue a job as a stewardess, when she tells her brothe, William: “Look under your bed, it'll set you free? And then the pin drops on Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” and William seems to have some intense emotional connection to the music and to the world. Actually, just think back on the entire film. Penny Lane and her gang latch on to the music world because it makes them feel as if they're part of something much bigger than themselves. Hear it out: Maybe we all do, too.

Topics: audiophiles, music, evolution

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