In 1997 Steven Pinker gave the keynote address to a conference of cognitive psychologists who specialize in music perception. He caused an uproar by telling his audience that their subject was trivial and that their field was the least interesting one to study because music is merely a by-product, an evolutionary accident that rode in piggyback on the evolution of language. He went on:
Music is auditory cheesecake. It just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way, as cheesecake tickles the palate
As you can imagine, this idea provoked irritation amongst much of its audience, inspiring them to prove him wrong, very wrong. (For an example of a scholarly article that opens with a reaction to Pinker, click here.) One result of this speech has been a new, book-length refutation:
Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. (Dutton, 2006).
Music is the great counterexample to the argument that people cannot behave for mental (subjective) reasons.
The music industry is one of the largest in the United States, employing hundreds of thousands of people. Album sales alone bring in $30 billion a year, and this figure doesn’t even account for concert ticket sales, the thousands of bands playing Friday night at saloons all over North American, or the thirty billion songs that were downloaded free through peer-to-peer file sharing in 2005. Americans spend more money on music than on sex or prescription drugs. (p. 7)
It is difficult to argue that sensations, not just a computational “reward center” [Pinker’s term], have nothing to do with this extraordinary behavior and much of Levitin’s book describes the interaction of physical stimuli (sound waves), the brain, and our subjective perception of what goes on.
But the chapter that is of particular interest to this blog is the final one, “The Music Instinct,” an allusion to Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. In it Levitin rebuts Pinker’s position that music is evolutionary “cheesecake.”
He begins by quoting Darwin, “I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex” (p. 245) and asserting that Darwin believed that music preceded speech as a means of courtship.
My first reaction to this was to smile, as I imagined some Homo erectus youth serenading a local beauty, but Levitin piled up the data and wiped the grin off my face. Rock stars attract huge numbers of groupies (“and for the top rocks stars, such as Mick Jagger, physical appearance doesn’t seem to be an issue” p. 246). More persuasively, Levitin reminds readers that “In contemporary society, interest in music peaks during adolescence, further bolstering the sexual-selection aspects of music.” (p. 247) Certainly if I consider my attention to music when I was a horny teenager — listening to the top 40 hits on the radio every afternoon, buying singles, bopping along to the rhythms and melody, going to dances and rocking to the bands — and my more sophisticated but less involved attention to jazz, opera, etc. today, I have to admit that sexual presentation was a strong element in my peak musical years.
Levitin also appeals to common sense. A useless activity that can become a time-consuming, exhausting obsession should not become embedded in the species:
If music is a nonadaptive pleasure-seeking behavior … we would not expect it to last very long in evolutionary time. [Musicologist David] Huron [of Ohio State] writes, “Heroin users tend to neglect their health and are known to have high mortality rates. Furthermore, heroin users make poor partners; they tend to neglect their offspring.” Neglecting one’s health and the health of one’s children is a surefire way to reduce the probability of one’s genes being passed on to future generations. (p. 249)
Common sense is a dangerous line of argument because so much of science history recounts the triumph over a particular bit of common sense (the world is flat, the sun moves, time is absolute). On the other hand, we should not abandon common sense before a Magellan, Galileo, or Einstein comes along to correct us. Speculations such as Pinker’s that offer no evidence and that fly in the face of common sense can claim no special pride of place.
Levitin also argues that music also promotes a more general social bonding and cohesion, not just sexual bonding. He presents some interesting work suggesting a link between sociability and musicality (p. 253). While not conclusive, it is provocative and merits further investigation.
Most important from this blog’s perspective is the suggestion that, “Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.” (p. 254) The chief argument for this idea is that:
- Singing and instrumental activities might have helped our species to refine motor skills, paving the way for the development of the exquisitely fine muscle control required for vocal or signed speech.
- Mother-infant interactions involving music almost always entail both signing and rhythmic movement. “This appears to be culturally universal.” (p. 256) It promotes an intimacy that speech alone does not.
Two features of music that the book does not mention, but which may be evident to readers of this blog include:
- developing listening skills. Even though we don’t listen as well as we should, we listen to one another much more closely than apes do. That could be more easily explained if music came first.
- tone of voice. Speech (unlike written language) is a two dimensional output. Along with the production of words and sentences, speech carries a tone of voice that can reinforce or contradict the words. Notably, we trust tone of voice to better express the truth of the situation. That could be because tone of voice is older than words.
These are speculations, of course, but they are not unreasonable and remind us that we should not simply take it as a given, as Pinker did, that speech is primary and music is a tag-along. Singing could indeed have come first.
Levitin puts the Pinker thesis on the defensive and slips in a real zinger (much proven by what has come before in this book) when he says:
The arguments against music as an adaptation consider music only as disembodied sound, and moreover, as performed by an expert class for an audience. But it is only in the last five hundred years that music has become a spectator activity … And it has only been in the last hundred years or so that the ties between musical sound and human movement have been minimized. (p. 251)
Levitin was probably wise not to have pushed his attack a bit harder. Even more than speech, the existence of music is an affront to those who want to remove joy, sensation, perception, and sociability from the list of primary human traits. This book makes it hard to defend the idea that logical propositions, computations, and isolation are what we are all about. But most of us know subjectivity’s importance anyway, so Leivitin’s strategy of taking the pursuit of happiness for granted is smart.