Music isn’t natural; Musicality is

No civilization exists or has existed without some form of music (Shephard, 2015). Music has persisted across cultures thousands of years and miles apart, and yet we still do not fully understand why it is so ubiquitous. There are multiple theories proposed that attempt to explain the extensiveness of music, most of which deal with music as a whole entity, without separating music into its underlying parts, or even dividing music by genre. Recent data, however, allude to the idea that music is so popular in all cultures due to underlying mechanisms of music that use cognitive processes that are universal to humanity.

While theories regarding music as a whole are not necessarily adequate at fully explaining the persistence of music, they help shed light on why music developed to the extent that it did. A popular theory, proposed by Charles Darwin himself, argued that music was a form of sexual selection; a talented musician could demonstrate prowess by performing, which would subsequently increase their desirability and 20140717-jimihendrix-x306-1405632285success at passing along genes (Darwin, 1871). In the Western world, this certainly holds weight- rock stars and rappers are often seen as sexual idols, and the pervasiveness of “groupies” in the music world suggests the increased desirability of musical performers. (Side note: a major proponent of this theory indicated Jimmy Hendrix’s extensive sexual escapades as clear evidence for musical talent as a sexually selective pressure) (Miller, 2000).

Another theory argues that musical tones closely emulate the nurturing sounds of a mother to her child. More music in a society would therefore increase sociality and culture development via increasing social interaction, which strengthens intergroup relationships (Brown, 2000). A third theory claims music supports group cohesion, with musical performances encouraging forms of collective effervescence and shared social movement (Dunbar, 2012).

While all of these theories hold weight, they fail to completely explain the universality of music. They focus on music as a whole, but music’s persistence across cultures might better be explained if we break music down into distinct components that, when combined, allow for the beauty we find in music to be explained on a neuronal basis.

The whole may be more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are still pretty important. Some people can make the whole sound really good- many scholars have argued that musical production and interpretation is something saved only for a few highly trained individuals (Blacking, 1973). Composers, stage musicians and performers spend years training, practicing and perfecting their art forms; how can the common person possible appreciate it? There may certainly be differences between the average person and a concert pianist, but the similarities are significantly more profound. These similarities are musicality; the reason we can appreciate beautiful music is because we can understand the basic mechanisms of music the musician has harnessed in order to create a balanced and beautiful piece.

Simple musical comprehension is basic to most humans. Most of us can easily find a beat (if you have trouble, click here) which a talent not limited to humanity: other primates exhibited beat-finding abilities and showed the same patterns of neuronal activation when doing so (Merchant et al., 2015). We exhibit a preference for consonance over dissonance (example) as early as two months old (Trainor, Tsang & Cheung, 2002). These things alone do not make up music but rather musicality, the sets of traits we need in order to produce, recognize and appreciate music. Music differs as a result of culture not because of inherent differences in musicality but rather different harnessing of this musicality as a function of culture to create music, differences dependent on cultural differences. While music itself may differ significantly across culture, musicality has surprising resilience to cultural differences, and different cultures share a lot of what constitutes musicality.

If a behavior has persistence across cultures, we generally label it as an instinct, and thus say it is “hardwired” into our brains, meaning that our neuroanatomy and neurochemistry specifically work together to create this behavior. While research has generally disproved any notion that music itself is endogenous in the human genome, musicality and the neuronal regions associated with it may be instinctual.

Music itself is rewarding as well. Research has shown that the resolution of auditory stimulus, or when dissonant notes return to consonant ones in a musical piece, results in dopamine release in the reward pathway of the brain (Koelsch, 2010). This dissonance followed by resolution is common in music across cultures, a commonality that might be explained by this dopaminergic pathway activity. Dopamine release is also correlated with anticipation and peak moments in musical pieces (Salimpoor et al., 2011). This data demonstrates that not only can we understand the components of music, we can get visceral pleasure from the way they work together as well.

Almost all cultures not only have music, but have developed incredibly complex instruments in order to tease out specific sounds. Why? Research demonstrates shows people prefer for stimuli that is sharp and clear over muddled sounds (Tinbergen, 1953). Musical instruments are designed to create the clearest sound possible. The desire of people to seek these clear sounds explains the development of musical instruments with distinct sounds, and suggest a cause for the ubiquity of musical instruments across cultures.

Music with spoken word (think rap, country, rock, pop, etc.) involves communicative elements, but some theorize that musical instruments can stimulate emotion partly due to their ability to mimic tones and melodies of the human voice (Marcus, G. F., 2012). This would indicate the role of music in communication, an essential part of human culture.

Overall, these data demonstrate that elements of music involve neuronal and cognitive processes that have other important roles in human behavior. These neuronal regions and cognitive processes can work together to create the complex and essential part of humanity of music that takes on varying forms across cultures. The cultural forms of music may differ, but humans find universal enjoyment from music and can understand and appreciate the complex methodology behind music production and interpretation.


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Brown, S. (2000) The ‘Musilanguage’ model of music evolution. In The origins of music (eds NL Wallin, B Merker, S Brown), pp. 271 – 300. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Darwin, C. 1871 The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London, UK: John Murray

Dunbar, RIM. (2012) On the evolutionary function of song and dance. In Music, language, and human evolution (ed. N Bannan), pp. 201– 214. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bilhartz, T.D., R.A. Bruhn, J.E. Olson (1999). The effect of early music training on child cognitive development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20, pp. 615–636

Honing, H., Cate, C. T., Peretz, I., and Trehub, S. E. (2015). “Without it no music: cognition, biology and evolution of musicality.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 370(1664).

Koelsch, S. (2010). Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions.Trends in cognitive sciences, 14(3), 131-137

Marcus, G. F., (2012). Musicality: instinct or acquired skill? Topics in Cognitive Science, 15, 1-15.

Merchant H, Grahn J, Trainor L, Rohrmeier M, Fitch WT. 2015 Finding the beat: a neural perspective across humans and non-human primates.Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370, 20140093. (doi:10.1098/rstb.2014.0093)

Miller, G. (2000). Sexual selection for indicators of intelligence. Novartis Foundation Symposium, 233, 260–270.

Salimpoor V. N., Benovoy M., Larcher K., Dagher A., Zatorre R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature and Neuroscience(14), 257–262

Shepherd, J., & Devine, K. (Eds.). (2015). The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music. Routledge.

Trainor, L. J., Tsang, C. D., & Cheung, V. H. W. (2002). Preference for sensory consonance in 2- and 4-monthold infants. Music Perception, 20 (2), 187–194.

Tinbergen, N. (1953). The herring gull’s world: A study of the social behaviour of birds. London: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc


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