Speculations on the Evolution of Musical Ability in Homo sapiens

Subject: Re: Music and evolution
Date: 12 Jun 1997 16:29:19 GMT
From: "Paul J. Watson"
Organization: University of New Mexico
Newsgroups: sci.bio.evolution

Bjoern Lorenz wrote:

Music is a high developed skill or better feature of mankind. Could anybody explain why the evolution was able to create such a talent. Actually the ability to create songs, operas etc. or listening to music is not necessary to survive in the struggel of life. If music is not a evolutional phenomenon why does it exists???

Paul Watson wrote in response:

Probably before any formal spoken language developed in pre-humans, information about the emotional states of social partners was communicated by various more-or-less species-typical sounds (sighs, moans, screams, cries). My idea (don't know if its original or not) is that individuals who were more effectively expressive in their sound-making were relatively successful socially, because such ability basically means that they were slightly better at communicating their internal states to others and so slightly better at influencing/manipulating the behavior of social partners toward them by affecting their emotional states.

In addition, given the scenario above, selection immediately would be set up for individuals to be attracted to more competent sound-makers (the proto-musicians), as this would be equivalent to being attracted to more effective social manuverers. A rather general "appreciation" of this kind of musical expressivity may thus evolve. In a way, people with talent in muscial expression are demonstrating sophistication in the realm of "emotional intelligence" or "theory of mind." If so, it would behoove potential social partners to be attracted to the best of them, because they would have reproduced better themselves if they sought out social allies and leaders who were good at (1) reading others' emotions, (2) understanding them and (3) influencing them with their own emotion-evoking "musical" outputs. This may explain why talented musicians of today, who can profoundly affect the emotions of listeners, are so very attractive, and why the receivers of such moving music put its producers up on such a pedestal. If the signals have species-typical power to emotionally move listeners, then if a given listener is moved, he or she can safely assume that the musician will be able to move others, thus helping to cement alliances of multiple social friendlies (helping group cohesion) and perhaps adaptively manipulating the emotions of less friendly social competitors in other groups or sub-groups.

Personally, I wish Neil Young could be president of the USA... ;-)

[moderator's note: It'll never happen; he's Canadian by birth. Too bad. - JAH]

Dr. Paul J. Watson
University of New Mexico