Evolutionary psychology seeks to explain how human behaviors and psychological traits evolved over time as humans adapted to newer and changing conditions in their environment. One of the most fascinating aspects of humans over the ages is the love and appreciation for music. This appreciation for music can also be explained by means of an evolutionary psychological viewpoint. The use of music in humans evolved in a similar means as language. It can be explained, in part, an example of mimetic theory. Mimetic theory states that humans and animals copy each other in various ways to improve their chances of evolutionary success (Tolbert, 2001, p. 84). The importance of music may also be examined as an evolutionary desire for humans to seek out pleasure.
Multiple scholars consider music to be an evolutionary adaptation in humans. Many often consider the theory of evolutionary adaptation to reflect physiological aspects of humans, such as the development of the nervous system. However, “evolution has also shaped our attitudes, dispositions, emotions, perceptions and cognitive functions” (Huron, 2001, p. 43). The psychological aspects of humans also evolved over time to meet the various needs of the species. The interest in music may result from something called non-adaptive pleasure seeking behaviors (NAPS). Scholars believe that NAPS result because the brain has pleasure-seeking centers within it. For humans, seeking pleasure allowed survival of the species. Sex and eating are considered two obvious examples. Specifically, with food, the enjoyment of sugar and fats ensured humans would seek out these two nutritional powerhouses that were not in great supply. However, the modern diet provides significant amounts of nutrients beyond the requirements for survival. Fat and sugar are in great supply. Humans still seek experiences that will bring them pleasure even when there is no physiological need for them. The pleasure-seeking centers of the brain ensured human survival (Huron, 2001, pp. 44-46). Music has the ability to trigger these pleasure-seeking centers.
Therefore, evolutionary psychologists believe that the evolutionary necessity of pleasure-seeking centers allowed for a great need for music and other aesthetics. Without these centers, humans as a species may not have survived. Since music and other arts can trigger these centers, the enjoyment music merely is a side-effect of the survival drive in humans.
It is also suggested that music may have had necessity in the past and was required for human survival. While it no longer is needed for survival, it may remain as a vestigial aspect of our evolutionary past. Other aspects of humans still exist as vestigial appendices. The human tailbone and the appendix exist as physiological reminders of our evolutionary past. Music may be a psychological form of a vestigial character (Huron, 1999). Music may have been an easier form of language at the time of its invention. However, as time passed, language may have become the easier method of communication.
Music may also have evolved with language. Some evolutionary psychologists believe that language evolved as a necessary means of adaptation; music may have evolved along with language as a form of mimicry ((Tolbert, 2001, p. 84). The ability to communicate with others increased the chances of survival in small groups. However, some evolutionary psychologists believe that language is an innate aspect of humans. By this theory, music, as a form of mimicry, would also be an innate ability for humans (Justus & Hutsler, 2005, pp. 1-2).
It can never be completely understood as to why humans have such an affinity for music. As with all aspects of evolutionary psychology, theorists can debate these possible scenarios. However, for whatever reason, humans have evolved to appreciate, love and cherish music. It does offer pleasure to humans, as well as other psychological benefits. Therefore, humans should appreciate the evolutionary features that brought them this great gift.
- Huron, D. (2001) Is music an evolutionary adaptation? Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci., 930, 43-61.
- Huron, D. (1999) Lecture 2: an instinct for music. UC Berkeley. Retrieved July 2, 2013, from: http://csml.som.ohio-state.edu/Music220/Bloch.lectures/2.Origins.html
- Justus, T. & Hutsler, JJ. (2005) Fundamental issues in the evolutionary psychology of music. Music Perception, 1, 1-26.
- Tolbert, E. (2001, April) Music and meaning: an evolutionary story. Psych Music, 29(1), 84-94.