Monday, January 14, 2013

Music: What is it good for?

Today in one of my classes we were discussing what music is for. Why do we have it? How did it develop? Which came first: speech or song?

I was reminded of the first episode of Michael Wood's The Story of India, which shows the ceremonial chants of Brahmins, which follow definite patterns, but don't resemble any existing  human language or music. What it most closely resembles is bird song, and anthropologists speculate that these chants have been passed down unchanged since before the time of human speech. (This series is on Netflix instant view, and is well worth the time.)

Perhaps in its beginning, music served some sort of rudimentary communicative purpose, like the mating calls of birds or other animals, but once we developed language, rather than jettisoning music, we developed music of increasing complexity and diversity. Why? What is it good for? It doesn't shelter or feed the body. Music no longer serves any adaptive survival purpose, yet it's an integral part of every human culture. For me, it's a vital part of who I am.

Other arts may have begun solely as survival mechanisms. Take language. Being able to communicate, "The mammoth is two hundred yards east of us. Let's separate and close in on it from either side," made us more efficient hunters. Why did language develop beyond what was necessary for survival, to poetry, plays and novels?

The need to create and partake in beauty seems to be universal, whether it's the beauty of various art forms, the beauty of the natural world, the beauty of loving relationships, though beauty doesn't aid in the mechanical processes of the body. Perhaps this continual pull toward beauty is evidence that we were meant to do more than survive.


  1. My guess is, our creative urges are a natural extension of our tendency toward innovation and curiosity, traits which have helped us thrive in ridiculous numbers. The more novel and sophisticated a person's creative expression is, the more likely they possess these adaptive traits, the more people will enjoy their company and want to spend time around them, the more people will be likely to have sex with them. The pleasure we find in creating and partaking in beauty is our reward for participating in pro-survival behavior.

    That, and an animal with the capacity to perceive its surroundings as beautiful, an animal that takes pleasure in its own existence, is much more likely to survive and thrive than one that is indifferent or worse.

    Which things we find beautiful and why is probably the more interesting question.

    1. Mike, I'm not sure I'm convinced it can be attributed solely to an evolutionarily adaptive mechanism. I wonder how discriminating our ancestors were in whom they mated with. Think of our primate cousins. They don't seem to show creativity in what we think of as human ways, creating works of art. Their mate selection appears to be based on things like brute strength and physical health. Even among modern homo sapiens, there are plenty who don't nurture their creative side, yet manage to reproduce (have you seen the movie Idiocracy?). And there are plenty of organisms that thrive in large numbers that, so far as we can tell, are not the least bit concerned with beauty (bacteria, ants).

      It's my intuition more than anything else that tells me that there's something more, and I can't explain it logically, but I do trust it.