Ideas

The Nerve, Pt 2: How music made us evolve as humans

The next time you listen to your favourite song, consider that, without music, you might not even be here. In episode two, The Nerve investigates how music made us evolve as humans. It comes down to some pretty basic human needs: family, friendship, and sex.

'In the Key of DNA' explores how music and basic human needs play a role in our evolution

Rock guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix caught mid guitar-break at the Isle of Wight Festival, August 1970. According to Charles Darwin, music helped proto-humans to attract mates, in the same way songbirds do. ( Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

The next time you listen to your favourite song, consider that, without music, you might not even be here. In this episode The Nerve investigates how music made us evolve as humans. It comes down to some pretty basic human needs: family, friendship, and sex.

First, sex. Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, felt music must have helped proto-humans attract mates, the same way songbirds do. He called this kind of evolutionary pressure sexual selection. 

Think of the womanizing reputations of musicians like Jimi Hendrix, or even the 19th-century violinist Niccolò Paganini.

"Music always got me off," says '60s and '70s self-identified "legendary groupie," Pamela des Barres. "I wanted to express myself with Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger instead of your regular old schmo.  Makes sense, doesn't it?"

Another theory links music with familial bonding. Mothers and infants have a musical way of communicating with each other using coos and gurgles. Like your favourite song, both mama and baby use musical techniques such as repetition, variation, and exaggerated pitch contours.

Mother and baby bond through using musical techniques such as repetition, variation, and through coos and gurgles. (Shutterstock / Jeremie86HUN)

The theory is that this musical preverbal communication is critical to the development of familial bonds, and thus, to human survival: your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's ability to coo and sing to her son increased the chance he'd survive and succeed to have children of his own.

A third hypothesis about the evolution of music is based on how music reinforces social bonding.

"We know that our ancestors would have hunted large game with short thrusting spears, hunting within a group," says archeologist Steven Mithen.

"You have to be absolutely reliant on the other members of the group. How do you go into those situations knowing that they're going to perform exactly as required?  One way that early hominids could have done that was by using music to build up that sense of cooperation and oneness between individuals," Mithen explains.

"I think that's very much what we still see today in terms of choirs."

So music might actually have saved your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather from a bloodthirsty sabre-toothed tiger: because he was a member of a human society knit together by music.

Guests in this episode:

  • Pamela Des Barres is a self-identified "legendary groupie" and the author of I'm With the Band.
  • Steven Mithen is an archaeologist and the author of The Singing Neanderthals.
  • Ellen Dissanayake is an ethologist and the author of What is Art For?
  • Jennifer Johnson is a violinist.
  • Steven Brown is a neuroscientist and studies the neural, cognitive and evolutionary foundations of the arts at McMaster University.
     

Also appearing in this episode is:

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist
Daniel Levitin, a psychologist
Sandra Trehub, a psychologist
Alan Cross, a music journalist
Laura-Lee Balkwill, a psychologist
 



The Nerve is produced by Paolo Pietropaolo, Chris Brookes, and host Jowi Taylor.  

**Note: this series is not available for download and is available for listening in Canada only due to music copyright restrictions. 

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