Why Does Music Exist?

Pleasure Technology or Survival Necessity?


There is no consensus about whether music is necessary for our survival or not. Some scientists think it’s a useless activity, and some think it’s a critical activity. This blog post explores the arguments on both sides and attempts to answer this question:

Is music adaptive?

In case you’re uncertain about the word adaptive, here is a definition: Something is adaptive if it helps an organism survive in its environment. For example, a physical trait, mental capacity, or behavior that makes an organism better able to eat, shelter, defend itself, and mate is said to be adaptive.

Examples of adaptive traits, capacities, and behaviors include

  • Variation in beak shapes between species of passerine birds
  • Dark coloration of moths during the industrial revolution in England
  • Upright posture in hominids
  • Large brains in Neanderthals
  • Ability to use language in humans

These attributes confer some survival value upon the organism that possesses them, but can we add music to this list? Let’s first investigate the argument from a scientist that says “no.”

The Music-is-Not-Adaptive Hypothesis

Harvard Psychologist, Steven Pinker, believes that music is pure pleasure technology. Here’s his “auditory cheesecake” argument as laid out in his 1997 book called How the Mind Works:

Music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties… …We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouthfeel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water… …Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a megadose of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons (524 – 525).

According to Pinker, other things that press our pleasure buttons without conferring any adaptive value are pornography, literature, and art. These forms of media exploit our propensity to have sex, use our imagination, and seek patterns, but they do not necessarily enhance our abilities to mate, shelter, eat, and survive. Pinker concludes that music shows no design towards attaining a long life, leaving many grandchildren, or helping humans accurately perceive the world. According to his reasoning, music is an evolutionary by-product of adaptive mechanisms that evolved for other reasons like language, auditory scene analysis, emotional calls, habitat selection, motor control, etc.

Pinker asserts that humans could do without music and undergo no significant loss in our capacity to function: “Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how,” Pinker states, “music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once” (528).

According to Pinker, literature and the other arts work the same way as alcohol, drugs, and rich desserts. He explains that music “piggybacks” on the following biologically adaptive features:

  1. Language — music exploits our ability to make sense of long strings of syllables.
  2. Auditory scene analysis — we can discern important details for survival about our environment; therefore, we can listen for and discern important details about music.
  3. Emotional calls — music often features sounds akin to whimpers, shrieks, shouts, growls, cheers, etc., which are all sounds that perturb our emotions.
  4. Habitat selection — visual features signal important information about habitat safety and fertility, so music may exploit this ability by providing rhythmic and melodic features that are akin to order and serenity in one’s environment.
  5. Motor control — rhythm is a universal music component, and repetitive actions like dancing are akin to other repetitive actions with emotional and motivational components like working, pushing a baby in a swing, or sex.
  6. Something else — Pinker concludes that speculation and scientific research on this matter are far from over and that music’s existence might be explained differently (534 – 538).

Pinker summarizes his view about music by stating that he does not “believe everything the mind does is biologically adaptive.” He puts the matter poetically by suggesting that the mind does some things that are akin to “Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive value.” According to him, art, music, and literature fit this category (524).

Pinker certainly makes a strong case, but not all scientists agree with him. Next, we’ll inspect neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitin’s, music-is-adaptive hypothesis.

The Music-is-Adaptive Hypothesis

Some scientists find Pinker’s comparison of music to cheesecake misleading. For example, McGill University Psychologist, Daniel J. Levitin, believes strongly that music is adaptive and not merely pleasure technology. In his book called The World in Six Songs Levitin offers a spirited counter argument against Pinker’s “auditory cheesecake” thesis by suggesting that

[Music] “is not simply a distraction or a pastime, but a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language, large-scale cooperative undertakings, and the passing down of important information from one generation to the next” (Levitin 3).

Levitin argues that music served our ancestors by advertising cognitive, emotional, and physical health to prospective mates. This means that being able to play instruments and sing songs was evolutionarily advantageous. In his book, Levitin summarizes his music-is-adaptive hypothesis by identifying song-types that he asserts were critical to the evolution of language, thought, and culture:

  1. Friendship — songs to bind a marginalized group
  2. Joy — songs to provide neurochemical and therapeutic effects
  3. Comfort — songs that act as a drug for sadness
  4. Religion — songs to create order in religious ritual
  5. Knowledge — songs that contain information and help stimulate memory
  6. Love — songs that define social structures and bring everyone together

Levitin shows how each type of song enabled the social bonding necessary for human culture and society to evolve. For example, on the matter of friendship, he says that songs like “Smoking in the Boys Room” binds disenfranchised youth together in defiance. There is evidence that friendship songs like this one played an important function throughout human history. He argues that friendship songs are a category of dance-song, which involve synchronized movement of individuals within a group.

Friendship songs include war songs—both for offensive attack and defensive vigils against attack—and songs sung during hunting and other working activities. Indeed, Levitin suggests, a band of hunter-gatherers may have sung friendship songs at night as a countermeasure against predawn attacks from rival bands Friendship songs, Levitin concludes, promote social bonding through collective movement; therefore, they have been critical to survival throughout human history (Levitin 45).

In addition to arguing through song types, Levitin also suggests that music is adaptive because it was a form of communication that evolved before our capacity for language. He, and other scientists, think that music may have characterized the communication of Neanderthals, which were an early form of human that were edged out of existence by modern humans. It’s thought that Neanderthals used alterations in pitch and time, along with hand gestures, to communicate. Similarly, Chimpanzee communication is musical in character, and their vocalizations display variations of pitch and rhythm—not unlike music.

Most scientists think that the use of rudimentary verbalizations such as grunts, calls, shrieks, and groans evolved first, and that language came later. It’s been suggested that those rudimentary sounds had a musical quality like the calls and shouts of chimpanzees. If this is true, it would mean that music came before language; therefore, it was critical to our survival.

Evidence for the two mediums—music and language—being intimately connected stem from both being infinitely expandable. Like music, language can be endlessly combined in new and unique ways while still being understood by the listener. For example, there is no such thing as the world’s longest sentence because one can always add one more word. Similarly, melodic phrases admit to no objective termination because another note can always be added (Levitin 259). This similarity suggests that both music and language are emanating from the same type of brain activity—meaning there’s likely an evolutionary link between the two.


Due to the complexity of this issue, it seems unlikely that definitive answers will ever be found.

For what it’s worth, I come down on the side of the “auditory cheesecake” argument. Indeed, I believe that communication and societal organization would’ve evolved on Earth with or without music. The fact that we can hear complex sounds and discern patterns means that listening to, and making, music is pleasurable, but not a necessity. Hearing complex sounds and discerning patterns are skills that evolved to help us survive in a savage world filled with predators, lethal weather, and bewildering uncertainty.

To me, carrying a tune hardly seems critical in such a world. It also seems evident to me that humans throughout history would’ve had no problem communicating, finding food, and mating without the aid of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Take my opinion with a grain of salt, for I am not a scientist. What do you think about this matter? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading.

Works Cited

Levitin, Daniel J. The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Plume Books, 2009.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. W.W. Norton, 1997.


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