National Geographic Daily News
Concert-goers cheer as they watch the performance by 2 Chainz during the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California April 13, 2013.

Concert-goers cheer as they watch a performance during the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California.

Photograph by Mario Anzuoni, Reuters

Marc Silver

National Geographic

Published August 24, 2013

Why did humans invent music?

Until the hot tub time machine becomes a reality, the answer to that question will remain as mysterious as the true identity of the '60s garage band ? and the Mysterians.

Nonetheless, academic minds are always trying to come up with a theory. Charles Darwin believed music was created as a sexual come-on. His idea is given credence by the universally acclaimed song of the summer, "Blurred Lines." (Note: The link goes to the Jimmy Fallon version played with toy instruments and is suitable for work.)

Other theorists believe music was an attempt at social glue, a way to bring early humans together into a close-knit community.

Chris Loersch, a senior research associate in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, likes that idea, and he's done research to try and prove it. He and Nathan Arbuckle, from the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, designed a series of studies to bolster it.

(Related: When You Listen to Bach, What Color Do You See?)

"This hypothesis centers on music's unique ability to influence the mood and behavior of many people at once," they write, "helping to mold individual beings into a coordinated group." They cite the power of military music, music played at sports games, and "ritualized drumming" as examples.

In a series of seven studies, the two looked at the "emotional reactions" to music of 879 individuals from U.S. universities and from abroad. They also asked the respondents how much they identify with an in-group. The subjects who said they were most affected by the music they heard had a "higher need to belong." (Read: Making Music Boosts Brain's Language Skills)

Loersch, whom we interviewed about the research, is quick to admit that this is not definitive proof but does help bolster the theory that "music evolved in service of group living."

Does your theory explain why we pay lots of money to congregate with other fans at a concert?

I saw a bunch of Phish shows at one point. There's a certain sense of community there, a lot of rules for how that community interacts with each other. People are bonding on a large scale, treating everybody that's camping around them as family members. I think that's what concerts are about, really becoming a group with those people around you. We put a YouTube link to a concert in the paper, where somebody on stage starts waving hands to the right and left and all these people with huge intense smiles engage in exact same behavior. You can see on their faces that music is having the most intense positive effect. Forty thousand people are completely bound up in being a group member.

But you're not exactly best friends with all those people?

Even though you don't know them at all, part of our theory is that the music is there to bind you and control you, not as an individual but as a member of a group. As humans our primary motivation in life is to be a good group member. People start to feel great when they lose their individual identity and become part of this larger whole.

Sometimes people boo at concerts.

I think we boo other social behavior all the time, not explicitly. When people don't hold up their end of a social contract, that's what gets you ostracized from a group.

So if a musician shows up late or puts on a bad show, they're fair game for booing?

I don't think musicians are immune from that ostracism just because they happen to be in control.

If music is all about connecting us to a group, why do people listen in solitude as well?

I think even when you listen by yourself, what makes that feel good is that you are kind of being tricked—much like when you watch TV—into thinking you're interacting with people, tricked into thinking you're part of a group. Our core motivation is to feel like we belong. Anything that tricks you into feeling that way is going to feel rewarding, you're going to pursue that like a drug.

How do you regard the theory that music was invented as a sexual lure?

What we would argue is you play music and that gives you power to control a large group of people and power is attractive to the opposite sex.

Who's your favorite musician?

My favorite artist is Stevie Wonder: I think he's incredibly effective at communicating emotions. He makes you feel what he feels. And he clearly feels a lot.

27 comments
Brandon Roggow
Brandon Roggow

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ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

moi je ne vois pas de couleurs quand j'écoute de la musique : je me vois sur des nuages qui volent vers les étoiles, et je ne dois pas ^^etre normale car je préfère écouter la musique et les chansons seule ou dans une voiture qui roule aussi vers l'infini " une longue distance au fait"  

Jamil Voss
Jamil Voss

I think music might provide a way to be, taking some stress out of a confusing life by giving something to rest on. They rhythm, the melody, and the harmony all provide a way of being that allows someone to do a bit less work for the time being if they agree with the way that is being presented.

Jef Green
Jef Green

imagine life without it - no need to analyze.  there are many reasons, social and purely physical.  most of these things are obvious.  proof is in experience.  imagine life without it.  there's your answers.  many answers.  next.

Joshua Lederman
Joshua Lederman

Like a few others have mentioned in these comments humans did not invent music. It is a flawed assumption that we invented music. We can say that humans are musical for the most part but we didn't invent music just as we didn't invent electricity. We discovered it. Here is why. The notes that make up what we call a major chord or even the bluesy dominant 7th chord. You know, the notes that singers sing when they are warming up. Mi mi mi mi mi or more precisely doe mi sol mi doe. Those notes are found in nature everywhere especially on a tight string. You know, like a bow and arrow. If you take a bow that is tight and pluck it you get a note. Not only that but there are other notes on that one string called harmonics that appear at mathematical divisions of the string. They are infinite. But the first five or six notes that come up at divisions of 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6 are fairly easy to produce on just one string. You don't need a fret or a slide you just touch the string at the divisions mentioned and you get a note. Sometimes a different note than the fundamental note. These notes make up the basic chord that we use in music as a major chord. C E and G on a piano for example but you get the notes from one string. That chord exists in nature folks. It's already part of you and me and everything. Yes we were probably singing and banging on rocks long before we knew this but we didn't invent music like somebody invented the wheel or an iPhone we discovered it. In nature. It was already there.

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

Listening to music solo is like posting your lunch on facebook.

Nobody cares but if it makes you feel better go for it.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

Elleni Stephanou
Elleni Stephanou

Music is a stimulant for movement; from tapping your foot to performing on stage- dance was born. 'Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.' - Robert Frost. We found music within us and when we share it we draw others closer; it links us all.

Jan Berman
Jan Berman

I think that music is telling a different story to any person and do not think we invented music but are just using the possibility.

Carlos Rodriguez
Carlos Rodriguez

I think scientists are overdoing it in trying to find a theory for the source of music. Some humans are born with music inside. To them, it comes as natural as walking or breathing. Scientist minds are just too left-brained sometimes...Let me explain...

Our ancestors just heard water droplets, waterfalls, the rustling of tree leafs, birds chirping, their own heartbeats from the emotion of hunting,  and they perceived something that made them react with emotions (dance, laughter, sense of peace, fear, energy to do laborious and hard work easier. etc etc etc), and then came the urge to replicate these sounds, first just for self enjoyment...then for communal purposes...

LISTEN....music originated from our hearing sounds in nature, perceiving rhythms in them and reacting to these with emotions we felt...some humans in the tribe had just better ability than others to react to these sounds and reproduce them fictitiously for self enjoyment...others observed and got drawn....You may as well be asking "why humans come up w/ fun things to do".

 As generations passed, music became more complex and elaborate as we conceived instruments to replicate the sounds and rhythms. First the music started from just our wish to repeat sounds that had rhythm...we found them pleasing...then we learned we could replicate these rhythms not just to self-induce pleasure...eventually we perceived we could use them to hunt and communicate with others. First, we used our bodies (mouth, hands, feet, etc) to replicate the sounds, then fictitiously with sticks, rocks...in due time these were replaced these tools with more sophisticated instruments..drums....strings...trumpets...a piano...an electronic music box...a computer...an Ipad...as we became more sophisticated and our sense of control and power evolved, music became was manipulated  and used  as a vehicle to achieve social, economic, and political goals along the way.

I don't think these objectives came first then music was created to achieve them...music was conceived just from that very first second of life when our ears sensed the world...you might even say we already had the music inside, and was simply awakened with that very first sound of a water droplets or of what we heard in our mothers womb.

RC Lee
RC Lee

Interesting, but a vast oversimplification. I may be biased, as I am a musician, but the profound complexities and nuances of the effects that music has on both performers and listeners/"feelers" (as most music that appeals to wide audiences is largely beat) can't be reduced to either sexual or social factors. Music (or at least good music) has intense psychological effects that are akin to sex, psychoactive drugs; and can indeed be transcendant for both performers and listeners.  Dr. Loersch claims ". . even when you listen by yourself, what makes that feel good is that you are kind of being tricked—much like when you watch TV—into thinking you're interacting with people, tricked into thinking you're part of a group." That's utter speculation which I suspect is not true for most people. People listen to music, attend concerts, etc. because it makes them feel very good. The phrase "sex and drugs and rock-and-roll" is very descriptive of the way many, if not most, people who appreciate music react to music; although such feelings are certainly not limited to rock-and-roll! There is probably an element of social interaction in some contexts (e.g., a rock concert) that 'feeds' this feeling, but I doubt that this is the main explanation.

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

Lets face it, bird song is pretty much "anyone up for sex?" and "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" - but that's music for you!

David Max
David Max

Once again, we have an article in an otherwise scientific magazine citing non-scientific (correlational and questionnaire) research by psychologists (ugh!) to answer a non-scientific question. I won't speculate on why NG continues to print such articles, I will say this, though. Music is not a thing that exists separately from the behavior of individuals and therefore it cannot be invented. Not only that, but what we call "music" differs from individual to individual and from culture to culture. A better question to ask would be how something we might today call singing or making noise using some object that we might call music evolved. Based on operant learning theory, we might speculate that such behavior occurred independently in more than one individual, was reinforced in one or more of them, most likely through the reaction of others, was then copied by others, and reinforced more widely. Such an historical account cannot be experimentally tested, but is consistent with behavioral theory and, thus, more parsimonious than the drivel reported on above.

Kamana Lonokapu
Kamana Lonokapu

Legend has it that at one time the human female lived high up on trees to evade the snakes.  When they had baby’s the women would sing to their baby’s to woo them to sleep; then they would bound the baby to the tree trunk while the wind rocked the tree branch and thus rock the baby to sleep so the mother could go down into the jungle to forage for food.  One of the first known songs, then, was ‘Rock’a Bye Baby’ that went something like this: ‘Rock a bye baby, on the tree top, When the wind blows the tree top will rock’. 

Paul Young
Paul Young

Of course 'insert your preferred deity here' invented music.  In this article, I think they mean "Rock Music", I can't think of any other type of music that has gotten more people laid, well classical music but that is a much different story.  Of course birds and dinosaurs were making music before that, and monkeys were making music before humans.


Russ Nash
Russ Nash

All art is sex, amongst other things but music in particular is a communion - so "social glue" is as good a term as many.

I agree with Thomas, we didn't "invent" it.

Thomas Besson
Thomas Besson

"Why did humans invent music?"

We didn't 'invent' music. It has always been there, like the 'golden proportion' for us to discover, but never think that we invented music. We really are too full of ourselves already.

Joe Parente
Joe Parente

I agree with G.P.. Music at its base is one person trying to communicate emotion and ideas to another person. Pitch, beat and tone are used daily in regular language, as in how many different emotions can you express in the simple phrase, "Hi baby, how are you?". Music is just an extension of that. 

The fact that those desiring control have used it as a tool is absolutely secondary. 

G.P. Palestrina
G.P. Palestrina

Isn’t music mostly just emotion---pitch and pulse that, at their best, translate into meaning and often explore universals, and sometimes rare concepts, that we haven’t yet found words to express? Isn’t it mere pitch and pulse, which both strike the synapses directly, in waves of sound, not waves of light as in some of the other fine arts (painting, architecture, etc.)? It doesn’t hit us vicariously or telepathically like poetry or other literature. This direct, neural delivery or enhancement of meaning seems to be the primary motivation for the invention and pursuit of music. Its group-cohesive abilities appear to be secondary. Just my two cents.

Claudette Krauter
Claudette Krauter

I think music began as a way to help people work together on a physical task, such as pulling oars or clearing land or cutting down trees.  It then evolved into something that others liked to listen to.  Soon young men found that young women liked the singers a lot and it evolved even more from there.

Walter Matera
Walter Matera

Another reinvention of the wheel.  Ellen Disayanake's seminal What is Art For clearly puts forth the community bonding model for Art.  All this study does is (as did my Master's thesis)  provide additional data in support.

reva madison
reva madison

I wonder how many people, like me, couldn't give two hoots about what music is on, as long as its solo.  So low I cant hear it.  It is not now, nor has ever been of any interest to me.  A good book, or even a movie is much more interesting.  I wound up in choir in high school, much to my own astonishment, because there was no other one semester class I needed, and whichi was being given at that time.  Even further, I made a passing grade. 

Thomas Besson
Thomas Besson

@Claudette Krauter You may have something there. I was in the hills that separate Bangladesh from Burma once and came across a group of men loading a teak tree trunk onto an ox cart. They sang rhythmically as they inched the heavy trunk  onto their wagon and sounded for all the world like a prison chain gang laying track in the Southern USA, ala ' O brother, where art thou?'. It was magical, and they got the job done. Good on them.

RC Lee
RC Lee

@reva madisonIt is an interesting question- in fact, much more interesting that the subject of the article. I suspect that musicians (such as myself), 'intense' listeners, casual listeners, and nonlisteners have differing brain function/chemistry. This may even be reflected in subgroups of musicians- e.g. a percussionist vs. a violinist vs. a singer. I've always wondered why different musicians are attracted to different instruments, and why there is such a variety of musical forms. Reducing music to some sort of social phenomenon is simplistic.

Lynda Vernon
Lynda Vernon

@RC Lee Music is all that is left if you feel low and it can send you to another place, give you memories, light your moment, ease your soul like nothing else can!

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