Why Did Humans Invent Music?

Darwin and others have said it was a way to woo. Others believe music is social glue—a theory bolstered by a new study.

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


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.

"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.