Necessary Cheesecake

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Literature on the origins of music is dominated by two theories. The first is sexual selection, or the idea that animals develop features that help maximize reproductive success. Charles Darwin introduced the concept in The Descent of Man (1871), writing that the human inclination for music came about in much the same way as ornate peacock feathers, lion manes and the antlers of male deer—that is, as sexual enticement. Musical skill, he theorized, stemmed from the biological compulsion to court a mate. Recent scholarship supports this hypothesis, highlighting the performer’s dexterity, creativity and mental agility as signs of fitness and desirability. Evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller published a study demonstrating a correlation between music-making and the reproductive life of jazz musicians, whose musical output tends to rise after puberty, peak during young adulthood and decline with parenthood and/or advancing age.

The second prevalent view involves group solidarity. In modern experience, music is regularly used to foster and enhance cohesion. This effect likely originated when small bands of people struggled for survival in the precarious prehistoric world. Populations lacking strong ties stood little chance of continuance, and music—especially song and dance—helped keep them intact. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University contends that while music eventually expanded into the area of courtship, it was group selection—not sexual selection—that prompted its emergence.

These theories frame music as basic to the endurance of our species. They assert that music was born of the necessities of reproduction and solidarity, and continues to be a means of sexual attraction and communal togetherness. However compelling, these functional explanations are not immune from criticism. Among the most prominent opponents is Harvard language theorist Steven Pinker.

Pinker devotes just ten pages to music in his massive book, How the Mind Works. The quick gloss owes to his assertion that music is not an evolutionary adaptation, but a tangential technology: a human capacity developed and exploited for its own sake. Although musical sounds tickle our requisite capacities for language, auditory scene analysis, emotional calls, habitat selection and motor control, they are, in Pinker’s phrase, “auditory cheesecake.” Like the decadent dessert, which over-stimulates our biological desire for fat- and sugar-rich foods, music supplies us with an oversupply of sound. An article in The Economist likened Pinker’s assessment to calling instrumental playing “auditory pornography” and singing “auditory masturbation,” both of which sate an appetite that is beyond strict biological need. In other words, if music were to vanish from our species, little else would change.

Although widely disseminated, Pinker’s proposition contains at least two faulty assumptions. The first is his argument that music-making is the domain of a small subset of people, and thus not a universal trait essential for survival. This reflects an understanding of music as it exists in the modern West, where professionalization and music as entertainment have done much to inhibit the participation of large segments of the population—a phenomenon unknown for most of human history and in contrast to many places in the world today. The second is his point that music is variable in its complexity from culture to culture, thus indicating an aesthetic rather than fundamental purpose. This may be an accurate comment on the nature of musical diversity, but does not negate the possibility that music production, generally speaking, began as a human need.

Nevertheless, Pinker’s analysis is a worthy challenge to the assumed evolutionary significance of music. It could very well be that music is an enhancement rather than a building block of human life. Yet it takes little effort to harmonize the biological theories with Pinker’s contrarian view. For instance, it is possible that music originated as a sexually selected feature, developed into a group-selected trait, and over time became an attraction in itself. It began as raw material for survival and, in some ways and in some cases, took on the qualities of “audible cheesecake.” Music may no longer be essential for human life, but life’s enjoyment would certainly be diminished without it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


2 thoughts on “Necessary Cheesecake

  1. autismtoohuman

    Pinker explicitly admitted that human musical behavior is an enigma. But, it seems he disparaged the human aesthetic sense of sound and silence. Under the inspiration of a near-exclusively linguistic rationality, he said, “Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.”

    First, I think it is important to note that Pinker began that seeming disparagement with *compared* with language etc., Second, it seems to me Pinker meant the musical sounds, not the human musical sense. In any case, I cannot help but share in Pinker’s specifically linguistically rational sense that music easily seems to be a biologically pointless structure of sounds.

    But, I think that the actual existence of these human-generated structures is not the core issue. I think the core issue is the human musical sense through which those structures necessarily have come to exist—no less than comes language by the linguistic sense. That a near-exclusively linguistic kind of rationality readily may discern no adaptive end either to human musical behavior or to human aesthetic enjoyment of the acoustic products of that behavior does not mean that that of which that behavior is the *expression* is absent any core human adaptive value.

    So, if, by ‘music’, Pinker meant simply the human-generated structures of sound which humans find aesthetically pleasing, then I could almost agree with the notion that “music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.”

    But, my hypothesis that the human aesthetic sense is the primal logic into how things are and can be suggests that the human musical sense is at once the most basic feature of that logic and its most culminate, celebratory, expression.

    Once you have made a fine, functionally dependable car, complete with rider luxury and powerful engine, you simply must take it for a wonderful test drive, including, perhaps, the occasional drift and other tricks. If humans somehow were to never need cars, such as by having their utilitarian transportation needs otherwise-and-better met always by some benevolent robots, yet to refuse humans their own *pleasure of expression* would be to make humans correctly sense that they are being robbed of some essential means of perceiving how things more deeply are and can be. Only a ‘Vulcan’ turn of mind would believe that, since a facility with language is a clearly very great adaptive a power, being confined to a school desk all day every day and made to ‘pay attention’ to what the ‘teacher’ is saying constitutes the superior means of education.

    The occasional case of perceptual amusia in humans suggests that human musical perception takes no part in, contributes nothing to, human adaptive functions. But, it is not completely without reason to suggest that there is some single neurological function that unifies, and, even, gives rise to, the enigmatically human suite of intelligence. In response to the idea that we would be basically equal to ourselves were our musical perceptual faculties to vanish from our species, the issue is neurologically how such vanish-ment is to be conceived such that it leaves us otherwise undiminished.

    For, it seems, were human neurology *naturally* to be as the non-human animals in regard to music, our enigmatically human lifestyles would virtually be obliterated: we necessarily would be reduced to our ‘five physical senses’, our various hormonal impulses, and a dolphin level of intelligence and cultural evolutionary liability.

    I wonder if, or how well, a human infant, while having amusia from conception to age ten, may be *thought to be undiminished* in ability to acquire speech language? Moreover, I wonder, how an infant with *natural* neuro-amusia akin to that of non-human animals would fair in acquiring human speech language.

    It is said that music is a useless spandrel of language. But, I note that a spandrel in architecture is a design category, not a functional category. To an ‘empty spandrel’, by which I mean any unused air space formed by a framework, there is no structural function, since the air does not ‘hold up the roof’. While it would be a waste of structural opportunity to just fill this ‘spandrel space’ with, say, loose sand, the fact is that a *solid* spandrel is integral to the job of ‘holding up the roof’. And, though a geodesic framework seems entirely to be made of spandrels, every one of those spandrels is integral to how the structure encloses and excloses things.

    So, to continue the architectural analogy back onto the notion that musical sense could just as well vanish from our species, it looks as if such vanish-ment would result in a very pointless use of structure: a very diminished solid which, by way of being solid, within which nothing can happen and out of which nothing can proceed.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thank you for your long and detailed comment. I, too, question the assumption of music’s non-utility (thanks for your email as well). Strictly speaking, humanity could, on an individual level, survive even without language, so painting that as an absolute necessity is not entirely accurate. The same is true, one would suppose, for a slew of emotional capacities. As a biological species, our needs are quite simple. However, it is our innate programming as culture-makers that makes music more than just an ancillary accoutrement. Music is a central storehouse of so much that makes us human. We might survive without it, but we would basically lose our identity as we know it.

      As for the utility of music, which you defend in great detail, it is well established that functional music — music with a purpose — is the fundamental category of music worldwide, and that so-called “music for its own sake” (“absolute” music) is a recent, rare and even controversial classification. There is certainly an evolutionary basis for aesthetic appreciation (mate selection, food selection, location selection, funktionslust, etc.).

      Where aesthetics fails in a scientific sense is the area of standards and universals. It is true that most people have an aesthetic sense and that music exploits that sense on a primal level, but there is no one object, sound or phenomenon that is beautiful (or ugly, for that matter) to everyone. This makes aesthetics a particularly weak area of philosophical inquiry.

      Thus, to me, identifying innate and universal elements of beauty is not even an interesting road to travel down. But the larger utility of aesthetics is doubtless a valid point.


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