Romantic Reverberations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin included this intriguing hypothesis in The Descent of Man (1871): “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.” With this observation, Darwin grouped human beings with other animals whose songs apparently evolved as sexually selected courtship displays. Countless creatures, from spiders and crustaceans to seals and birds, innately distinguish musical mating calls from other noises. For Darwin, a trait so pervasive could not be accidental: “unless the females were able to appreciate such sounds and were excited or charmed by them, the persevering efforts of the males and the complex structures often possessed by them alone would be useless; and this it is impossible to believe.” Without the function of attracting mates, the instinct for music would not have arisen or persisted.

Of course, the forms and uses of music expanded as human cultures and capacities grew in complexity. Unlike most of the animals Darwin studied, human-made music has branched out far beyond mating. Still, it is hard to ignore the enormous quantity of love songs our species has produced. In most societies, songs of romance and sexual longing comprise the largest percentage of musical output. Roughly forty to fifty percent of popular songs recorded in the United States address the topic of romantic love. Like Darwin, many contemporary evolutionary biologists conclude that our unquenchable attraction to love songs—both saccharine-sweet and sorrowful—is a carry-over from the primal epoch when our musical ears perked up at the alluring sounds of potential mates.

Given the apparent sexual origins of music production in all animal species, including our own, it is not surprising that the oldest song scientists have discovered is a song of romance. In February of 2012, British scientists announced that they had reconstructed the simple mating call of a Jurassic-era cricket. Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detailed how they derived the sound from the cricket’s pristinely fossilized 72-centemeter wings. The song, which was performed 165 million year ago, was the insect’s way of attracting mates in a nighttime forest busy with waterfalls, streams, rustling leaves and scavenging dinosaurs. According to the study’s co-author Daniel Robert, an expert in the biomechanics of singing and hearing in insects, this type of tuneful chirping “advertises the presence, location and quality of the singer, a message that females choose to respond to—or not. Using a single tone, the male’s call carries further and better, and therefore is likely to serenade more females.”

Our ears are tuned to music in much the same way. We hear the melodious ice-cream truck over the roaring engines of a congested street. We notice the piped-in recording over the chatter and clanking dishes of a crowded restaurant. Even when music is incessantly played at a super market or shopping mall, a melodic line or rhythmic hook often catches our ear, inducing us to hum or tap our fingers. Like the calls of the prehistoric cricket and the modern-day songbird, human music pierces through the clamor and din of everyday life.

From an evolutionary perspective, our inborn ability to pick out these sounds stems from the distant days when our ancestors sang songs of courtship. In those long-ago times, hearing love songs through the clutter of nature helped ensure the perpetuation of our species. Though this function was minimized as our intellectual and emotional capacities progressed and diversified—and though we might be ashamed to admit it—we remain instinctively attracted to songs of love.

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

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