Music and the Brain


Scientific American attempts to make sense of why we dig those groovy tunes:

And our fondness has deep roots: we have been making music since the dawn of culture. More than 30,000 years ago early humans were already playing bone flutes, percussive instruments and jaw harps--and all known societies throughout the world have had music. Indeed, our appreciation appears to be innate. Infants as young as two months will turn toward consonant, or pleasant, sounds and away from dissonant ones. And when a symphony's denouement gives delicious chills, the same kinds of pleasure centers of the brain light up as they do when eating chocolate, having sex or taking cocaine.

Therein lies an intriguing biological mystery: Why is music--universally beloved and uniquely powerful in its ability to wring emotions--so pervasive and important to us? Could its emergence have enhanced human survival somehow, such as by aiding courtship, as Geoffrey F. Miller of the University of New Mexico has proposed? Or did it originally help us by promoting social cohesion in groups that had grown too large for grooming, as suggested by Robin M. Dunbar of the University of Liverpool? On the other hand, to use the words of Harvard University's Steven Pinker, is music just "auditory cheesecake"--a happy accident of evolution that happens to tickle the brain's fancy?

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There is a wonderful article on cognitive psychologist née punk musician Dr. Daniel Levitin in the New York Times. The mix is one part neuroscience to two parts humorous anecdotes about the brain, music and the music biz. Levitin is a highly entertaining and informative scientist.

“I actually became a [record] producer because I saw the producers getting all the babes,” he said. “They were stealing them from the guitarists.”


Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

“Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”

Dr. Levitin dragged me over to a lab computer to show me what he was talking about. “Listen to this,” he said, and played an MP3. It was pretty awful: a poorly recorded, nasal-sounding British band performing, for some reason, a Spanish-themed ballad.

Dr. Levitin grinned. “That,” he said, “is the original demo tape of the Beatles. It was rejected by every record company. And you can see why. To you and me it sounds terrible. But George Martin heard this and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can imagine a multibillion-dollar industry built on this.’

“Now that’s musical genius.” There's lots more fascinating information in the short article both artistic and scientific. I think it is great to have an academic with real world experience in the music industry. Levitin entered the ivory tower for the best of reasons.

“When they’re dropping Van Morrison and Elvis Costello because they don’t sell enough records,” he said, “I knew it was time to move on.”
Now that's a scientist I can get behind. You'll just have to read the article to learn more including why my affection for Steely Dan has been tarnished.

Absolutely fascinating, thank you! Have you read Levitin's book?

I have not read the book... yet. I tell people that I'm waiting for it to come out in paperback... July 31, 2007. I'll either forget or I won't be able to wait that long.

And there are so many other books already waiting in line. It almost makes me wish that I still read books. For example: Your link sent me to Daniel Levitin's 11 Books to Read on Music and reminded me that Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body is still out there.

I've read Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science and it was fantastic as well as fantastically written. It's not an easy read but Mithen makes the best use of endnotes that I've ever seen. He sources ideas (not just quotes), includes further developments of concepts that a ruthless and talented editor must have excised, tells amusing anecdotes, details his reasoning behind dismissing/disproving other scientific theories and suggests further reading. Those notes have allowed me to pretend that I'm well-read when in mixed company.

There's a positive and insightful review of Mithen's new book in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Because it's written by an academic it concludes snippily (and hilariously) with an observation of Mithen's "own (relatively) weak spot-insufficient acquaintance with the ethnomusicological literature," along with three proofreading corrections and a complaint about the dust jacket... hee hee.

But back to Levitin. There is a short article in Salon which observes that

...your brain can instantly spot a transformation -- that is, another version -- of a song, even if the two are radically different. John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" varies in tempo, pitch, instrumentation and countless other ways from the Rodgers and Hammerstein, "Sound of Music" version, but you know the two as the same song; the same is true for OutKast's funked-out, hip-hop "My Favorite Things." Computers simply cannot do this; our brains are uniquely efficient at such complex pattern-matching tasks."
It also states that the teen years are when and where our musical loves are forged. Whatever music we were listening to when our brains stopped growing and started pruning is the music we identify as "not our parents' music." Which is just further evidence that we should implement my plan: musical intervention for every post-adolescent.

An even shorter piece in Wired has Levitin defining the word "earworm."

It's the name the Germans give to these songs that get stuck in your head that you can't get rid of. If they're really bothersome, you can do what Neil Young told me...

Just a gentle nudge to say that 31st July 2007 is almost here.

Thank you. It's very nice to be nudged but I appear to have encountered a significant obstacle:

The vast majority of booksellers ask for money in exchange for their books. (Textbooks seem to require a mortgage.)

Then again, my watch is running about 7 weeks slow this year.

Oh, come now. You know how to use a library.

But I may be too enthusiastic about libraries. I checked all 50 states and my state (Minnesota) has the best statewide interlibrary loan system in the whole country!

So you're the one I'm always waiting on to get my loans! (:

Heh. Are you in MN?

No, Oregon. But the interlibrary loan system we have here is nationwide (not sure if it's the same everywhere or not).

Interesting. Can you actually request materials from out of state for free? Can you initiate your own requests via a website, or do you have to ask library staff to file the request for you?

Yep, for free in almost all cases. The only album I've ever tried that I got back a fee request on ($20) was Spicelab's A Day on Our Planet (apparently a very rare album highly recommended to me by Blind. If you hear it, or have heard it, please let me know what you think. Scaruffi has nothing on them.)

Previous to this I've ordered tons of albums from all across the US, such as Starsailor, Fare Forward Voyagers, Jazz Composer's Orchestra, Escalator, etc. It is rare that I cannot find something, as it is nationwide (possibly even worldwide).

Not sure if you can do it by website or not. Worth a try though.

Scaruffi profiled Spicelab in his Italian history of rock here.

I remember liking A Day on Our Planet.

7 weeks is a long time. But one can always wait.

Damn, what a great reading list! I too, wish I still read books. It's all I can do to stay on top of The New Yorker. The infernal thing comes weekly! Then that week where National Geographic comes too really buries me. And to think I almost recently added The Economist to the mix, but that would be like throwing a fire hydrant to a drowning man. I'll have to continue to be less well-informed than I'd like.

I can't believe I missed the Levitin Eleven. Thanks for pointing that out!

Jim, I'm working on a Philosophy of Music article (which will, of course, be based upon my Philosophy of, and I'm hoping to shed a little light on this question. My article probably won't be Odysseus's comment here. The guy loves to write, and, thankfully, what he writes is usually worth reading. Okay, make that always :-D

Looking forward to it! And I agree with everything you say about 0dysseus, except possibly the conclusion that (s)he is male. I'm pretty sure there was a "back when I was sugar and spice and all things nice" note awhile back.

Yes, assumption is the mother of all...mistakes. Odysseus is perfectly free to be female - though I don't know how Ulysses would feel about it.

Odysseus, would you care, in a few words, to make your gender transparent?

You too, Bert.

Get up! Get on up!
Get UP! Get on up!
Stay on the scene Get on up!
Like a Sex Machine! Get on up!

So how did we get here?

We all agree that every culture, living or dead, has been suffused with music. (If you don't agree then there's no point in reading any further… No, I mean it. Stop.)

There seems to be no reason for us all to have such a love of music. Perhaps it is a gift from a loving god. (If you agree with that then stop reading now… I still mean it. There's just no point.)

For those of us who look at the world through the lens of Science it seems that music serves little practical purpose. Why should something so impractical affect us so deeply? Music does give someone something to do when wooing your true love beneath a balcony. It is also quite handy to have around a campfire and you want someone to "kum-by." But cheesecake, whether auditory or dietary, serves no purpose at all. If even some of these things provide a true benefit the question remains: Why?

Why not? Regardless of the utility of music there is still the issue of How? How could it have all started? Perhaps if we know the How then the Why will become self-evident. Perhaps not.

There are many other traits that exist across the wide swath of humanity. Fear of spiders, snakes and heights are certainly popular. It is easy to see how those fears helped our ancestors survive. It is easy to see how the wish to avoid poisonous creepy-crawly things was so advantageous that it carved out a permanent place in our DNA. An ability to steer clear of senseless plummeting from a great height also seems quite handy to have and easy to acquire, especially if you are wandering around the plains of Africa.

Love of symmetry in physical characteristics is also a result of evolutionary pressure. Symmetry is a key indicator of health and fitness and as such is quite attractive. It means that your genes are in tiptop condition and that this will be passed on to children... and grandchildren... and so on until plastic surgery comes along and big hooters are everywhere. In women big wide set eyes and a small waist to hip ratio are reliable signs of post-pubescent sexuality. (Sir Mix-A-Lot could not lie.) They are all signs that girls are reaching the peak of their fertility. Their biological clocks go tick-tick-tick. For men it is size (both muscle and fat) and age that mean the most. Both characteristics indicate an ability and social position that will provide food and security. Provender and protection are of ultimate importance to a woman who is weighed down by a child and unable to forage with her usual gusto. So guys: keep that beer belly and get yourself a Stone Age Ferrari. (Oooh! That sexy Fred Flintstone.)

So there are genetically inheritable traits that are helpful in producing more and better children who are then likelier to survive to have plenty of kids of their own. What's even more helpful is caring for your offspring until they have reached sexual maturity themselves. The cautionary tale that we take away from this is that good parents produce more and better kids while bad parents have fewer and worse kids. (The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue....) Speaking of which, I believe the children are our future. It behooves them to look all cute and cuddly as long as they are helpless and must rely upon the kindness of parents and strangers. We love their big, soft heads that are just big and soft enough to fit past ever widening hips. We love their smell. We love everything about them if they are our own. We are family.

For those of you who are parents and disturbed by this line of reasoning let me assure you that there is nothing to fear. We have not evolved to love our children. We have evolved because we love our children.

We even love and respond to their piercing little cries for attention. There we have it! This might be where it all starts. The ability to detect and distinguish between different vocal tones would most definitely enable better parenting. Being able to tell when your kid is crying because of teething as opposed to crying from hunger is a valuable skill. It allows a parent to choose between rolling over and going back to sleep or rolling over and letting the woman breastfeed the little brat. (Here's a little tip for you. If the baby is crying because of teething and hunger watch out. Ouch!) Knowing the tone, timbre and distinctive features of your baby's cries also insures that you react instantly (and violently) when some other genetically jealous male is intent upon infanticide. Emotion begins to be intimately involved with vocalizations and their different qualities. Every parent I know can pick his or her child's voice out of a crowd at Chuck E. Cheese. Poor devils.

Even helpless babies have an interest in being able to distinguish and interpret the intonations of others. If you can tell when some adult is in a foul mood by his tone alone it helps in keeping out of their way and avoiding that whole infanticide thing. It is also an asset when asking to borrow the car for the weekend. Natural selection, survival of the fittest, evolution, whatever you may call it, serves to insure that the appreciation of sound occurs earlier and earlier in children's lives. In our lives.

Because of the paucity of nerves dedicated to hearing and the importance of linking it with language (vocalizations) several different locations in the brain have to pitch in to do the job right. We already know that vocal flexibility, dexterity and range are tremendously important to us. If they weren't then the tongue (and lips and whatnot) would be a lot less capable and Bobo Heimlich would still be an unknown server in a two-bit restaurant. Being able to detect deception in voice tremors of others is of great use in a species that is so unrelentingly social. It also benefits the entire group if your vocal inflections serve to reveal your true emotional state. (Although I'm not sure if I quite believe in the theory of mob evolution.)

Several obvious physical abilities have helped us to clear evolutionary hurdles and out compete other species to assume the throne atop the food chain. Brachiation gave us Swiss Army Knife shoulders. Living in trees gave us eyes tremendously sensitive to motion; we got the mammalian binocularity package and soon upgraded to the colour package and the Spice Channel. Walking upright allowed us to use these wondrous opposable thumbs to make tools and lumbar pillows. But what truly set us apart from all other species are our brains. In the days before The Bachelor and The Swan it was easy to follow visual cues as to a mate's fitness but how can we judge the brain of a hottie? Well I'm glad you asked and that you've stuck it out to this point. Don't worry; it doesn't get any better than this. (Later on I'll even use the word "ass.")

A great indicator mental fitness could be vocal/tonal perception (otherwise known as hankazariability and from this point on: musical ability.) Musical ability shows that many separate areas of the brain are working properly. It also indicates that those vital sections devoted to language/speech are humming along like a well-tuned car engine. Yes, that's right: "well-tuned." But what may be most important is that it shows that a person's brain is in balance, in harmony with itself. Yes, that's right: "in harmony." You're going to have to pick up on any more musical metaphors without any help from now on. Musical ability is now both an aid in the struggle to survive and a signifier of the genes that help in the struggle.

All of this leads one to think "So what?" There are so many other indicators of fitness that don't make us go weak at the knees. (Unless you're Anna Nicole Smith, of course. In that case age and wealth are your two huge signifiers. And you have two huge signals yourself.) Why should music have such an impact?

We are a curious species in so many ways. One of those ways is our tremendous curiosity. We like to figure out things, discover things and invent things. This has led to Clovis points, penicillin and digital watches. Nobody said that evolution was pretty. Our brains need to be occupied constantly or we get bored so easily. In an environment that rewards long-term relationships for the investments they can make in raising children it helps to have an interesting, creative partner. We all want someone who can hold our interest after the first blush of romance has faded and the dull routine of hunting, gathering and saving for college has set in. Music is certainly an indicator of the creativity, kindness, caring and sensitivity that you can expect in a mate. Because of this music becomes an end in and of itself due to evolutionary pressure.

Still not convinced? I don't blame you. Skepticism is also an evolutionary asset. But riddle me this: why does musical ability and output increase (and then wane) at fairly constant points in the human lifespan? Why do those points correspond to the sexual maturity and fertility of boys and girls? And why are there so many boy bands?

Once musical ability becomes desirable then music becomes a mating display. Every male adolescent knows this sad truism: If Chess Club doesn't have you drowning in babes then you're going to have to start a band. So music becomes a way to advertise your musical ability, a way to advertise your evolutionary fitness, a way to advertise hair products ("Brylcreem! A little dab'll do ya!...) As with most mating displays it benefits the male of the species to make the big presentation. Males can mate numerous times with a variety of females; they've got nothing to lose. Females can only have one mate at a time... maybe two. (Unless you're on Desperate Housewives, those women are sluts.) The underlying truth is that sperm is cheap and eggs are rare. Therefore it falls to the woman to be the gatekeeper and choose between a wide variety of keymasters. If she doesn't choose well she might be stuck as a single mom and if you think that sucks now it double-sucked on the plains of Africa.

Once a mating display competition starts there is no way to stop it. It's all in for everyone because if you don't play you can't win. Just look at peacocks (and nothing more.) Peahens take the size, fullness, symmetry, and whatnot of a peacock's tail as a sign of evolutionary fitness/health. This means that peacocks must grow bigger and bigger tails until they become nothing more than edible centerpieces for predators. Nobody gets to opt out of this arms race. There is no SALT II. If a peahen chooses a small-tailed peacock then their sons will all have small which will make it hard for them to get any tail. So to speak. Musical display, the talent behind it and (most importantly) the emotion attached to it can only increase in intensity. Incidentally (in incongruous aside) this is the first time I've ever written half a dozen "in-" words in a row.

That could be why we "dig those groovy tunes." Let me warn you that all of this has all been pure conjecture or opinion upon my part. Cosmides & Tooby might feel differently and want to kick my ass but you might not be aware of the fact that they will have to find me first.

I'd be cautious about tempting the wrath of Cosmides & Tooby (destined Tooby a Cosmide of errors? Sorry, still playing catch-up).

Great post. I printed the original SciAm piece and yours back-to-back in Word with the widest possible margins, 2-columns, in 8-point Times New Roman and brought the resulting three densely packed pages upstairs for my bedtime reading last night. It kept me awake, so I then had to turn to The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (thanks again for the rec), which also failed to render me unconscious. I ended up having to actively seek out sleep, since my reading wasn't helping. But I digress...

I like your theory, and have no direct rebuttal for it except this: how come every time you ever ask anybody what they look for in a mate, "musical ability" never cracks the top 10 (well, unless you're the heroine of Groundhog Day). The A-number-one avowed desired trait? "A good sense of humor."

(Perhaps "avowed" is the key term. Buncha liars. There's always a rift between what we say we want and what we really want, and perhaps that will be your answer to the "I want somebody to make me laugh" fly in the "musical ability as fitness evaluator" theory.)

"How come every time you ever ask anybody what they look for in a mate... the A-number-one avowed desired trait [is] "A good sense of humor.""

The answer is something we already know. Men are liars. Mr. Peter M. Todd says so and he uses speed-dating ...

to compare what people say they want in a mate with whom they actually choose.


"Evolutionary theories in psychology suggest that men and women should trade off different traits in each other, and when we look at the actual mate choices people make, this is what we find evidence for," Todd said... "women trading off their attractiveness for higher quality men and men looking for any attractive women who will accept them."This appears to explain Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Axl Rose, Ric Ocasek... a whole variety of lead singers. "Any attractive women who will accept them."

"Buncha liars," indeed.

Thank you. That’s very gratifying. That is, if staying awake is a compliment. Now you know can see much I rip off Will Cuppy. Every silver lining has its cloud, I suppose.

First of all, let me say that I agree with you. And I, too, would be skeptical of most avowals. People try to give answers that are expected and that make them look good.

Third of all, let me say that I absolutely agree with you. I don’t think that wanting a good sense of humour contradicts what I’ve theorized in any way. I didn’t mean to say that Musical Ability is the thing most highly prized in a mate, just that it has developed as a mating display and that explains why it affects us on such a profound emotional level. If anyone is interested I’ll try to peel the onion. (Or perhaps a grape, you sexy things.)

I seem to recall that Kindness and Intelligence were the one-two punch of desirability. Humour is almost surely a signifier for (and symptom of) Intelligence and perhaps an argument could be made that it signifies Kindness as well. Across three-dozen different cultures “nice” and “smart” top the hit list but I certainly think that humour is worth separate attention.

Musical Ability is a signifier of ability and fitness, not necessarily how that ability is used. If you have perfect pitch you can make atonal music. You can also make Mozart. If you are tone deaf then you can’t make music at all. So if music shows you to have a healthy, verbally talented, emotionally connected brain does that mean that you are nice, smart and funny?...

Well it definitely means that you could be. Humour in and of itself is (good lord, it must be) an indication of intelligence and verbal ability as well as a valuable social survival skill. If you’ve been dealt any of these cards aren’t you going to play them? One thing you can say about evolution: it makes you turn over every card. So displaying your musical ability and your sense of humour serves to affirm your fitness to have children. It means that your offspring are likely to inherit these valuable traits (and is otherwise known as the Reiner-Stiller Strategy.)

I like to delineate a Mate or Date distinction in breeding strategies. In mate mode (for humans) females and males are looking for a life partner and adhere to strict high standards. They are looking for someone who will contribute time, effort and love to raise a family together. Someone who will remain faithful and true, although what is meant by “faithful” is different depending upon which sex you ask. For men this means a partner who is sexually monogamous, they know that women use one egg at a time. Getting a 9-to-5, saving for braces and playing ball on the weekends is all a huge waste of time and resources if spent on another man’s children. Keep in mind that I am speaking genetically, not morally or intellectually. Stepparents, foster-parents and so on are marvelous people but cuckoo in an evolutionary sense.

For women it is slightly different, they want a partner who is emotionally monogamous, they know that men produce sperm by the something-full. Once they allow a man access to an egg it is vitally important that the man stick around to help raise the child and almost irrelevant as to how many other women the man impregnates. This explains the universal infidelity reactions of men/women: “Did you sleep with him?”/”Are you in love with her?” But more about that later.

Dating is different (oh boy, is it ever different.) It is a one-night stand without thought of a long-term relationship. This breeding strategy brings with it different standards for men and women. In this formulary men have no standards, the “All Men are Dogs” homily applies. If there is no future, and therefore no future cost, in the relationship then why not take a shot? (Err, so to speak.) Ideally you’ll have spread your genes around but at worst you will have had a nice night of hot monkey love. Women, however, change their standards. Since there’s no possibility of “happily-ever-after” they go after pure evolutionary (not the same as behavioral) fitness. This means men who are (among other things) drop-dead gorgeous, risk-taking/exciting, socially powerful, and highly musical and, yes, even funny. A father who will provide her a more impressive genetic offspring is the criterion and the likelihood of such a tryst goes up and down as her fertility waxes and wanes.

I believe that the dating strategy was expressed this way on Law & Order: SVU –
“If a gorgeous guy in a tuxedo pulls up to the curb in a BMW and offers to take a woman to his Park Avenue penthouse apartment for one night of passion with no strings attached and no one will find out. How many women would accept that offer?”
“Umm... maybe 10%, maybe less?”
“Now, if a plain-looking woman pulls up in a rusted-out clunker and says ‘Let’s go to my basement apartment which I share with my roommate for an afternoon of sex' and no one will ever know. Do you know any guy who would turn that down?”

It’s not that men have no standards, it’s just that when it comes to dating there’s no reason for standards to apply. Women do not have to show evolutionary fitness, they just have to show up. Women, on the other hand, have what are probably stricter standards. If you are going to be stuck alone with a kid it better have been worth it. Therefore it greatly benefits men to put on a large mating display in order to get a one-night-stand and they can spend a great deal of energy in this pursuit. This is especially true when the chance of creating a stable family is outweighed by the opportunities that promiscuity provides. This is known as a Plant-Page Gambit with Grand Funk Railroad Corollary. Music, for men, is a key to a variety of sexual partners. (We’re comin’ to your town, We’ll help you party it down…)

Back to the Mating Game. With the exception of differing notions of fidelity I believe that men and women have virtually the same criterion for a long-term partner. Kindness in a mate or a parent is self-evident in its worth and the love that it engenders. Intelligence is very useful in negotiating the world and (probably more importantly) the social landscape. But does intelligence have direct benefit in forming lasting social pair bonds? What about musical ability and humour? They have no prima facie value in a relationship in an evolutionary sense. I know we enjoy smart, musical, funny people but why do we enjoy them? Do they benefit us in any way?

No, they don’t.

See, that was funny. Of course they benefit us. Humans are very strange occupants of the penthouse apartment in the Food Chain Hotel. No fur, claws, horns, antlers, or nothin’... Just soft and pink. What makes me think we’re so special? Curiosity. We need to figure out things. We need to think about new things in new ways. We can’t help interpreting and analyzing the world around ourselves. We try to know everything about everything, especially ourselves. We get bored very easily in an intellectual sense but are incredibly tenacious once “our minds are made up.” We’re not just creative with our physical world, the world of the wheel, digital watches and pizza in 30 minutes or less. We’ve got so much brainpower that we are creative in our leisure time. Cave paintings, symphonies and standup routines are all results of this. We love it all.

So what’s the worst thing that can happen in a long-term relationship? Ennui. When the passion fades, when the kids are screaming in the backseat and when all is said and done your partner has to hold your attention. They have to be interesting, forever fresh and exciting... at least until the seven-year itch needs to be scratched. Remember, this is all several hundred thousand years before Netflix. That may be one reason why there is a seven-year itch to begin with. Someone who is intelligent, someone who makes/appreciates music, someone who makes you laugh... someone who shares your interests, all of that, will make you want to stay together until death does you part. Life is so much easier with a significant other who is a constant astonishment and revelation. It also makes monogamy easier and, because you have a genetically gifted companion, more profitable than playing the field. There is nothing sadder than: “You don’t bring me flowers, You don’t sing me love songs...” but enough is enough, no more tears.

Intelligence in general and musical ability in particular can be very attractive but why is humour a turn on? Or, to sum it up in two words: Rodney Dangerfield? Laughter is one of the few vocalizations that are involuntary and, when at a Carrot Top show, highly unlikely. It is a great leveler of social status and a reassurance that a relationship is based upon friendship, not power. The ability to laugh at, be laughed at and laugh together creates a strong social bond. It is a genuine bond that we all recognize as such because laughter is so difficult to simulate/fake. It is aggression without intent to harm. It is tickling. It is seeing someone else slip on a banana peel to his or her bloody death down a rocky crevasse... and then the coyotes come. It is the recognition of expectations broken (see previous sentence.) It is an attempt to find a resolution to realities that contradict each other (puns, knock-knock jokes, limericks, your frat buddies in a dress.) It may have started as a way to indicate (in an involuntary way) one’s true internal state when play fighting or role-playing but it is now a vocal exchange between equals. Is there a better way to raise children?

I’m not sure I’d want to hear it. Maybe if you hum a few bars...

I'm mostly with ya, although you lost me a bit on the idea of "dating" as a breeding strategy, as it seems to me both parties work pretty hard to *avoid* breeding (you do mean procreation, right?) during dating. Unless dating and mating are inextricably intertwined, but you seem to have a pretty strong delineation going. My confusion raises the possibility near certainty that I just don't understand dating and mating, but sometimes ignorance still results in bliss.

Sorry to be unclear. By "dating" I meant "having short-term sexual liasons without the prospect of long-term mutual support." It's a strategy that animals use in an environment where females are plentiful and men are rare. That can also be read as an environment where few men are rich enough to form a family and there are plenty of women who are fertile/unmarried. It is often formalized as polygamy: Rich king, one Queen, a thousand concubines and plenty of boyfriends pretending to be eunuchs.

Great apes (or chimps... or baboons... or possibly chimps, again) will often have the female members of the alpha-male's harem sneaking off to have sex with males of lower status (and presumably higher fitness). Some birds will set up nests together and, as soon as the guy's back is turned, the gal then tries to make a bouncing baby egg with a local lothario. This gigolo hasn't nested up with anyone on purpose. It is a strategy of his to try and lure as many little chickies as he can sucker their sparrow spouses into raising and caring for eggs that aren't their own. That's a dating strategy.

Dating can also be said to be in play in communities of impoverished women with few men. In other words: inner city ghettos. Having several children with several different fathers is a reasonable strategy to try and receive at least partial contributions from several men who may soon be unavailable (in jail) or dead (killed... or perhaps it's just the short lifespan that ghetto life gives you.) If you have a nice life in the suburbs then it makes the most sense to have a low number of children, all the better to invest plentiful resources wisely. In poorer communities where you have to hit the lottery to get out, it makes sense to have more kids. We can see this worldwide where birthrates fall whenever women are educated and moved out of poverty (it's gotten so bad in Western Europe that many countries' birth rates aren't high enough to sustain population levels. Immigration from Third World countries is the only thing keeping the populations of italy, France, Sweden, etc. from tailing off.)

Mating strategies involve china patterns, in-laws and a more equal investment in offspring by mother and father. But not for oboists

Gotcha. That's what happens when societal and technological change far outstrips evolutionary change (as it must). Our stone age genes are constantly pushing us towards anachronistic and counter-productive behavior ("could you please pass the sugar?").

Getting back to music, found this suggesting love of music is memetic rather than genetic. But I know next-to-jack about memes, so would have to do much reading before either playing or discarding.

Getting further back to music, I would think were it to evolve as you have described, it would be a fairly symmetrical tool for evaluating fitness (i.e. women and men would use it equally). But, at least as manifested today, music is far more a woman-wooing tool than a man-wooing tool, but both sexes appear to love it equally, from a non-wooing perspective.

Agreed. Every McDonalds is a testament to our genes and an altar to the Stone Age old dreams of hominids everywhere.

I had no idea that there was a science of memetics. My funniest cognitive science story involves my brother who decided to turn over each and every card in a Wason Selection Task because, as he earnestly told me, “I believe in being absolutely sure.” [Everyone can just go to here if they don’t think that’s insanely funny.] I’m having trouble imagining how the precepts of science can be applied to memes.

What little meme knowledge that I have comes primarily from the world of culture, intellect and ideas. It is in these arenas that ideas/concepts (what the hip set refers to as “memes”) compete for supremacy/survival. No matter how attractive memes can appear (“A glass of red wine and a piece of chocolate per day leads to a longer life!”) their success lies in their attractiveness, utility and ability to propagate. The concept of Agriculture has proven to be an almost unopposable meme over the last couple thousand years. In your mind’s eye you can just see all of these hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent saying to themselves, “It’s about time I settle down with a manageable food source, it would really come in handy during times of drought and just look at all of these neat Con Agra pamphlets that we can hand out!”

Adolescent memes, on the other hand, are by definition temporary. When trying to carve out an identity for yourself you have to embrace things that you think are “cool” and reject the values of older people. Anyone who thinks that this explains the existence of collectible Elvis plates, suitable for display, is just being heartless and accurate. I remain convinced that huge platform shoes are going to come back in again (again) before I take my pet rock to my Rubik’s Cube.

It certainly helps an idea/meme if it is internally self-consistent and reinforces itself. Catholicism is a great meme. It gives meaning and purpose to lives, regulates behavior within a community and replicates itself voraciously. Birth control, abortion and divorce are all forbidden in order to bring more Catholics into the world. One is also charged with converting or crusading people of other faiths while church authority is considered infallible. What an effective long-lasting meme. The Shaker meme wasn’t quite so successful a product launch. Withdrawal from an evil world, plain clothing and abstinence... joy. That’s just goes to show you what mutual respect and a belief in the value of all humanity can do. Just ask a handful of spinsters in their nineties spread across the northeast of the United States, they’ll tell you.

I can easily see how music can be affected by memes (Macarena, anyone?) but I can’t see how it is built by memes. Rhythmic log pounding sounds nice and all just make sure you lock the bathroom door. Please let me start that sentence over. Rhythmic log pounding sounds nice but WHY did it sound nicer than Lina Lamont? How’d that get started? I think of memetics as the “better mouse trap” field of academic research. This presupposes the existence of mice and a wish to capture them. It doesn’t explain why the filthy little rodents, Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse infest our world.

As for musical ability being a *symmetrical tool for evaluating fitness* and *women and men use[ing] it equally* I meant to convey that those things aren’t necessarily equivalent or even true. I’ll try to untangle the web I weaved. (Ooh! a “Marmion” reference, how self-congratulatory!)

Hopefully I didn’t conflate physical symmetry and the wonderful signifier that it is for physical/evolutionary fitness with the notion of symmetry which means balance and equivalence. Running the 100-yd dash is a “symmetrical” measure of fitness. It certainly is an equal test for both sexes. But it’s not a fair test. Tim Montgomery will always be faster than Florence Griffith Joyner. What would be a “fair” test? What are we measuring? Is speed more important for a boy or a girl? (The answer is: whichever one of them is closest to the bear.) And although we can all appreciate the wonders of speed why is it mostly males who feel the need... the need for speed?

Women and men use slightly different areas of the brain to process speech and I assume that pattern holds for musical communication. I can’t see any way by which standardized testing can be applied to evolution. This is especially true when it is divided along gender lines. How the two sexes conduct their admissions processes will always be slightly askew due to any number of reasons. Actually, it is due to every number of reasons, internal and environmental; Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, You Just Don’t Understand...

What I meant when I said “Once musical ability becomes desirable then music becomes a mating display... as with most mating displays it benefits the male of the species to make the big presentation” was that Music might be produced for different reasons by each of the sexes. The effect of Music upon either sex might also then be different. But that was a long time ago in a posting far, far away.

Mating Displays are signs that impact signaler and significant other in different ways. Consider the bowerbird and leave the poor peacock alone. Mr. Bowerbird has to spring for a room, furnish it and then put on a short musicale while Miss Bowerbird sits back on her fat perch and watches. And who is she to judge? She is the one with the egg, that's who. That’s why Mr. B. puts such effort into his little love nest. Blue furnishings from Bed Bath & Nest, newly polished wingtips, sexy yellow fig leaf of a... leaf and some Barry White all used in an attempt to impress a little flapper. (Yes, all species respond to Barry White.)

[Caveat pre-emptor: I make no claim to know what I’m talking about.] I would tread very carefully in trying to make the claim that “both sexes appear to love it equally, from a non-wooing perspective.” When it comes to a strict examination of evolution there is no non-wooing perspective. It’s all about leaving more and better offspring, all of it. Musical appreciation, like so many other things, seems to kick in earlier for girls than for boys.

It most certainly kicks in differently. At the age when young girls are going all Lolita mass hysteria over Miss Christina Aguilera most boys are still playing kickball at recess. When boys do begin to catch up who knows what’s running through their little Beavis & Buttheads? They seem to gravitate to angry, alienated music. This is the time that girls lose their taste for Madonna/whore singers and boy bands as they age gracefully into full-blown eating disorders.

Of course, our musical tastes might approach one another asymptotically as we age. But even if we both manage to arrive next to the stereo system in the living room it seems that one of us entered from the bedroom while the other came in from the garage. I must confess that I get confused by scientific “questions” that seem (to me) to do little more than ask, “Was it good for you, too?” (What I wouldn’t give for a pocket-sized fMRI during cuddle time.)

So I do think that you’re spot on about Music being used most lopsidedly as a “woman-wooing tool.” The Glimmer Twins are proof positive that you can increase your evolutionary fitness through music even if the rest of the cupboard is bare, incredibly ugly and has been using heroin for over four decades. But we all know that music as an evolutionary tactic reached its zenith with Johnny Hartman.

Yes indeedy, it all comes down to wooing when you're talkin' 'bout your evolution (unless music kept the saber tooths away, or could lure mammoths over the cliffs). Well, mostly. There's this, specifically:

``Cute,'' is how Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto responds to Pinker's assessment ["auditory cheesecake"]. ``Cute, but dead wrong.''

Trehub travels the globe, studying mothers as they sing to their children. No matter where she goes, people sing to their infants the same way, at a high pitch, in a slow tempo and in a distinctive tone. Every culture has lullabies. They are so similar that you could never mistake them for anything else.

``Even if you don't understand the language, even if you know nothing about the musical culture, they're recognizable,'' Trehub says.

That suggests to her that music is no human invention. If we all use music to communicate with infants, maybe it arose as an instinctual form of communication between mother and child, a way of forging an emotional connection.

Music would have been adaptive because mothers who were better musicians had an easier time calming their babies, Trehub suggests. A happy baby who fell asleep easily and rarely made a fuss was much more likely to survive to adulthood -- especially in primitive societies. Their cries would not attract predators, they and their mothers would get more rest, they would be less likely to be mistreated.

More here. Of course, it's easy for me to read this stuff and volley it over to you. Much harder to synthesize these theories on your own - well done!

Thanks for the links. Interesting research.

Reading over your post I couldn't help but feel there may be one factor of desirability you may be discounting. Power. Whether it be the power of wealth, the ability to emotionally tweak (humor, musicianship, writing, etc...), heavy testosterone, whatever... as surely as women swoon at the heals of rock stars, I believe Power is just as strong, if not stronger than Kindness and Intelligence. Stronger in the sense that it can appear in an evil and twisted way just as well as it can drive up in a new Mercedes.

Jeez, I sound cynical.

That's probably not a bad thing. Evolution is a ruthlessly, relentlessly cynical business. And business is good.

I hope that I haven't unduly minimized the attractiveness of power to women. I do presume that you are talking about powerful men/trophy women, I mean, I can think of many more John Derek-Bo Derek couples than John Derek-Linda Evans couples... err John Derek-Ursula Andress, damn! I can't believe that I have to go back to Pati Behrs! Well, I'm sure that you can think of your own powerful woman-himbo combo. We're all reasonably intelligent people here.

What I intended to focus on was how music came to mean so much to us and how musical ability might signal something fundamentally attractive, but not for oboists. When I said that, "for men it is size (both muscle and fat) and age that mean the most. Both characteristics indicate an ability and social position that will provide food and security. Provender and protection are of ultimate importance to a woman who is weighed down by a child and unable to forage with her usual gusto. So guys: keep that beer belly and get yourself a Stone Age Ferrari. (Oooh! That sexy Fred Flintstone.)" I think I meant the same thing that you're saying.

Did you know that the ratio of the length of your index finger to your ring finger [2D:4D] is indicative of the amount of testosterone a person has been exposed to while in the womb. Women have ratio close to 1.00 which means that their fingers are of equal length. Men usually have index fingers shorter than their ring fingers. The lower the ratio the more testosterone in the womb and the more chest hair manly you are. Low 2D:4D ratios are also associated with musical ability, we've checked with the symphony. (By-the-by, did you know that women occupy seats in close proximity to the orchestra in disproportionately large numbers? Who knew that being in band in high school would pay off in such a big way? But not for oboists.)

So I agree with you and certainly do think that power (political/social and physical) is both an actual benefit and an indicator of evolutionary fitness in men. If you'd like I'd love to throw down with you about it. Not in the sense of an argument, that is, but more along the lines of an intellectual mating display. It would give me a chance to put forth my theory as to why many pre-pubescent girls develop a horse infatuation. And when I say "my theory" I truly mean "something that I think I read somewhere at sometime but can't remember where or when."

It'd be a hoot! But not for oboists.