The Evolutionary Roots Of Our Attraction To Music


Music permeates almost every human culture on earth. The oldest discovered musical instruments date back over 40,000 years to the Stone Age. But scientists believe music itself could be much older than that, originating alongside language in early hominid communication. Why did music become so ubiquitously woven into the human experience over the millennia? Evolutionary psychologists argue it conferred significant survival advantages to our ancestors.

In prehistoric times, music facilitated tighter social bonding between tribal members. Singing and drumming together released neurochemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins, inducing positive emotions that strengthened social cohesion. This allowed groups to cooperate better in hunting, foraging, childrearing and protection against outside threats. Musical rituals also demarcated tribal identity and territory.

Early music likely aided communication too. Rhythmic drumbeats and vocal calls coordinated the actions and movements of groups during hunts or battle. Singing while working made labor less tedious. Mothers may have sung primitive lullabies to preverbal infants as an early form of emotional communication.

Music also enhanced defenses. Tribesmen beating drums and making noise during the night signaled that they were alert and ready to counter surprise enemy raids. Young night watchmen sang to indicate they were awake and vigilant. Sentries guarding territory boundaries used instruments to amplify warning calls across longer distances.

In all these ways, music enhanced survival odds over human evolution. Groups that could make music together – whether a simple drumbeat or a beautiful melody – were more cohesive, communicative, cooperative and defensive. Natural selection then embedded the capacity for music into our biology.

Supporting this, scientists have discovered specific regions of the brain devoted to musical processing. Infants have an innate ability to detect musical patterns and differentiate tonal pitches. Even patients with severe dementia respond emotionally and physically to their favorite childhood songs when nothing else provokes a reaction.

Of course music also brings humans tremendous joy. The neurochemical changes it induces brighten moods and forge social connections. Our brains seem wired at birth to link music with positive emotions and togetherness. In this way too, nature predisposed us to musical engagement so critical to early human flourishing.

So next time you find yourself humming along to a catchy tune, remember you are tapping into an evolutionary heritage spanning millennia! Music is part of what makes us uniquely human. Our Stone Age ancestors sang and drummed because it enhanced survival. We engage with music now simply because we are born to do so.



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