I heard it through the grapevine

Why did music evolve?

Illustration about the evolution of music

Did music unite early humans... or was it a love thing?


Illustration © Glen McBeth

There are two ways to explain the evolution of music. The first, the adaptationist view, is that music must serve some purpose that has led to its selection. An alternative argument is that it has no direct purpose itself but is a by-product of some other human capacity (see below).

If we assume music has some survival value, what might it be? Charles Darwin suggested sexual selection might be at work. Good singers or musicians might be signalling their fitness to potential mates.

In 1925 the anthropologist Malinowski described a noted singer on the island of Kiriwina: “Mokadayu, of Okopukopu, was a famous singer. Like all of his profession he was no less renowned for his success with the ladies. ‘For,’ say the natives, ‘the throat is a long passage like the wila (vagina), and the two attract each other.’ ‘A man who has a beautiful voice will like women very much and they will like him.’”

There is some evidence to support this idea (such as the renowned success of pop stars at attracting mates). More recently, symmetry – generally thought to be a sign of ‘good genes’ – was found to be associated with an attractive voice. On the other hand, music is typically a group activity, and associated with rituals rather than courtship.

The alternative view is that music acts as a bonding agent and emerged as part of the development of social groups. Among primates, humans are intensely social; much of our success has relied on our ability to coordinate our actions and communicate our state of mind to others. A coherent collaborating group would have been able to hunt better, see off enemies and protect vulnerable infants.

Eat to the beat

Stephen Jay Gould popularised the idea that not all features of an organism are necessarily adaptive (as classical Darwinian thinking would maintain), but rather that some are by-products of adaptation. He used the analogy of ‘spandrels’ – the spaces between the arches in cathedrals, which served no structural function but were often filled with paintings by artists. They may have looked stunning but they were only there because a cathedral needs arches to stop it falling down.

The writer Steven Pinker describes music as “auditory cheesecake”. We never evolved to find cheesecake tasty – it taps into by-product of our innate fondness for energy-rich foods.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Genetics and genomics, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development