The Neuroscience of Music Is More Complex Than I Thought

I began my research with a relatively simple question in mind; what is the evolutionary and biological purpose of music? Before delving into the material, I had the idea that there was maybe a couple of solid theories or a majority opinion. Science is generally a straightforward subject, so why should this be any different?

Within my first two hours of research I realized that I was incredibly naïve.

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Clark, C. N., Downey, L. E., & Warren, J. D., Brain disorders and the biological role of music (2015)

This is a chart of just a few different theories of the proposed biological roles of music. I realized very quickly that there are no clear cut conclusions. Only 5% of human history can be uncovered solely due to preserved writings. Unfortunately for us, pulses of air leave no trace; we are left in the dark in regards to the process of language and music development. The robust culture built around modern music somewhat clouds its original biological purpose, and neuroscientists must look past it to truly get to the root of the question.

As anyone who has listened to Sam Smith or any other depressing artists would know, there is a definite connection between music and biology- particularly the brain reward system. The emotions you feel while listening to songs are very real and may even be physically manifested in goosebumps. As I delved deeper into my research this week, I discovered that the issue was more complex than which evolutionary reason is most accurate. There is the overarching question of whether or not the brain was evolutionarily adapted for music at all. One argument is that there existed a proto-music (a primitive form of music) that evolved from call sounds. It is believed that proto-music was used by our ancestors to convey emotional mental states without expending as much energy, enhancing communication. Because of the importance of communication in the survival of a social species, natural selection may have selected for those with increased “musical” abilities. The advancement of technology has allowed researchers to discover potential music-specific neural networks, providing evidence for a musically adapted brain. Evidence of music as an evolutionary benefit is also exhibited in those that suffer from musical anhedonia. People who have musical anhedonia  have completely intact brain reward systems for everything except music. They cannot experience the pleasurable physiological response that only music can induce. Because all other brain reward systems such as those activated by sex, food and monetary reward are functional, it is argued that there must be another separate system in place for music.

On the other hand, there is the argument that our brains have not evolutionarily adapted music. Music is seen as a spinoff of language, and as what psychologist Steven Pinker describes as “auditory cheesecake”. He explains that “we enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water.” (How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, p524) This perspective implies that music is a technology that persists solely due to the fact that it activates multiple pleasure complexes in our brain. It argues that music adapted to the cognitive system, rather than the cognitive system adapting to music.

There is substantial evidence supporting both sides of the argument, but I must choose one in order to write a coherent literature review. As of now I am leaning towards the belief that the human brain is adapted specifically for music. Maybe I am somewhat of an optimist, but I believe that something so integral to our daily lives and our cultural history must have more concrete significance than the fact that it makes us feel nice. As I continue with my research I believe that I will be better able to fine tune my opinion whilst keeping my mind open to others.


  1. jmmalks says:

    Woah! This is super interesting. I specifically love your concise yet thorough descriptions of the two major arguments concerning music and the brain. Are you using some other sources besides Pinker’s book? I’d be very interested in hearing about some of the research techniques that you’re using to tackle a subject that seems to be both concrete and abstract at the same time. Like you say, both arguments seem to have their pros and cons for various reasons, but I think that you hit on one of the most important ones toward the end of your post. Essentially, one of the arguments is that music is but a combinations of sounds that gives us pleasure, while the other views music as something our brains can recognize as a higher art. I’ll be interested in reading some of your other posts! Happy researching!