Skip to main content
Charles Darwin didn't think much of the importance of music in terms of his theory of evolution, but he believed that music made us more attractive to the opposite sex and therefore contributed to the replication of our genes. | Photo: Edward Cisneros (Unsplash)
Charles Darwin didn't think much of the importance of music in terms of his theory of evolution, but he believed that music made us more attractive to the opposite sex and therefore contributed to the replication of our genes. | Photo: Edward Cisneros (Unsplash)
mbx -

Music is Not Rocket Science #2: Is Music Sexy?

Just as we will never agree on the beginning of the universe or crack the mythical chicken and egg puzzle, we will probably never trace the beginning of music in the history of humankind. Archaeologists discovered a proto-flute dating back to 44,000 years before Christ, so we can say that music was an integral part of the lives of Stone Age people, but we're still left with the question why. In a time when people were fighting for their bare survival every day, was there any point in sitting on a rock and blowing into a flute? I mean, you could have attracted some beast that would have eaten you up.

Charles Darwin was also scratching his head over this, and in his theory of evolution, where only the strongest and most adaptable survive, he saw music as a fairly useless adaptive trait. However, musical skill made you more attractive in the eyes of the opposite sex, and therefore you could reach out to a potential mate by whistling on a flute and thus ensuring the reproduction of your DNA. So was music sexy already in prehistoric times? Hmm, but how is that possible?

Play and I'll tell you who you are

One possible answer is that playing an instrument or singing in tune demonstrates skills of coordination, concentration, good hearing and – believe it or not – stamina (some tribal or ancient musical rituals were marathons of many hours). These are a set of attractive traits that can translate into the genetic makeup of the eventual offspring of a talented musician. Sort of like a peacock showing off its beautiful, colourful tail, which is a completely useless thing in terms of survival or foraging, but will do a lot of good in a mating ritual.

Although this theory sounds attractive and quite logical, it is, after all, more of a wish that is the father to the thought, since we would have to prove that musicians have by analogy more offspring, which is not possible to do (for example, in the Middle Ages, music was mainly played by monks bound by a vow of celibacy. Also today's rock stars are not exactly shining examples of dedicated parenthood).

What's more, according to Darwin's theory, musical talent would be mostly a male domain (the initiation of sexual attraction comes from this side in most species, after all), which is also utter nonsense, because no scientific study has ever even suggested that there is any difference between the proportion of male and female talented musicians. So, music may be sexy, but it still doesn't explain why humans have always had the urge to whistle flutes, sing or later compose complex opuses of classical music, modern classical music or progressive rock.

Humans vs. animals

How do we compare to animals? As we all know, birds are very capable musicians. Who would question the artistic talents of a lark or perhaps a nightingale? Whales, bats and seals also have their own songs and hits that serve to entice them to mate as well as to communicate.

As far as primates are concerned, chimpanzees produce their typical pant hoot, which varies in colour and pitch depending on the animal. Therefore, each chimpanzee has its own "song", which it plays over and over again (unlike birds, which combine countless different phrases). Occasionally, they add a percussive element in the form of banging on the ground or slapping tree branches (however, they cannot play in a constant rhythm). This musical expression has no deeper meaning, and serves as a mere emotional expression of "here I am" or "I'm really happy".

And this brings us to another important and often discussed question. Does music have a meaning? What about music and language? Does it always have to express something, or is it just an emotion without any deeper sense?

Music as a means of communication

The link between music and language is a very popular and quite instinctive theory supported by very strong arguments. It's easier to remember a poem than a written text – and even easier to sing the words of the chorus of a favourite song (just try reciting "Hey Jude" by The Beatles without the melody), which quite logically suggests that our ancestors used melodies to help them remember information and communicate texts.

Another theory also highlights the acoustic power of singing, which is obviously louder and travels over a larger space than speech (even a loud one). So back in the days without microphones and massive PA systems, people who sang could be heard better. And now we are getting to the hugely significant role of music as a bonding agent in social relationships. After all, all worship services, tribal rituals, national anthems or war chants are meant to unite a group of people around a clear common goal. In short, music brings people together. Igor Stravinsky thought so, and so do most visitors to popular summer festivals.

To conclude our reflection on the roots of music and the first musicians, we must mention the very important role of music in parent-child communication. Who doesn't know lullabies, sweet melodies with soothing words that can calm even the biggest screamer in diapers? Newborns have a much better reaction to singing than to speech, and they can also distinguish a change of melody within a semitone from as early as the age of two months. So we have a musical instinct from the cradle, and it's also no wonder that many popular hits use not only words like "baby" but also rather infantile melodic progressions. Coincidence? I think not.

Tagy music is not rocket science interesting facts charles darwin music theory

If you have found an error or typo in the article, please let us know by e-mail

Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.