The evolution of the species is essentially based in survival. Can music contribute to survival? And if not, how has it become such a meaningful part of our daily lives?
By Amanda Valbøll Jensen (Translated by John O’Sullivan)
Welcome to yet another article about the origins of music and it’s importance.
Further reading: The Origin of Music: We Play Music Because We Are Social Beings
This time I will explain about sexual selection, and the role that music plays from an evolutionary perspective.
Music Is Sexy
Rumour has it that people become more attractive if they know how to play an instrument. But how can this be?
Being able to create music shows that you have the facilities to be creative, and that is an attribute that many people find attractive. Musical skills indicates both the patience and tenacity to stick with something until you become proficient. At the same time it display a certain level of manual dexterity.
We know that sex sells, and this is often exploited in music videos where scantily clad women dance around to the music. Sex is one of our most basic human needs, and it is an instinct which often drives our actions.
We Are Looking For A Mate
It is with humans as it is with most animals; we are looking for a mate. We are looking for someone with whom we can share our daily burdens and carry on our lineage.
The desire to have offspring is deeply ingrained in the genetics of animals, and all sorts of means are utilized in order to find the ideal mate. We are looking for some very specific traits in the opposite sex, and this can be traced back to biology. We may have preferences in regards to our potential mate having blonde hair, blue eyes and a slender physique.
Perhaps we find large muscles more attractive. This differs from person to person. But if we look back on prehistoric humans and their preferences for a mate, we see certain similarities with the animal kingdom.
How Do We – Biologically – Choose Our Partner?
Let us take a look at the peacock. We know it as the peculiar bird with the most beautiful tail feathers. But did you know that these feathers serve a practical purpose, and are not purely cosmetic?
Having the largest and most vivid tail is the male peacock’s way of signifying his superior genes, which he will be able to pass on to his progeny. Additionally, the large, eye-like markings on the tail feathers have the function of being able to scare off not only rival peacocks, but also some predators. Quite clever, isn’t it? For these reasons, the female of the species will seek out the male with the grandest and most vibrant plumage of all. In this way, the males with the least impressive tails (and therefore the weakest genes) are removed from the gene pool, and subsequently die with the evolution of the species – In short, survival of the fittest.
Ancient Man Had Clear Preferences
Humans do not look at hair growth and colour in the same way. But ancient man had some very clear preferences. For example, some research shows that having a deep voice makes a man more attractive to the opposite sex, as it shows off his large body and it’s ability to produce greater resonance. When it comes to survival, a large and muscular body is a clear advantage, as it allows the man to take on potential dangers, whether they be predators lying in wait or other suitors.
Naturally, this is not something we actively look for today. But if you find yourself being attracted to the sound of a deep man’s voice, then that’s not as strange as you may think – It’s simply prehistoric human instinct!
How Does Music Come Into The Picture?
Being creative does not contribute to our survival, per se. Being able to sing or play the guitar does not necessarily make you better at putting food on the table, producing offspring or scaring off predators. It does, however, show that you are very intelligent and adept at learning. This is a type of biological adaptation, which shows something beyond the ability to scare off others – it shows intelligence.
We can trace music, and song in particular, to animals, as they would also use these to select a mate. Many species of bird are known to use their song to attracts the ideal mate, and whales are also known to use song to communicate.
It doesn’t work in quite the same way for humans. We do, however, tend to idolize musicians, particularly in the western world. In the same way that personality can help make a person more attractive once you get to know them, musical ability can have the same effect.
Let us look at an artist like Nick Cave. He is not what one might call a “classically handsome” man, as he has quite a spindly body and a somewhat weathered look about him. This has not stopped him from winning legions of fans across the globe, in large part thanks to his deep voice and his almost beastly expression, and it is not unlikely that quite a few of these fans would pick Mr. Cave as their ideal mate.
Music Contributes To The Imagination
We have established that musicality can contribute to a fascination, which in turn can make a person seem more attractive, but this is of course influenced by the values that we carry as individuals. We all have natural preferences in regards to the lives we live, and the traits we want to pass on to our future children. Where some might want to pass on musicality, other’s may prefer a more athletic mate, or perhaps one who is well read and intellectual – or perhaps a mixture of all three!
In other words, it is not necessary to drop the musical instruments in favour of heavy weights in order to ensure that you will find mate. Although humans possess instincts which subconsciously drive us to act based on survival, these are not instincts that we are required to act upon anymore. Many people do in fact have other preferences entirely when choosing who to pursue romantically.
In conclusion – play and sing to your heart’s content.
Dunbar, Robin. 2012. ‘On the Evolutionary Function of Song and Dance.’ In Music, Language, and Human Evolution, edited Nicholas Bannan, 201-214. Oxford University Press.
Jensen, Amanda Valbøll. 2016. ”Stemmen – et ærligt og alsidigt instrument”. Musikvidenskab, faget Musik, lyd og betydning. Aarhus Universitet.