Monday, May 11, 2015

Why do humans make music? Some theories.

There’s a new theory for why humans make music, at least from the point of view of evolution. In this article, physics and cognition researcher Leonid Perlovsky discusses how he thinks that music helps humans smooth out cognitive dissonance. Two studies are given as examples: in one, children are asked to not play with their second favorite toy and researchers found that the children devalued the toy; however, when the same experiment was performed with music playing, “the toy retained its original value” (having not read the study, I’m not sure how they determined this). The second study asked 15-year-olds to take a multiple choice test and then rate the questions by difficulty; the researchers found that the students took longer on the harder questions (and therefore answered more correctly) when Mozart was playing than with no music.

Now, I think that coming to such a broad conclusion from these two small studies is premature. Neither of these studies has even generalized its own findings. Does the “retaining value” work with other things besides toys? What about other ages? Do student still do better on the hard questions if rock music is being played instead of Mozart? I don’t think humans developed Mozart’s music to do better on hard tests. What if the teenagers were just distracted enough by the music that it was less painful to work on questions, instead of helping them work out hard problems, and music is just a good universal distraction instead of “unifying the world into a whole” as Perlovsky hyperbolizes?

No, this article really should have headlined neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who is only mentioned briefly at the end. Levitin did a “meta-analyses of more than 400 neurochemical studies and found that listening to music had a more measurable effect on people's anxiety and cortisol levels than did anti-anxiety drugs…and had a profound effect on social cohesion.” Those sound like some generalizable results. The calming influence and becoming part of a group seem like important reasons why human would develop
music. I’m certainly open to more good reasons, but I don’t think Perlovsky really makes his grand case here with only two small studies. 

If you want to read more about music and the brain, take a look at Levintin’s book This is Your Brain on Music (2006).

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