October 19, 2013

What's the gene for music appreciation?

This is a post on why there is a lack of good explanations for the things that make life worth living.

Why do we like the things we like? For some, such as food or sex, the answer is  obvious. Without them, we wouldn't survive or reproduce. In order to make sure we comply with its wishes, our body uses a primitive carrot and stick management approach consisting of rewards (e.g. sweet taste) and punishments (e.g. hunger). Why our body can't treat us like adults I don't know. Maybe it's so that we don't end up like people who have a mutation that prevents them from feeling pain and therefore are prone to self-inflicted injuries.

There are however plenty of things we like that can't easily be explained this way. For example: Music, truth, humour, stories and drama, beauty, and spirituality. For none of these it is obvious how liking them promotes survival or fitness.

Let's consider music. Nobody I've talked to about this has been able to satisfactorily answer the question of why we like it. The question is not just why we like it, but also why we don't like other noise that is very much like music. There are certain tones and combination of tones we find harmonious and like to listen to, whilst others we just find annoying. This preference is somewhat related to things like frequency. For example, tones that have a multiple of the frequency of others appear to be harmonious, and why that should be so is not clear.

There is of course a cultural element to music, but there also seem to be universals. People are divided on whether they like techno, but I assume nobody finds waltzes unpleasant. Another observation is that music is somehow connected to dance and language, but what exactly these connections are and whether they are essential is unclear as well.

One possibility is that music appreciation is a by-product of some other capacity that our ancestors evolved, such as language. This explanation is advanced by some people working in the field of neuroaesthetics. To me it seems unlikely that our brain is so inflexible that it couldn't evolve one capacity without also accidentally evolving another.

I have also come across the theory that music appreciation is nothing but pattern recognition. To me, this is not satisfactory either, as it does not explain why we find music more pleasant than other instances of pattern recognition. For example, contemplating visual patterns can be nice, but I don't know anyone who spend hours every day doing it for recreational purposes.

Evolutionary psychology could explain our like of music and similar phenomena through sexual selection. According to this theory, music is like a peacock's tail: Potential partners of the opposite sex like a nice tail (or good musical sense), which means that having that tail (or sense) increases our chances of reproduction. Over time, the tails (and musical sense) get more and more elaborate. Whilst this is a valid explanation, and I admit that it seems to apply to music, it's not satisfying either. Why? Because absolutely every trait could be explained this way.

If this were a well-considered blog post, this would be the point where I advance a hypothesis that may provide an answer, or at least a proposal how an answer could be found. Unfortunately, it isn't and I can't. All I can do is to lament the fact that there is a lack of good explanations and leave it at that.

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