According to science, it could be.
Yesterday, I saw a post about someone’s young daughter who said, “When I hear music, it speaks to my heart.”
Besides being about the cutest thing I’ve ever heard, isn’t that the truth? Doesn’t music move us in ways that almost nothing else can? It can bring us joy, it can energize us, it can make us wistful or thoughtful. It can even have a strange bittersweet effect, where we feel both happy and sad at the same time.
Music seems to be a universal language for humans — in the sense that people tend to be able to identify basic emotions from any kind of music. What may come as no surprise to you is that, across cultures and time, people have used similar melodies to express basic emotions like happiness and sadness.
This consistency in how we express emotions in music speaks to something innate within us all — perhaps to some quality or trait that we’re born with. But, from an evolutionary perspective, what is the survival advantage of being drawn to music? Why did our ancient ancestors who could “hear” music have a better chance of passing on their genes than their non-musical counterparts?
This is a question I’ve pondered for quite some time. Now, science has produced an answer, but it’s not what I expected.
Our love of music could just be an accident.
The baby birds that preferred a fake mom
In the 1950s, while researching Herring Gulls, Nikolaas Tinbergen noticed that Herring Gull chicks will naturally peck at a red spot on their parent’s bill to beg for food. He speculated that it was the contrast between the colors — the red spot on the yellow bill — that drove the behavior. To test this hypothesis, he offered the chicks other options with more dramatic color contrast. What he found was bizarre. The chicks would more frequently peck at a red knitting needle with bands of white than an accurate model of an adult Herring Gull’s head. The chicks preferred the knitting needle to mom!
After that, Tinbergen uncovered more strange behaviors in birds and other animals. For example, some birds prefer plaster versions of their eggs that have exaggerated markings or are larger than their own. They even found that small songbirds preferred artificial versions of their eggs so large they slid right off them.
The question is, what’s going on here? Why are these animals drawn to extreme versions of what occurs naturally?
In 1979, this strange phenomenon was given a name: supernormal stimulus or, more simply, superstimulus. A superstimulus describes an exaggerated version of a stimulus found in nature, which causes a more extreme response from the animal in question.
And the animal in question, of course, could be human.
Pass the chips!
Have you ever wondered why “junk food” is so hard to avoid eating? Or why it tastes so damn good?
Humans evolved to seek out foods high in sugar, fat, and salt content. Back in the day, these foods would have been rare and valuable, so it makes sense for us to have a strong inclination to eat them whenever we have the chance.
In today’s world, however, foods high in sugar, fat, and salt are ubiquitous. Thus, according to Deirdre Barrett in her book Waistland, junk food is a kind of superstimulus — it doesn’t just push all the right buttons in our brains, it seems to hammer on them. This is why junk food is so irresistible.
But, junk food isn’t the only superstimulus we’re exposed to in our everyday lives. Some people have even proposed that music is a superstimulus.
Is music a superstimulus?
To understand how music could be a superstimulus, we first need to understand music’s connection to language.
Humans have the unique ability to create and understand language. As any linguist will tell you, language has two components: (1) a set of meaningful symbols (words); and (2) rules for combining those symbols into larger, meaningful units (sentences).
But, human language is also defined by what speech experts call prosody, which describes how our speech varies by pitch, rhythm, and tempo. Prosody is a means by which we communicate our emotions and how we do it seems to be consistent across languages and cultures. So, if you hear people having a conversation in another language, you can fairly accurately guess at the emotions being conveyed.
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s obvious why it would be advantageous for people to be able to pick up on emotional cues communicated through prosody. After all, emotions are just another way of communicating meaning, so, if you can interpret prosody well, you can better understand what people are trying to communicate. And, since prosody seems consistent across cultures and languages, this suggests our brains are pre-wired to process sounds in this way.
But, just as pitch, rhythm, and tempo define prosody in speech, they also define melody in music. And just as prosody seems to elicit similar emotional responses across cultures and languages, melody does the same. This is why music seems to universally communicate emotions.
Prosody and melody, then, are not different in kind but in degree. They both activate similar parts of the brain, but melody is like prosody on steroids and sends the brain into overdrive.
In this sense, music is a superstimulus — an extreme form of prosody that our minds can’t help but pay attention to and love. And if that’s the case, our love of music is just an accident — an unexpected side-effect of evolution’s drive to help us understand each other.
And if that’s not one of the happiest accidents in the history of the universe, I’m not sure what would be.
Thanks for reading!