Evolution of music

Do we need music?

Hello dear reader. Today I have a few thoughts on a very large question – do we need music?


I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water” – Ray Charles

I am with Ray Charles; music is necessary in my life. I don’t need to hear it all hours of the day but when I need it, I really need it. I sound like an addict and maybe I am. But I am not alone.

We know that music can stimulate us both physically and psychologically; it can match and manipulate our moods and emotions. Studies tell us that this ability to change our state is one  of the main reasons why people choose to listen to music. But is this really the whole story? Why do so many of us feel that we need music?

Did we ever need music?

A good place to start with this question is to consider why we as humans started making music in the first place. The vast majority of us are born able to perceive and play music and some may be lucky enough to possess talent. But to become a professional takes hundreds if not thousands of hours of hard graft. Music is not essential to our survival, unlike food or sex, so why have we chosen to devote our valuable energy and resources to its production and possession?

Here are some theories regarding the evolution of musical sound from early humans. No one theory is completely right or wrong. They all probably have a role to play in why we became a musical animal:

1)     Music as sexual display (a.k.a the ‘Mick Jagger’ hypothesis) – from the writings of Charles Darwin who thought that human music, as in birds and other animals, is an effective display of intelligence and/or strength that can be used to attract a mate.

soothebaby2)     Music to soothe infants – we still communicate in a musical way with our babies, cooing at them in lullaby speech and singing them to sleep. The type of language we use has been dubbed ‘motherese’ and it has been documented in every human culture examined to date. Music probably once helped forge parent-child bonds and allowed us to teach our helpless young in the time before they could speak.

3)     Music for the group – music was probably a useful tool for social communication between adults and helped strengthen group identities. Not a great deal has changed there; consider the role of music in religious or sporting events. Or the psychology of fan culture.

How much of this matters today?

It appears therefore that our modern music has survived thanks to an evolutionary side track. Music is not directly important for our survival but instead is more like a technological advancement that served so many useful purposes and had so many positive impacts that we kept it close to us.

As time went on we then got more creative with musical sound and adopted it into our leisure activities because we enjoyed it so much. Music meets different demands now compared to those faced by early humans but if you think about it many of our needs and desires remain similar.

Fundamentally, we still make music because we have not come up with a better way to communicate word-free intentions, emotions, and identity; whether that message is intended for our young, our friends (and enemies), our lovers, or our own hearts and minds.

On top of all this we now know that making music can have numerous benefits for the development of our brains and bodies, including crucial skills like language and memory as well as social and emotional development. Talk about a bonus!

 Our flexible friend

After tens of thousands of years music is still able to quickly adapt to meet the ever changing demands of our social and personal worlds. If all music was banned tomorrow would the human race suffer?

(image from HARDWAX on Flickr)
(image HARDWAX on Flickr)


Yes, I really believe that it would. Not because we wouldn’t survive but because we have built our modern lives around music and as such it has become an intricate part of us. In the rich tapestry of human life our music is a crucial thread; pulling it out would damage the world we recognise beyond repair.


  • Mark Riggle

    The effect of banning music has a current experiment going on: the Taliban ban music, so there should be some young persons (very unfortunate persons) that may not have an exposure to music.

  • Juan Sebastian Quebrada

    I risk a fouth theory: why we need (passive) music:
    – our surrounding is full of complexe structured sounds (voice, noise of nature, of industrial life, household) and therefore hardly to put in order for the brain
    – our hearing (the “sound-receptors”, the hair cells in the cochlea, are not made to pre-structurate the message, only to transmit to the brain
    – so the brain receives the full range of sounds – height, rythm, combinations – and must learn to differenciate sounds if he wants become more accurate in hearing
    – the music, without any exception, ever offers a simplified sound system (in comparison to the real world) and therefore acts as structurator of sounds for the brain
    – thus acts also as a rest for the hearing system, since while we are exposed to music, we concentrate on these simplified sound.
    Of course, as musician, I risk an recomendation: go the way for more and more complex music, possibly studying actively music, since this makes you more and more conscious of your surrounding.
    Nevertheless, I would like to know if there is smthg in my hypothesis…

  • Omoniyi Kareem

    my live without music will have know meaning to live for, whenever i am in bad mood it is my friend she listen to me when i speak her, with music I found new directions.

  • Elisia Underwood

    Wow! Your research has helped me alot with what I have to research about. Its insporing and strong.