Monday, March 21, 2011

How Music Soothes the Savage Beast

Why do humans enjoy bird songs? We do, after all, describe many bird songs as beautiful. Why would we find songs produced by another species, meant to announce their territorial boundaries and attract their mates, when those boundaries and mates mean nothing at all to us, attractive? One answer, perhaps, is that birds -- especially songbirds -- sing when it is safe to sing. If there are no predators around, it is safe for the bird to sing. But if a predator -- or any other large animal that could be a predator -- enters the bird's territory, they stop singing. It seems that a species that paid attention to bird song -- and especially its cessation -- would be able to use that as a signal to beware of the possibility of a predator. Those individuals that did pay attention to song and its cessation would be more likely to avoid predators than one that did not. And even the tiniest selective advantage spreads rapidly through the population. Further, the brain has mechanisms that result in its rewarding itself for beneficial activities. Thus, pleasure associated with bird song would result in the individual paying even more attention to bird song, making the individual even more aware of the song's cessation. Of course, now that we are no longer in many dangerous situations, where we have to worry about predators, we can mostly sit back and enjoy the songs we hear. Perhaps even transform that enjoyment into a poem for others to enjoy. And where does music come from? The unification of music and language. And where does language come from? My guess is: the bifurcation of territorial/mating calls into music and language. Another reason, then, that we love bird song: the remind us of us, of our distant, ancient past.


  1. I was just reading this article ( my university's magazine a couple of days ago, and now I stumble onto this blog post (and this blog in general). Interesting coincidence. These articles suggest multiple plausible reasons we might have developed a "music instinct." I have yet to read Levitsin's book on the subject, but it seems like a fascinating subject for further study.

  2. Thanks for sharing the link. I hope you keep reading and commenting.