Why is music so addictive? We have our ancestors to blame…

Science and Technology

Addictive musicTrying to get a foot in the door of the music industry is a notoriously bad career move. It is a path that resigns the majority to a few years of overdrafts and unsympathetic landlords. The disillusioned will then finally accept the prescience of their parents’ post-college counsel and get a proper job. The stubbornly passionate will become music teachers and propagate the next generation of dreamers. So why, when this series of unfortunate events is one of the worst kept secrets in the music business, is the urge to make it big in music so desperate in so many? Admit it, we’ve all had musical ambitions that surpass impressing the rubber duck in the bath. Even for those who profess no desire to take the stage (or the recording studio) listening to music can be an obsession: Psy’s Gangnam Style has surely transcended terms like “craze” or “fad” to become a musical addiction of global proportions.

And addiction would appear to be exactly the right word to use. When we hear a song that we like, our bodies react by producing the neurotransmitter dopamine which engenders feelings of enjoyment. This chemical is also released when we drink a glass of water because we’re thirsty, or after we’ve had sex. In these situations, the body is rewarding actions that increase its chances of survival and reproduction so that our conscious selves will be more likely to repeat the action. So we are addicted to music, at least in the same sense that we are addicted to food, water and sex. But how then does listening to music increase the chances of our genes being passed on to the next generation?

If we were to examine modern society the answer would be that it doesn’t (unless you count the possibility that rock stars of the more promiscuous variety have had ample opportunity to “do a Genghis Khan”). The enjoyment we derive from music is now fixed not just in our genome but in our culture and natural selection have little influence. Instead, the earliest forms of music-making hold the key. An easy answer, as it were, is that musicality is a side-effect of being large brained and part of a learning culture. However this does not explain why it is chemically reinforced with dopamine.

Another theory refers to its roots in tribal settings, where music was often performed in groups and would help strengthen social bonds. Quality of life and technology would benefit from the harmony and groups devoting more time to musical activities might conceivably be in better condition or “fitter” than those groups that don’t. Problems arise, however, with this theory being evolutionary viable. For example, competition between hostile groups would more often than not have been a somewhat violent affair. Surely the early-hominids who spent less time banging sticks together and more time banging heads would win these skirmishes and so the Sinatras of the Stone Age would swiftly die out.

A more convincing argument defines music as an analogue of bird and whale song i.e. a method of communication; a signal. To be favoured by natural selection, a signal must manipulate the behaviour of its receiver in such a way that the benefit to the sender is greater than the cost of producing the signal in the first place. Some of the most elaborate signals in nature have evolved to display the quality of the individual and attract a mate. For example, the fantastical plumage and mating displays of male birds of paradise are only worthwhile if the female is persuaded to mate, the display does not attract predators or competing males, and the male does not just expire from exhaustion before he gets a chance to mate. So what message might early music have conveyed that was so beneficial to the “artist” to justify the time and energy spent perfecting their performance?

As brains became larger and more complex in primates and early-humans, thus it became more important to the survival and fitness of an individual. Growth and maintenance of the brain involves about half of all the genes in our genome, two-third of which are probably expressed no where else. Consequently, somehow conveying the quality of the brain to potential mates would be very informative and very rewarding to our large-noggined ancestors.

As a signal with the potential for immense complexity, music with both rhythm and melody requires fine motor control and a capacity for automating complex learned behaviours. A competent display not only betrays a well developed brain, but also indicates high quality in other traits too: a suitor with time enough to perfect his performance and feed himself is fit enough to provide for a family. Furthermore, as a signal of quality, music is hard to fake. This is fundamental if the signal is to stay the course of evolutionary time; on the whole, prospective mates will only attend to a signal that they can be sure is honest in its message.

And so follows sexual selection: competition between males for mates leads to more complex musical signals, whilst females evolve a preference for them. Perhaps then the dopamine response originally evolved to encourage mating and help them identify good quality signals over just average ones.

Over our evolutionary history music has become ingrained in culture rather than genetics. Grade 8 on the clarinet probably gives little indication of brain size and is, unfortunately, not much of a chat-up line. Yet French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that “the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods” and he is not wrong: the greatest musical icons are often the most admired and adored in society. How do we explain this? Well my cynical streak suspects that things have come full circle and now sex sells music, rather than the other way around…

PHOTO/david drexler