Is Music for Wooing, Mothering, Bonding—or Is It Just "Auditory Cheesecake"?

Older than civilization, music fosters communication, wellness, and bonding across all cultures—but where it comes from is disputed.

by Carl Zimmer

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When Charles Darwin listened to music, he asked himself, what is it for? Philosophers had pondered the mathematical beauty of music for thousands of years, but Darwin wondered about its connection to biology. Humans make music just as beavers build dams and peacocks show off their tail feathers, he reasoned, so music must have evolved. What drove its evolution was hard for him to divine, however. “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed,” Darwin wrote in 1871.

Today a number of scientists are trying to solve that mystery by looking at music right where we experience it: in the brain. They are scanning the activity that music triggers in our neurons and observing how music alters our biochemistry. But far from settling on a single answer, the researchers are in a pitched debate over music. Some argue that it evolved in our ancestors because it allowed them to have more children. Others see it as merely a fortunate accident of a complex brain.

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