Song as Signal.

Carl Zimmer’s NY Times story “Why Do People Make Music?” (archived) begins:

Music baffled Charles Darwin. Mankind’s ability to produce and enjoy melodies, he wrote in 1874, “must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.” […] Other Victorian scientists were skeptical. William James brushed off Darwin’s idea, arguing that music is simply a byproduct of how our minds work — a “mere incidental peculiarity of the nervous system.”

That debate continues to this day. Some researchers are developing new evolutionary explanations for music. Others maintain that music is a cultural invention, like writing, that did not need natural selection to come into existence.

In recent years, scientists have investigated these ideas with big data.

You can go to the link for the details of the research; I’ll excerpt this bit here:

It’s possible that songs have distinct features because they have a special role in human communication separate from speech, said Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at Tufts University who was not involved in the study. What’s more, our brains appear to be sensitive to those features. In 2022, Dr. Patel pointed out, researchers discovered human neurons that only responded to singing — not speech or music played on instruments.

“There is something distinctive about song all around the world as an acoustic signal that perhaps our brains have become attuned to over evolutionary time,” Dr. Patel said.

On the one hand, this is intriguing stuff; on the other, the general tone reminds me of the sort of Times article I was mocking back in 2003. So I thought I’d toss it out there for Hattic de(con)struction. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. It is widely accepted that, from an evolutionary perspective, all music descends from two kinds of songs:

    #1: Woman, I love you, please allow me to impregnate you

    #2: God, I love you, please allow me to vanquish all my enemies and impregnate many women

    Getting from there to, for example, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is left as an exercise for the reader.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    That’s anachronistic. They were demands and expectations, not requests for permission. Still are, behind the veils of currently fashionable rectitude. Nobody sings for their supper if they can avoid it.

    I’ve always liked Verklärte Nacht, but it never moved me to impregnate or vanquish anyone. I should have read the instructions more attentively.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    The archived version is almost entirely obscured by a large black boomerang thing.

    However, I gained deep spiritual benefit from contemplating the boomerang.

    This sort of thing always strikes me as an entirely artificial problem: come up with a just-so story to “explain”, in purely biological terms, feature X of human behaviour.

    I’m not a fan of such oulipian exercises. I prefer crossword puzzles.

    It is interesting, I suppose, that every human group ever identified sings.

    Not always in the familiar way, though: according to Evans’ grammar of Kayardild (weirdest language EVAH), traditional singing was “delivered pianissimo, lying on one elbow … in a constricted vocal manner.” Each singer had their own signature melody, to which new words were fitted as occasion demanded. “Grammatically complex constructions were prized in these songs.”

    Kayardild dance had no melody, but consisted of rhythmic stomping accompanied only by the word ht.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    It is interesting, I suppose, that every human group ever identified sings.

    And, if any group did not sing, it would not be identified as human.

  5. The archived version is almost entirely obscured by a large black boomerang thing.

    Oops, so it is — that’ll teach me not to check my links! I’ve replaced it with an Internet Archive link which seems to actually show the article.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    “In 2022, Dr. Patel pointed out, researchers discovered human neurons that only responded to singing — not speech or music played on instruments.”

    Electrical phrenology is always popular with journalists:

    Measurements of activity in location L in the brain has in some cases been shown to correlate with reported subjective experience X and not subjective experience Y; therefore, location L in the brain evolved to provide subjective experience X …

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Animals seem to be bored much of the time, at least when they don’t have to find something to eat. Idleness makes Nature fidget. So subjective experience could have evolved simply to provide location L with something to do apart from generating electrical signals.

    It was not anticipated that so much of subjective experience itself would turn out to be boring.

    I’m now reading an early novel by Brookner (Providence). It has the same finely-brushed portraits of mopery that I know from Hotel du Lac and Brief Lives. Just when I’m again thinking “Oh c’mon, woman, pull yourself together!”, the plot takes a twist and pulls me back in.

    Wait, this means that boredom makes the world go round !

  8. Electrical phrenology

    Clip and save. Thanks.

  9. boredom makes the world go round

    what is gravity but boredom with field equations?

  10. jack morava says

    @ rozele,


  11. J.W. Brewer says

    As I may have mentioned on some prior thread where his scholarly work came up, the future Professor Patel and I hung out together a reasonable amount during the 1976-77 academic year, when we were sixth grade classmates living about two blocks away from each other – although I then failed to keep up with him after my family moved the following summer to a different neighborhood in the same school district (but not feeding into the same specific schools). In any event, sometimes when I was over at his house we would listen to the disco-inflected Top 40 music of the day, which I subsequently deprecated as I became older and more self-consciously cool about music. Two songs I specifically associate with that house that year are Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” and Jigsaw’s “Sky High.” Both of which, I now know, had been generated in Europe and were thus extra naff and extra lowest-common-denominator but perhaps for that reason might be better evidence of any universal primitive human urge to song?

  12. David Marjanović says

    what is gravity but boredom with field equations?

    I feel enlightened.

    every human group ever identified sings

    Within that, however, there’s a lot of variation. Where I come from, a third of people say they can’t sing and therefore don’t, and another third also can’t sing (they have a tiny vocal range and can’t keep a tune); most of the rest only sing in church, pretty much.

    Cross the Alps, get any three randos together, and they can spontaneously sing in three voices.

  13. about twenty years ago, my ex and i were called upon to sing a song of our home culture while spending the night in a hut in the pirin mountains. luckily we were both raised by folkies and had some shared repertoire, but we did not quite meet the standard set by the miscellaneous bulgarian* hikers.

    * or macedonian. we didn’t get into questions of national/ethnic identification, especially after the response to someone’s sarcastic suggestion earlier on that the next song could be Chaje Shukarije** made it clear where the crowd stood on the status of roma, or at least roma music (unsurprising, after seeing a torch-equipped fascist march in sofia the previous week, but not exacty heartening).

    ** which we knew, and loved, as Mehanata regulars in good standing.

  14. I realised why this “SVCC as SiCCaC” looks so familiar. It recembles Arabic names.

  15. al-Song al-Signāl

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