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This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

Kendra's picture

Having the opportunity to take Biology 103 this semester has allowed me to take on a whole new perspective on Biology, and life, in general. I found that in my traditional biology class in high school, we were simply taught certain things about life but not taught to think about why these things have come to be. In the beginning of this course, we tackled with the question of evolution. We knew that evolution was a good story to explain the diversity of life on Earth but had to figure out if it explained the ‘clumpy’ organization of life. Evolution is, in fact, an alternate way of thinking about the diversity on Earth and a large factor involved in evolution is natural selection, where we also get our diversity of genes. For this assignment, I read This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. Although his book was mostly about psychology and neurobiology at its best, Levitin uses pivotal observations made by Charles Darwin to convey to the reader how music plays an important role in sexual selection and, ultimately, the diversity of life in general.

In his book, Levitin refers to many of Darwin’s theories on natural selection to reinforce a widely believed notion: that certain people are at a predisposition to have musical talent. Levitin believes that the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is an oversimplification of evolution and that the theory of evolution is based on several assumptions, the most important being that our phenotypic attributes are encoded in our genes which are passed on through reproduction, that evolutionary theory is that there exists between us some natural genetic variability and the third being that when we mate, the genetic material that combines to make a new being contains 50% from one parent and the other 50% from the other (252).

From the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ comes the theory of natural selection which can ultimately be simplified to sexual selection. It is just as important today as it was thousands of years ago to find a mate who would, theoretically, reproduce more successfully and provide more resources for their offspring. Of course, certain factors contribute to whether a mate gets chosen or not, for example, in a female’s case, a man with a squared jaw and strong arms would essentially be ideal. Levitin connected sexual selection to the art of music by raising the question ‘does music play a role in sexual selection?’ Levitin provides the reader with a good story to answer the question by quoting Darwin in his book, The Descent of Man saying: “I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively…” (251). Levitin further writes that Darwin believed that music preceded speech as a means of courtship and that ultimately music is equated with a peacock’s tail- a feature that serves no survival purpose other than to make oneself more attractive to a mate ( 251-252).

More contemporarily, humans may have ‘peacock-tail’ like behavior by building large houses and buying expensive cars and jewelry to show that they are capable of sufficiently supporting offspring. Music also plays a role in displaying attractiveness contemporarily by the multitude of bands being created by teenage boys and the number of girls that are enamored with the lead singer of any given band. Levitin quotes the cognitive psychologist Geoffrey Miller in saying that “music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display, mostly broadcast by young males to attract females” (253). But as we see in natural selection, even if all of the potential mates have some musical talent, only a few mates get ‘chosen’ while others don’t. What makes some more predisposed to music?

Towards the end of the semester, we began to learn that genes can turn themselves on and off and how internal changes are due to environmental signals. Many assume that the reason why certain people are predisposed to have musical talent is purely based on genetics, but Levitin argues that though genes may have a part in determining ones musical ability “it is difficult to separate out ancillary factors-with a presumably environmental component-such as motivation, personality, and family dynamics. Similar factors can influence musical development and can mask the contributions of genetic to musical ability” (195). This supports the story that certain genes turn themselves ‘on’ when provoked by the outside environment. Levitin makes the point that distinguishing genetic from environmental influences on a skill that has a learned component, like music, is difficult especially since music runs in a family, children who are reared in a non-musical household will most likely not have this gene turned ‘on’ (200).

It was particularly interesting to learn that music was- and still is- used as a type of courtship in animals and human beings. While our hunter-gatherer ancestors participated in tribal dancing and singing, many humans of today become rock stars with sweet guitar solos or simply start up garage bands. Music is certainly not the most important criteria of attracting potential mates in human beings and it certainly not something that everyone is capable of displaying. Just as we learned that certain genes can be turned ‘on and off’ to produce certain proteins, Levitin uses the example of music to support the likely story that genes can be turned ‘on’ when exposed to a certain environment and can be turned ‘off’ or never have been turned on at all if the environment does not allow for it. Reading Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession has allowed me to learn about why certain people like the music that they do and how music affects a human’s emotions, but more specific to the course it made me look at genetics in a different light as well as the notion that music can be used as a type of courtship. It has allowed me to learn more about one of my own obsessions, music, and ultimately, much of what Levitin has written provides a believable story to be included in the loopy story telling that is Life.

Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: First Plume Printing, 2006.