Is There a Music Gene?

We hear it everywhere: in shopping malls, concert halls, carpools and cathedrals.

Even when there is none playing, we often hear it inside our heads. Because music occupies so much of our lives, could it have played an important role in the development of the species?

Some scientists have recently proposed that music may have been an evolutionary adaptation, like upright walking or spoken language, that arose early in human history and helped the species survive.

“Of course it’s utter speculation,” says David Huron, a professor of music at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

Culture vs. Instinct

Most experts still assume music was a cultural invention, like cave painting or writing, that humans invented to make their lives easier or more pleasant.

Yet Huron and many of his colleagues wonder if music might have biological roots. The “music gene” would have arisen tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, and conferred an evolutionary advantage on those who possessed it. Natural selection would have nurtured the gift of music, favoring those who possessed it with more offspring who were themselves more likely to reproduce.

There are several things about music that suggest it has biological roots:

For one thing, music is ubiquitous. From the tribal dances of the Amazon to the frenetic raves of Amsterdam, every culture makes music an essential part of its rituals. You simply can’t find people who don’t sing, chant or beat on drums.

That music is everywhere suggests it arose early in the history of the species, before humans scattered across the globe and developed manifold cultures. In fact, concrete evidence of music’s antiquity exists in the form of a carved bone flute found recently in a cave in Slovenia. The “Divje babe flute,” as musicologists call it, is the oldest known musical instrument. It dates back 40,000 years, to a time when Europe and much of North America were mantled in ice, and humans lived side by side with Neanderthals.

Wired For Song

If the oldest instruments existed 40,000 years ago, then vocal music probably goes back twice as far, Huron speculates — perhaps even to the dawn of the species.

Another line of evidence to support music as an evolutionary adaptation:

Some people with brain damage to the right temporal lobe can’t remember tunes. In one experiment, a man with right temporal lobe damage could not name a single tune played for him — but when he was read the lyrics to the same songs he correctly identified 24 out of 25.

During a recent meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences, Isabel Peretz of the University of Montreal described several such people. Researchers have also shown with brain imaging studies that when most people hear music, the right temporal lobe is activated.

“Brain specialization is not enough to claim that a function is biologically determined, but I think it is necessary,” Peretz says.

Finding one or more genes for music would settle the issue. If music is genetic, it is influenced by multiple genes acting simultaneously. With the recent completion of the human genome project, it may eventually be possible to find a music gene or two — if such genes exist.

“If there are genes for music I suspect that we’ll find out about them within our lifetimes,” Huron said.

Auditory Cheesecake

Steven Pinker doubts that will ever happen.

“Music is auditory cheesecake,” he says.

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