Music and sex

Music is largely a primeval tool to gain the favour of mates, argues evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks. 

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THE ROLLING STONES are the biggest, baddest rock and roll band of them all. In the 1960s they were so aggressive, lascivious and degenerate they made the mop-topped smiley-faced Beatles look definitively clean-cut. But to an evolutionary biologist, the Stones exemplify a problem that screams out for an explanation. Why bother with rock and roll?

Brian Jones, the talented multi-instrumentalist and flamboyant early driving force in the Stones, took way too many drugs and became increasingly unable to contribute to recordings and live performances.

He aggressively fell out with band members and was eventually fired. He was soon dead, drowned in his swimming pool at the age of 27. Being a rock star did not accord Brian Jones a long and productive life. So why did Jones and millions of others find the urge to rock so powerful?

It is tempting to dismiss music as a purely cultural phenomenon and rock as an aberration of 20th-century culture. That is pretty much the explanation musicologists and cultural theorists have favoured as they dissect the arcane details of who-copied-what-from-whom, interpreting the history of popular music in a mumbo-jumbo of postmodern critique.

By contrast, an evolutionary biologist starts from the assumption that things don’t happen by themselves, especially things that dramatically increase your risk of dying, as rocking out certainly does. Anything as popular, exciting, sexy, deadly and – most of all – as difficult to do well, needs an explanation. But we need to ask the right questions.

ASKING HOW MAKING and listening to music affects the reproductive fitness of individual musicians and audience members can only tell us part of the story. We also need to consider other evolutionary processes that have operated on individuals and their genes that might predispose something as sexy and dangerous as rock to shake, rattle and revolutionise the modern world.

No sane person would argue that rock is not cultural: it is well known that rock arose in the 1950s out of existing musical traditions including rhythm and blues, folk, blues, jazz and country. It spread through learning and imitation, assisted by a special blend of social and economic circumstances that arose soon after World War II and the spread of technologies like commercial radio, record players and television. But even though rock is a quintessentially cultural phenomenon, it grew in the soil of our evolved biology. That is what makes it so utterly compelling, and why, a decade into the 21st century, it is still going so strong.

Before rock there was music, and evolutionary biologists have already had plenty to say on its origin. Harvard University neuroscientist Steven Pinker, a great champion of the adaptive view of human nature, argued in How the Mind Works that music is not really an adaptation but instead like cheesecake. “Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli … concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.” Pinker goes on: “… music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of … our mental faculties”.

He makes an important point. We should always be cautious when claiming that something is an adaptation shaped by natural selection – a feature that helps individuals to survive and reproduce. We can understand how our evolutionary past incidentally made the invention we know as cheesecake irresistible without claiming that the ability to make cheesecake is an adaptation.

Natural selection builds on the raw material that already exists, and our minds probably evolved some of their capacity to enjoy rhythm and predictability, and to be soothed or aroused by certain sounds and voices long before anybody made anything we would now call music. But that does not mean that the music we enjoy today is simply a clever trick that pushes our pre-existing buttons in the same way cheesecake titillates our pre-existing tastes.

So if music is an adaptation, how does it benefit humans?

FOR A START, MUSIC, unlike cheesecake, is no newcomer to human society. All contemporary peoples make and enjoy music, and this suggests that musicality arose well before modern humans spread out from Africa.

The oldest known musical instruments are bone flutes more than 30,000 years old, but people probably sang, clapped, and banged sticks and stones musically long before they ever made and played instruments.

Music is also an important focus in the traditional lives of contemporary hunter-gatherers. If people have made music for tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of years, then selection had plenty of chances to shape our music-making. We should seriously consider this possibility before swallowing whole the idea of auditory cheesecake.

So if music is an adaptation, how does it benefit humans? Perhaps, music’s role at the heart of social-group living might be important to understanding its evolution. Might it be a good way for a tribe to bond, resolving petty conflicts and improving the functioning of the group? Or might it make the group stronger, stirring bravery and a strong sense of belonging before and during battle with other groups?

These ideas seem intuitive; what else could explain the invention of the bagpipe? But the idea of group benefits tends to make evolutionary biologists squirm. For a trait to evolve via the benefits it delivers to a group, it must cause some groups to thrive or others to wither away.

THE PROBLEM HERE IS that, while it is good to be on the winning side of a conflict, it is even better to be a member of the winning side who was slow into battle and didn’t get hurt or killed. Selection in which some individuals do better than others is usually more potent than selection in which some groups prevail over others, so we should look very carefully for individual-level benefits before we buy wholeheartedly into the idea of group-level benefits.

There are many plausible benefits to the individual of being an accomplished musician and of enjoying listening and dancing to good tunes. One clue to these benefits comes from the song-like communication system that other animals, including whales, gibbons and birds, use to court their mates.

Perhaps our primate ancestors also used song-like courtship systems. Ever more sophisticated and meaningful sounds, and the ability to decipher them, would have given the most articulate hominids in each generation an advantage in snagging and seducing the best mates, leading eventually to language. This elegant idea was first suggested in 1871 by Charles Darwin in his second great book on evolution, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

According to Darwin, “it appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavoured to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm”.

Darwin arrived at this idea because he had been thinking about features of animals and plants that seem unnecessarily costly, like the songs and bright plumage of many birds, which make the bird conspicuous to predators. Darwin recognised that these traits improve an individual’s mating opportunities and predicted that this mating advantage causes bright and beautiful traits to evolve via sexual selection. Sexual selection unleashes some of the most rapid and extreme evolutionary change in the animal world because reproduction is the currency of evolutionary success. Attractive signals and the preferences for those signals influence one another’s evolution, pushing both signal and preference to outlandish extremes.

Musicians overcome two of the biggest evolutionary problems that face people looking for a mate.

THE ANIMAL WORLD TEEMS with these extreme courtship signals; crickets chirp by night, moths puff irresistible chemicals into the night air, manakins flash their brightly coloured feathers in the dappled forest light, and fishes lurking in turbid rivers pulse electric fields to find and attract mates.

These diverse signals all have one thing in common – they’re difficult to do well, which is why they’re so enticing to mates.

In humans, conversing engagingly with somebody who interests us sexually is so difficult it takes most of us years of painful trial and error to learn – if we ever manage it at all. Singing or playing an instrument well, which requires mastery of rhythm, tone and melody – is an even more impressive achievement.

And writing songs that combine all these elements and yet ring lyrically true is a precious miracle of nature that only a few can master. So why do so many people invest so much time and energy into such a difficult feat?

It turns out that Brian Jones left a clue to the evolutionary problem posed by his early death. He fathered four children, each by a different mother. The other Stones who did not share Jones’ misfortune did mostly share his talent for reproduction. Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards had five children with two women. Vocalist Mick Jagger, twice married and famously philandering, has been linked over five decades to some of the world’s most desirable women, officially siring seven children by four women.

BRIAN, KEITH AND MICK personify the fossilised footprint of a long history of sexually selected music-making in our species. None of these men can count themselves among the most prolific fathers of their time, but who knows what heights of paternity they might have scaled had the 1960s not also ushered in history’s biggest advances in contraception.

The sheer number of fertile women who got up close to the Stones, sometimes by the most ingenious of routes, put them in a position rivalled by very few men in history. Or as Keith Richards put it, “you stood as much chance in a fucking river full of piranhas”.

Musicians overcome two of the biggest evolutionary problems that face people looking for a mate: meeting or being noticed by potential mates, and courting or seducing them. From the day a band plays its first live gig, band members are in the business of exposing themselves to potential mates – whether that is their intention or not. If ancient musicians enjoyed even a fraction of the mating success of modern rock stars, then sexual selection based on music-making abilities would have been sensationally strong throughout our evolutionary past.

The notion of music as a sexual display explains much more than why we bother making music – it also explains why music can be so sublime that its power transcends mere description. Natural selection usually favours sober functionality: teeth that cut and grind food, day in and day out; bones strong enough to support an active body but not so sturdy that they become too heavy; and a gut that wrings every last morsel of nourishment from every meal.

But attractiveness is different – it keeps on evolving. Genes that make an individual attractive can, in a very few generations, come to be so common that whatever was attractive 10 generations ago might be merely ordinary today. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller puts it, “Ancestral hominid-Hendrixes could never say, ‘OK, our music’s good enough, we can stop now’, because they were competing with all the hominid-Eric-Claptons, hominid-Jerry-Garcias, and hominid-John-Lennons. The aesthetic and emotional power of music is exactly what we would expect from sexual selection’s arms race to impress minds such as ours.” Music may just be the most complex and sophisticated courtship display in the animal kingdom.

Could dancing be to men what the bikini is to many women?

BUT FOR ALL THE SEX, music would not have as much power as it does if it were merely a tool for the talented and inspired few to get their rocks off – music can also benefit the audience members. For most of our species’ past, making and dancing to music involved most, if not all, of the adults and teenagers in the group, much as it does in contemporary tribes and villages.

Social occasions gave young men and women many opportunities to observe and enjoy one another’s music-making and dancing, and to use this information to judge who might be the best mate. This kind of repeated chance to observe members of the opposite sex doing something difficult is exactly the kind of assessment that long-lived animals use to assess the genetic quality of their potential mates.

Music becomes an even more potent part of courtship when it is coupled with dancing. Mastering the paso doble or the tango remains an impressive and deeply romantic feat, but even informal and improvised dancing can signal the dancer’s tenderness, deftness and coordination. Or lack thereof.

In a 2010 study in Biology Letters, Nick Neave and his colleagues at Britain’s Northumbria University used high-speed video to capture the movements of men as they danced, and then animated computer-generated bodies with those movements.

Women asked to watch those animations preferred the dancers who moved more vigorously, with more bending and twisting motions of their neck and torso and of their right knee (most of the men were right-footed). Maybe so many men are secretly terrified of dancing because they know that women are using it to assess them. Could dancing be to men what the bikini is to many women?

AS TWENTIETH-CENTURY technology made music ever more portable, so it made it possible for us to choose the soundtrack we use for dancing, courtship and seduction. Early in the rock era it became possible for young women and men to signal their taste, politics and personalities by the music they listened to.

Later, the mixed tape or CD allowed one to put both love and thought into a gift without spending much money or learning to play an instrument. Even though few people today are proficient and persistent enough to master an instrument, most courtships still begin within earshot of a live band, a DJ or a stereo. It is less dramatic and certainly less effective to play a song on your stereo than it is on your guitar, but it is also so much easier. We contract our chosen artists to play the music we use for our own courtship, and we pay them handsomely.

But even reaching reproductive age with a sense of identity and confidence can be a challenge. The hormone-addled development of a body, and especially a brain, from a standard-issue children’s version into the specialised body and brain of an adult can be terrifying.

Not only must adolescents come to terms with the physical changes to their bodies, but they must also learn to work with a more varied and more intense palette of emotions. They learn to navigate the complex relationships, obligations and conventions of adulthood. They also learn to make, break and re-fashion alliances with peers of the same sex. And they learn by trial and all-too-embarrassing error the opaque rules of love: how to love and be loved; how to recognise when love is requited and how to stay sane when it is not.

The right tunes can greatly soothe the turbulence of the adolescent years.

IT IS ALSO AS teenagers that we begin our tussle with questions of identity. Who am I? What is my purpose? What do other people think of me? And probably most important: Am I the only one who feels this way?

Fashioning a coherent identity is one of the most important issues that we grapple with in our lifetime, and no time in our lives is more important in resolving our identity than late adolescence and early adulthood.

On top of this, teenagers have to deal with parents who have their own interests, and who themselves are making the clumsy transition from coddling a precious child to guiding an emerging adult. No wonder adolescents seldom have the confidence or the perspective that would allow them to enjoy their precious youth.

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” and by savage I mean teenage. The right tunes can greatly soothe the turbulence of the adolescent years. Adolescents have probably long found music helpful as they discover how to use adult emotions, develop their identity and negotiate their increasingly complex social worlds.

Despite the often heroic efforts of teachers, teenagers are often more focussed on another, more ancient, kind of learning: about themselves, about how other people and society work and most of all about love, sex, and the complicated package that comes with it. From Chuck Berry’s “School Days” to Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender”, rock and roll has long existed at this crossroads between education and learning, school and real life.

THE VAST ROLE THAT popular music plays in the lives of teenagers and young adults reinforces the fact that music derives much of its power from courtship and mating. But what of the elderly and middle-aged?

Some of our strongest memories in middle and old age involve a song that was playing when we first met, danced with, or made love to somebody special. The fond recollection of the music of our early adulthood, when we stood on the threshold of our sexual prime, again reinforces the link between our musical and sexual identities.

Even well into old age, people report that music helps them to understand and develop their identity, connect with others, maintain their wellbeing and express their spirituality. Apart from some differences in emphasis, this is pretty much the role that music plays in the lives of the young.

The difference is that the middle-aged and the elderly listen with a sense of reminiscence and sometimes of regret. That is why we pay big money to attend reunion concerts or see long-forgotten acts from our youth.

Writer Mark Dapin pointed me to the following quote, which he believes may apply to all reunion concerts. It comes from a piece by the modern historian Timothy Garton Ash, writing about the audience at a reunion of the sixties Czech pop group the Golden Kids: “Sometimes they clap along. But when the Golden Kids sing [Leonard Cohen’s] “Suzanne” there’s just total silence:

Suzanne takes you down
To her place near the river.
You can hear the boats go by:
You can spend the night beside her.

Tense and heavy with regret: the silence of the middle-aged remembering sex.”

This is an extract from Sex, Genes and Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World, available from New South Books.

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