Why do we make music? Why do we love music? Well, you say, because it’s in our nature. Our brains were sculpted over the course of evolution to delight in sonic sequences, to remember melodies, to revel in rhythms.
Perhaps. But, actually, not everyone thinks music is an adaptation. Not everything we do was directly shaped by natural selection. And even if music was an evolutionary adaptation, that raises a bunch of further questions, like: Why would musical abilities have been an advantage? Why did music emerge in our species, but not, say, in chimps? What were the first contexts in which music took shape? What were we singing or drumming or making all that racket about?
For today’s episode we’re going behind a recent paper that explores these questions. My guest is Dr. Ed Hagen, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology Washington State University – Vancouver. For a couple decades now, on and off, Ed has been thinking and writing about the origins of music. Along with his co-authors Samuel Mehr, Max Krasnow, and Greg Bryant, Ed recently published a paper in the journal Behavioral & Brain Sciences titled ‘Origins of music in credible signaling.’
Ed and I talk about what first got him musing about music, back in graduate school. We consider the functions of vocal signaling in birds, wolves, chimps, and other creatures. We discuss three prominent ideas about the roots of music: Darwin’s idea that it evolved as a way for males to advertise their quality, Pinker’s idea that music is like cheesecake, and—perhaps the most popular of all—the idea that music evolved to help cement social bonds. And, of course, we dig into the meat Ed and company’s paper, their alternative proposal. They argue that the roots of music lie in two contexts: coalition signaling and infant care. We’ll get into the specifics, of course.
One of my biggest takeaways from this conversation is that it’s a fascinating time to be interested in the deep history of music. Seems like a bit of a subfield is coalescing around the topic. In fact—as Ed and I talk about—their paper was actually one of two papers on the origins of music published in the very same issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. If you want to dive deeper, definitely check out the other article as well.
One last note—and this is something I keep forgetting to mention: If you have ideas about who we should interview, or about which papers or topics we should feature, we would *love* to hear from you. Just find us on Twitter, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com.
Alright, on to my conversation with Dr. Ed Hagen. Enjoy!