Thursday, April 01, 2010

Is music mere play?

Not too long ago I was called by the Dutch radio for a daily question on science, and was confronted with the question: Why do we like music?

Since why-questions are generally almost impossible to answer, I was happy —just in time— to think of the idea of ‘music as play’. But because all of this went almost too quickly, I thought I would eloborate on this in a slightly more slower pace in this blog...

The idea is that music, as a human phenomenon, can be seen as something that plays with our senses, our memory, our attention and our emotions, in the way young lions play, without any real threat. Music, generally, does not harm us, it also doesn’t make us less hungry, nevertheless it directly addresses our physiological and cognitive functions. For many music listeners this is a pleasant, rewarding, purposeful and sometimes even a consoling play.

I like this idea of ‘music as play’ (or 'music as a game') far better than the discussion on whether music is an adaptation or a mere evolutionary by-product of more important functions, such as those involved in language (Pinker, 1997). Also Geoffrey Miller’s alternative suggesting sexual selection to be the primary mechanism in the evolution of music is still lacking the proper arguments and evidence. ‘Music as play’ is far more attractive, because it might explain several of our strange behaviors, such as listening to ‘sad’ music when we are sad, to make us even more sad — we apparently know it will not really harm us!

The idea of ‘humans as players’ was brought forward by several authors, including the brilliant Johan Huizinga who wrote Homo Ludens (‘Man the Player’) in the 1930s. It also was the topic of the 2007 Huizinga lecture by Tijs Goldschmidt - a biologist and writer known from, e.g., Darwin's Dreampond. His lecture was called Doen alsof je doet alsof (‘Pretend to pretend’) and he even spent a few words about music (Goldschmidt, 2007:20-21). It was an important source of inspiration to write Iedereen is muzikaal :-)

ResearchBlogging.orgWESSELING, H. (2002). From cultural historian to cultural critic: Johan Huizinga and the spirit of the 1930s European Review, 10 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S106279870200039X

N.B. This is a rewrite of a blog entry of 28.11.2007


  1. Newborn human babies have been shown to respond to music (beat and melody) in a way that other animals don't. This indicates that there is some built-in capacity for music in humans. "Play" can only occur if this mechanism exists, so the question remains what is the evolutionary value of the mechanism. The answers I've seen to this are the cheesecake hypothesis and Miller's sexual selection hypothesis. There's no clear deciding evidence between these two explanations. If either of these explanations turn out to be true the supporting evidence could be quite complex: like the discovery of music genes that are found to be necessary for language, or, music genes that aren't required for anything else. It seems likely to me that the capacity for music arose in pre-symbolic communication ("musi-language") and was coopted for sexual selection. Miller's point is that a small range of grunts is sufficient for communicating emotion but the additional capacity required to write or play a Bach cello suite is going to need an adaptive driver. Sexual selection is fairly easy to demonstrate in an otherwise maladaptive feature like the peacock tail, but extremely difficult to prove in the case of a complex behavioural trait like musicality.

    The notion of "play" requires having the capacity to do something and enjoying doing it without any obvious direct adaptive benefit, which doesn't exclude either the cheesecake or sexual selection hypotheses.

  2. Great post! It's no accident that we use the word "play" to describe music. However, I take issue with the word "mere" in your title. Play is the major way social mammals learn. There's a mountain of neurobiological research showing how music literally wires the brain together. We undervalue music (and other social play) as a learning tool, not to mention its value for social bonding, as well as for regulating our emotions individually and collectively. The sexual selection theory plays a role, and there's no denying its cheesecake-like pleasures too, but thinking of music as a frivolity is a mistake. I find Stephen Mithen's theory of music as the precursor of language to be highly convincing as well.