Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Is music a result of sexual selection?

For Charles Darwin it was clear: neither the perception nor the production of music were “faculties of the least use to man." At the same occasion he also wrote that “[these faculties] must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.” (Darwin, 1871). Darwin's hunch was that music could be seen as a product of sexual selection, comparable to a male bird’s display of seductive feathers.

This week two of my favorite YouTube videos. They ilustrate - anecdotally - Darwin’s idea of music as a result of sexual selection (At least that is how you could interpret the behavior of these two great performers/musicians and their admiring audience ;-)

However, despite the attractiveness of Darwin’s idea (more recently elaborated by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey F. Miller in his book The Mating Mind) there are more arguments against than in favor of this line of thought. One being the fact that major differences could then be expected in the anatomy and behavior of men and women, as is the case where sexual selection in songbirds is concerned. Unlike with songbirds, whales, frogs, and other “song”-producing creatures, there is no substantial difference in the way men or women perceive or produce music nor in their physiology related to music processing (cf. Honing, 2011). The search for the origins of music continues...

ResearchBlogging.org Blute, M. (2003). [Book Review: The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature] The Quarterly Review of Biology, 78 (1), 129-130 DOI: 10.1086/377917

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (in press, 2011) Musical Cognition. A Science of Listening. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

ResearchBlogging.orgDarwin, G. (1871) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.London: Murray (p. 878).


  1. Why not chalk it up to cultural evolution? Why do we write, or speak, or watch youtube?

  2. Recent reviews are suggesting that human gender differences in psychology/behavious are due to hormones and usage patterns rather than underlying gene-driven differences in brain structures. The human higher brain is both new and flexible so it may not have had time or need to differentiate sexually. So with music, it's distinctively human.

  3. One obvious physical difference is the descent of the larynx during male puberty. The larynx first descends in both sexes some months after birth, but only males do so again. This may be selected by better singing ability. Miller also points this out. For that descended larynx, males pay a price in aspiration injury and death (although my wife, an MD, thinks it is more likely from males more often getting drunk, passing out and vomiting, ugh).
    While abilities in music may be sex monomorphic, an area of possible sex dimorphism is in music pleasures and motivations to make music. Females may have more pleasure from music. For humor, it's been shown that females experience more pleasure than males do. As a friend said when I mentioned that, "that's strange because men are so much more humorous than women." She was very quick because she followed that with, "Oh, and that is why!" So some preliminary evidence does shows that women have more pleasure from music than do men. Certainly more men perform music publicly (maybe?), so there may be sex dimorphisms in pleasure and motivations. That would suggest sex selection at work for a music trait development.