Music - why humans like music?
by Dr Beetle
This page is largely conjecture, yet there appears to be few other decent theories on why people like music. Music is sometimes seen as a superfluous interest, or an artificial invention of human intelligence and brilliance. But the universal appeal of music suggests something more fundamental and interesting. Closest to my theory are those who recognise the ability of music to trigger emotions and pleasure. There can be something stirring and motivating about music, which can be uplifting, bring tears to the eye, and unifying. The problem confronting an understanding of music is that the role of emotions is not properly understood, which shrouds the core biological reason for musical appreciation. To understand music, the distinction needs to be known between emotion and desire.

Desires are the most fundamental motivations in animals. Each desire arises directly from a distinct bodily organ, and is like a plea by that organ to the animal for attention and fulfilment. Desires relate to plain and simple animal needs. Hunger is the desire for food, and the stomach and physiology involved in its production can be studied directly. The desire for food will play upon the mind, until an animal stops doing other things, and starts looking for and obtaining food. Similarly, there are clear desires for water, sex, excretion and thermal protection. Each desire has a clear biological reason for its existence, and the parts of the anatomy involved in producing the desire identified. So what organ and reason could there be in people for music? Dr Beetle’s speculation is that the desire governing musical appreciation arises from the strongest desire found in humans. What is odd is that the name and existence of this desire is essentially a mystery to humans. With such mystery, how could humans understand the cause of music either? Before I name and describe the mechanisms of that desire, it is possible to use some further analysis of music to deduce its underlying character.

Emotions, by the way, occur when desires are blocked or suppressed. A desire that is spurned must still find its way to some kind of resolution. To do this, desire can turn itself into an emotion, which then has the design to overcome or resolve whatever block was standing in the way. The emotion may attempt to conquer the block (anger), plea for help (hope) appease the block (resignation, may lead to frustration), gather allies (love), or reason with or around the block (reason is really just another kind of emotion). Therefore, emotions are not the fundamental motivations behind humans, as that is the position taken by desires. Theoretically, emotions need not even occur, if desires are never blocked. Of course, such a level of freedom does not usually occur, although in the wild it can come close. Using this understanding of emotions, a tree giving the ‘evolution’ of emotions in a human mind can be constructed (more beetle).

What is it about music that is enjoyed most? Music is a series of noises, but disjointed noises give no real pleasure. There is structure to music, which involves melody and harmony. Melody is a succession of notes, tones and chords that are linked together as a unit, although the set could change with the song or piece. It is the horizontal or progressive organisation of the music. Melody can be simple in pop music (e.g. two melodies as in a verse and a chorus), or in classical music the melody can change or have several layers playing at once, with examples being a polyphony and counterpoint. Harmony gives a vertical or deeper perspective to music, and is where different pitches can occur at the same time. Rhythm describes the pace or duration of the succession of notes and melody.

These and a wide variety of other terms can be used to describe music, including timbre, pitch, tone, loudness and tempo. Each style of music varies in the level of importance and usage of these various characteristics. Such variation between the styles makes it difficult to say which feature of music is at the biological core of musical appreciation. Yet for a single desire, there should be one key aspect of music that is most appealing, and common to all music. Whether one can enjoy jazz, rock and roll, western or classical or oriental is really just a matter of culture and upbringing. There is something else. What is the one phrase or description that can nail what is good about good music? I think it is that good music is tightly played. In any style of music, it is when that style is tightly played by skilled musicians so that it flows and has immaculate timing that the pleasure is greatest. This gives the clue as to the character of the desire that also appreciates music.

What the phrase, ‘good music is tightly played’, is really describing in biological terms is a desire for parsimony. With parsimony, a simple backbone or foundation occurs, to which all other aspects under consideration are linked, can grow, and return with ease. The music just flows but can return in delightful ways back to its central theme. In a biological sense, wouldn’t it be great to have all of your abilities, mannerisms and instincts similarly organised, to the point where they could be organised and flow like music? It would be a sign of efficiency in organisation. In fact for humans, with so much learning to organise, mimicking the quality and parsimony demonstrated in music must be of prime biological importance. With anything less, the animal could become blundering, deluded, unfulfilled, unsynchronized and incompetent.

Music is easy to remember and use, and indeed was the main way to convey ideas and culture before recorded writing. A brain that has all of its other functions and ideas organised according to parsimony would be easy to use. Such a strong desire for parsimony should not be a surprise to biologists and evolutionists. Parsimony is already recognised as probably the single most important measure of whether evolutionary trees and relationships have been properly determined and understood (more beetle). Similarly, a parsimonious adaptation should always survive over one that requires just one more step or consideration. Where could this organ be that directly produces the desire for parsimony? I have named it the interaction desire, and it arises (again, my speculation) when the pleasure centre in the hypothalamus judges the level of parsimony being laid down in the tracks of the cortex (more beetle). Something has to keep the cortex in check while it learns its instincts, by encouraging the pursuit of parsimony while it sorts its experiences. Another expression or result of the interaction desire is that fundamentally, everyone tries to do the right thing (granted, as sometimes judged by delusional and twisted little minds!).

So why music? I think that music is a pleasure, because it so closely reflects what the interaction desire is trying to achieve in all aspects of life. Music mimics the fulfilment wanted by the core desire found inside all humans. It is like a symbol that the interaction desire holds up as something to strive for. Music of course can also be put to numerous secondary functions, such as an aid to remembering culture. It can also symbolise rebellion, glory, mourning, or as an aid for overcoming fear during battle. But these are secondary uses. The main use of music is as a by product of the most powerful desire in humans, the one that seeks parsimony in the cerebral cortex. (Posted May 2006)

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