Why do we like music?

Question posed by my daughter: what is it about music that appeals to the human brain?

She’s 12 and likes science, so could handle a reasonably complex answer, but I can’t think of one.

I don’t think there’s a single answer for this.

From an aesthetics standpoint, music seems to be appreciated for being simultaneously predictable and unpredictable. There are beats, rhythms, chorus/verse elements, etc. that provide some predictability, but when you hear a song for the first time, you’re never exactly sure what will come next. The may be linked to the way music involves so many parts of the brain at once - it’s processed differently than sounds or voices alone.

If you’re looking for a functional purpose that might explain it from natural selection terms, there are several candidates:

  • As a group activity, it may help social bonding and identity. Groups with an appreciation for music were, maybe, tighter and more cooperative.
  • Music is helpful for aiding memory - just think of the ABC song. In a pre-literate world, the ones who liked music may have been able to remember more.
  • Music is also helpful for group work activity. Slaves and sailors both used music to help keep a rhythm as they worked. Thus, appreciation of music may have made collaborative building more successful.

But I’m not sure every quirk/feature of the brain needs to be described in terms of natural selection.

The ability to perform music shows an ability to perform complex tasks with dexterity and skill as well as creativity. In my opinion (and that’s all it is), the ability to perform music well has become an evolutionary advantage, akin to a bird’s plume or a stag’s display of strength. It explains perfectly why musicians, even relatively unattractive and poverty stricken ones, become so appealing to the opposite sex. If seen this myself as an amateur musician - it always amazed me how women suddenly acted differently towards me once they’d seen me perform (and I’m really not very good!)

Just a theory…

Iirc, the “altered consciousness” theory could be applied to music.

All humans, in the history of humanity, used some form of drug to enter an altered consciousness. However, you can enter this state through entertainment such as jogging, reading, etc. Listening to music could also provide this state.

These are just guesses, but:

Rhythm is a natural part of our bodies and brains in various forms, including internal time-keeping, etc. (and maybe part of it has to do with the rhythm of the mothers heart while the brain is developing causes a built in familiarity)

We also like patterns and complexity as our brains are designed to make sense of the world

Put these two things together and it seems like there is a natural foundation in the brain to relate to these things.

Not all people even appreciate music, although I’ve never seen a study which tries to figure out what percentage of the population that applies to (or even a term for such individuals).

AFAIK music appreciation is not a particularly human trait, so it probably originated way back when mammals first started, or even earlier.

I don’t think you’ll get a definitive answer to this, but I can give you a few thoughts. I believe much of our capacity to process music comes from our faculty for language. Speech has tonality and rhythm. Like music, it can trigger a fairly direct emotional reaction. I also like to draw an analogy between music and conciousness. Likewise, we experience the world as an extended moment. An instant of music is just a noise, it only has meaning in a wider context. It engages different parts of the brain at once. This may be part of what makes it mentally stimulating to listen to, and we have a strong tendancy to seek stimulus. When you listen to a piece of music, you are simultaneously remembering it, predicting what will come next, and processing any differences between your expectations and what is actually being played.

No evidence here, but a fun anecdote.

I asked an avowedly atheist friend - “If there’s nothing more to this universe than physical laws, chance and material - why is music so beautiful?”

(he’s an avid cello player and music lover)

He paused. “You know GameHat, that’s something that still troubles me.”

This isn’t any proof, or even argument. But I believe it’s because of humanity’s divine nature. Just my opinion, don’t derail the thread plz.

There is no evidence that animals (or mammals in particular), in nature, have any type of music appreciation.

Some scientists have hypothesized that it was the other way around-- ie, music preceded language.

But this is all speculation, and there is no known factual answer to the OP. It could very well have originated with rhythmic vocalizations by mothers towards their babies. Or something else…

I don’t know why we like it, but perhaps she’ll except some explanation of why we like this and not that. When a tone enters the ear, the frequency causes only certain parts of the cochlea to vibrate. Music notes that “go together” have frequencies that are in some small ratio, like 1:2. That ratio, specifically, is one octave apart- a C note played with a higher C, for instance. Other ratios like 2:3 or 4:5 sound pleasant because the sound waves line up periodically. The more awkward the ratio, like 7:11 or something, the less often the sound waves line up and it goes from “music” to “din”.

That might satisfy her brain for a little while.

Nah, that’s got nothing to do with music. It’s about the stage. You’ve done something that sets you apart from the crowd, thus giving you status above mere mortals. That’s why they want you…even though you’re really not very good!

Organized music? Even in its most primitive form?

IMO, it provides solace, happiness and harmony among people.

It truly is a universal language.

Again, in my opinion, it would be wonderful to find out where singing truly originated.


Your friend might have pointed out that music is beautiful ***because of ***some of those physical laws. There is a connection between, say, the explosion of a supernova and the *dies irae *of Verdi’s Requiem. But it may take a lifetime to understand that connection.

Don’t have much of an answer for why we like music, but somebody’s been studying how we like music:

(Link to short article/podcast at SciAm)


Our tribal ancestors that developed an appreciation for music kicked the butts of the other tribes that didn’t.

Our ancestors outcompeted, outlasted, and outplayed all the other pretenders.
(this explains lots of things about humanity)

May I recommend the book “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks? He presents a lot of anecdotal cases, backed up by other research, of ways in which music affects people, including people with a wide variety of brain damage, as well as ordinary people. I think if your daughter is reasonably bright, she could probably get a lot out of this book. (It would probably also put GameHat’s atheist friend’s mind at rest.)

Here’s a previous thread about the possible evolutionary development of music:

Faculty for language is different than language itself.

The ol’ “chicks dug it” theory of evolution? It certainly would explain a lot.

I’ve often wondered the same thing about food. Look at how much better virtually anything looks and tastes and smells once it’s cooked. It almost seems to me that food has been designed to be cooked in the first place. And what about all those herbs and spices and the way they season our food to make it taste even better. How did they manage to grow in such ways as to be able to enhance our food so well? Was it really just coincidence that they grew and developed the seeds and leafs that enhance their own propogation, they also happend to grow in ways that melded perfectly with other food (and other herbs and spices) to make them taste so much better?

Not to derail the thead either, but I’ve always been fascinated at the delightful changes that take place when food is cooked, and how well these changes just happen to serve the needs of man.

My apologies for any typos in this post. I am sailing under the Ambien flag as we speak, and therefore I am feeling somewhat impaired - although at least I’m not limpwristedly dragging a butcher’s knife across an orange so weakly that I can’t even cut the skin, which is what my sister does when she’s on this stuff. Nor am I rolling around on the living room floor like the mother of a friend of mine does when she’s on it. Nope, I just ramble and sometimes hit the wrong keys. And now, so that I don’t continue to do more of both, I’ll bid you good night.

This is why I firmly believe when all is said and done, Hindu culture will be the dominate one. No one has raised the arts of music and dance to a level they have. Arabic culture comes close - raqs sharqi is wonderful, along with Arabic music - because it was heavily influenced by India, and the Moors in turn passed it on to Spanish and Latin music which is pretty damn good also.

The west might have better science and technology, but India kicks everyone’s ass when it comes to the performing arts. And that is what matters most, IMHO. Especially when the choreography doesn’t involve a few performers, but what seems like whole village. A sample.

(Having the most beautiful women in the world probably helps their cause too.)