It’s been decades since Ed Hagen played trumpet in his high school pep band, jazz combo, and big band. He long ago lost the muscle tone needed to make a recognizable, pleasing note. He struggles to remember just a few titles from his repertoire—Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” in the pep band, George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” in the others.

He might be forgiven for forgetting all but the outlines of some tune he heard or played in high school. But a few years ago, just such a tune came on his car radio. He can’t remember what it was, but he does remember grooving right along to it, instantly recalling the melody, tempo, and lyrics as if he had performed it yesterday.

“The Song is You” illustrationIllustration Bruno Mallart


“I could immediately sing along with the song exactly synchronized,” he says. “I remember all the words. And I thought that is incredible. I have such an incredibly poor memory in general. How is it that, in seconds, this one song comes back and I remember it perfectly?”

Hagen, an assistant professor of anthropology at WSU Vancouver, specializes in evolutionary medicine and mental health. But as he puts it, writing about depression can get depressing. It’s nice to take a break, academically speaking. So when he found himself singing in the car, he started thinking humans might have a specialized musical memory, and he asked the fundamental question of the curious person: Why?

In other words, just what is music good for?

It is one of the most evanescent things—here one note, gone the next, often with less apparent meaning than Bob Dylan’s most obscure lyrics. Yet we are awash in music, from the car to the supermarket to the mall. Including the music made from radio advertising, live performances, and audio equipment, the global music industry is worth something like $140 billion. Parades, sporting events, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners, even some births feature music. It is the soundtrack of our lives.

“If you look cross-culturally, you’ve got music in just about every culture in some form or another,” says Steve Lakatos, an associate professor of psychology at WSU Vancouver who studied music history and theory as a Yale undergraduate. “It would seem that there is something universal about music in the sense that it’s not just pleasurable, but it’s almost a necessity of a culture.”

Even if you run from music, you cannot hide. Lock yourself into a quiet room, occupy your mind with a book or some paperwork, and rattling between your ears is a viral earworm: “It’s a small world” or “YMCA” or the theme from Mission: Impossible or “I want my baby back baby back baby back ribs.”

And when we seek music out, attending a concert or obsessively positioning ourselves just so between loudspeakers, the results are moving, both physically and emotionally. It’s as if we’re tapping into some deep reservoir of our being. This is what Ed Hagen started getting at when the song on his car radio came back to him in all its high-def clarity. It’s what Ellen Dissanayake ’57 thinks about when she ponders the cooing of mothers. Across the state, it’s what Jaak Panksepp, a WSU neuroscientist, sees when he probes the brain for clues to why music literally gives us the chills, or when he asserts that our musical natures are “deeply embedded in the evolved passionate nature of our minds.”

Across the ages of evolution, music may well be integral to our deepest past and present self. In the resonant space between our ears, it is part and parcel of how we feel, the trembling string of our emotional core.

In the Days of the Caveman

In his 1997 book, How The Mind Works, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asserted that music is little more than “auditory cheesecake.” That deft little expression, writing off music as “an exquisite confection” with no clear evolutionary foundation, helped inspire scores of rebuttals, including Daniel Levitin’s bestselling This Is Your Brain on Music.

The phrase was also in Ed Hagen’s head when he found himself singing and syncopating to his car radio. In fact, he sang and syncopated so well, he started thinking Pinker was wrong, that this uncanny musical memory suggests a larger evolutionary benefit to learning music.

“And I thought: What could that benefit be?”

Charles Darwin, evolutionary theory’s tone-impaired progenitor, reasoned that music evolved with dance as a courtship display. The better your song and dance, the better your choice of mates and chances of reproducing. That’s a start, but Hagen wondered why singers often attract members of the same sex.

“I like Led Zeppelin,” he says. “I don’t want to mate with them.”

A second theory is that music and dance build bonds between people, conveying benefits that can help others. But it’s unclear how or why that happens, or why someone might think a good singer would make a good partner with tangible benefits.

But the musical quality of a group’s performance, thought Hagen, does signal the quality of a group.

“The question is: What is it about music that is a good signal of group quality?” says Hagen. “It goes back to this song on the radio. This ability to synchronize takes a lot of practice. It doesn’t just happen. To achieve that level of synchrony in real-life performance would take those musicians a lot of practice, individually and together, to get their music and their parts synched up.”

The group, he adds, “is willing and able to cooperate, and has done so for some time—the essence of coalition quality.”

To test his hypothesis, Hagen asked a friend and colleague, Gregory Bryant, to write a piece of music and record several versions. One had the instruments in synch. Another had 60-millisecond lags between the rhythm of the guitars, drums, and keyboard. A third had different instruments falling out of tempo. Then Hagen played tracks for students and asked several questions to gauge their perceptions of the music’s quality and the group’s quality: Did they like the music? How willing are the performers to help each other? How likely is it that the performers grew up together? How much did they practice? Do they like each other?

By every measure, the musicians who played in synch had the highest-rated relationships. With a few well-timed notes and beats over the course of a mere minute, they showed they had the motivation and ability to work together. More importantly, they signaled two things central to human well-being. One: If you come to hurt us, you better bring an army, because we’re the better group and we’ll lay you low. Two: If you would like to form an alliance with us, we’ll make it worth your while.

That last feature is particularly important for humans, says Hagen. In nature, it’s extremely common for groups of animals to be antagonistic and rare for groups of animals to cooperate with other groups. But humans are the rare animals that form cooperative relationships between groups.

And whether you’re promising a tough fight or forming a new bond, music helps make your case. It’s why you’ll find a marching band on the field when an opposing team visits and a band on the tarmac when a foreign dignitary comes to town.

“The point of the whole exercise seems to be to impress your guests with all of the things that you can do as a group,” says Hagen. “You’ve got great music. You’ve got great dance. You’ve got great clothing. You’ve got great food. You’ve got great women and men. It seems to be an exercise in signaling or demonstrating or exhibiting your qualities as a group, the things that you do as a group. And music is a big part of that.”

But as both scientists and inquisitive toddlers can attest, every answer begets another question. For Hagen, it was: Ho
w might this skill have evolved? What was music’s biological basis? He found his answer by looking across the animal world, summarizing his thoughts in the paper, “Did Neanderthals and other early humans sing?”

“If music has an evolved function, it is most likely as some sort of signal,” the paper begins.

As if to verify this claim, Hagen and I have come from Vancouver to the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Walking the grounds, Hagen notes that signals are, “ubiquitous at all levels of life—microorganisms, single-celled organisms, plant life, and animal life. And the signals may be chemical signals, visual signals, auditory signals.”

He picks up our own signaling story with the tetrapod—a four-limbed vertebrate whose appearance 400 or so million years ago marked the arrival of land-roaming animal life. One branch of the tetrapods eventually evolved into primates; another evolved into birds. When we walk into the din of the Howard Vollum Aviary, we get a small sample of how the terrestrial animal world got noisy as birds and other animals took to making sounds for all sorts of things: marking territories, finding and attracting mates, nurturing offspring.

The story continues as we visit the wild dogs and primates in the Africa exhibit. Back in the Miocene epoch, five to 20 million years ago, a large diversity of ape species lived in Africa, as well as Eurasia. But later, in the Pliocene and Pleistocene, environments got cooler and drier. Forest habitats gave way to grasslands. Now there were huge herds of herbivores and social carnivores like hyenas, lions, and wild dogs. To bring down the herbivores, packs of carnivores had to communicate and work together. They marked their spaces with howls, hoots, and roars.

Naturally, Hagen can’t go back in time to see what noises they made and to what ends. But by looking at the sounds of animals with whom we shared this Plio-Pleistocene niche, he infers we were similarly vocal. Perhaps we drummed, like great apes. We could have had coordinated pant-hoots like chimpanzees, our closest modern relatives. Perhaps, like chimps and lions, we listened and vocalized to tabulate the most important aspect of coalition quality—size—and decide if we should encounter others of our species.

“If these guys did that, human ancestors did that too,” Hagen says. “We were territorial like these guys. We were hunters, or at least carnivores— we might have been scavengers… We’re doing it in groups. We’re defending territories.”

And we did it by developing coordinated vocal signals.

“And that,” says Hagen, “is what I propose is the origin of human music. The roots.”

From there, we developed what might be called modern music, relatively speaking. Some 50,000 to 150,000 years ago saw the emergence of modern ritual, symbolic behavior, art. Music, says Hagen, was probably part of that, advertising and lubricating the complex intergroup relationships and politics of an emerging humanity.

For Crying Out Loud

A few years ago, Sheila Converse, a vocalist and professor of music, performed in Giuseppe Verdi ’s opera, “La Traviata.” A few months later, she was in a California big-box store, staring at boxes of cereal, when the sensations of the performance vividly came back to her. She could smell the makeup and feel the texture of her wardrobe. Weirder still, the feeling seemed to come from nowhere. She had to think about it for a moment before realizing the opera’s score was playing on the store sound system.

“We react physically to sound before we react intellectually to sound,” she says one afternoon in her office, where she can practice on a baby grand piano looking north to Kamiak Butte. “Music uses those same channels, because it’s sound. So often it goes to our emotional centers and our motor centers at the same time or before it goes to our processing centers.”

To be sure, modern music appreciation is in many ways an intellectual, cognitive act: interpreting lyrics, tracking the flow of the melody and harmony. But music is most powerful when it reaches deep into the emotional core of our brain. In a way, it’s resonating with a fundamental part of our being. Jaak Panksepp has spent much of his career pondering and probing that special place. At times, as a form of what he calls “hobby research,” he’s done it through music.

Hobby or not, it’s challenging. The brain is a brilliant but mysterious organ; research in music and the brain is a particularly young science. But to see how music affects our hearts and minds, it can help to look at how the brain’s architecture is the embodiment of its evolution.

“You have to think about the brain as an evolved organ with layers,” Panksepp says. “What came first stays in the middle and farther back, deeper. What came more recently is added on, and there are expansions forward. So it’s an encephalised organ. We don’t see that in the heart or muscles.”

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, Panksepp used electrical stimulation in different mammal brains to identify specific emotional networks with adaptive features aiding survival and reproduction. A brain region associated with what he called seeking makes us interested and engaged in our world. Fear motivates us to steer clear of danger. Lust ensures reproduction. Rage motivates us to preserve freedom and access to resources. Care nurtures the young; panic and separation distress stimulates cries that bring caretakers and other help. Joy stimulates social engagement, and we feel a particularly acute psychological pain when we lose things we value, particular people we love.

“We know that the fundamental feeling of an emotion is in the very low layers” of the brain, Panksepp says. “That’s what the animal research has told us. Of course, many people don’t like this because they experience their emotion with the full complexity of the brain.”

Once he found a social distress system built into the brain, he started to wonder if there might be a connection between separation distress, sadness, and grief with music, “the artistic language of emotion.”

He had students listen to a variety of musical pieces, including Meatloaf’s “For Crying Out Loud, You Know I Love You,” and had them document when they felt chills. He found they were much more likely to grow out of music the listeners found sad or expressing loneliness or loss. Familiar tunes are among the best for the effect. High-pitched, sustained crescendos and single, crying voices, like Meatloaf bemoaning his lost love in the fifth minute of “For Crying Out Loud,” were ideal.

When Panksepp used brain imaging to measure the reactions to chill-inducing music, the sad music was more likely to arouse the cortex, the outer area of the brain central to conscious thought.

“When you’re happy, you don’t have any problem to solve, whereas if you’re sad, you do have a problem to solve,” he says.

But the biggest changes were subcortical, “in these ancient emotional regions of the brain. When music really grabs you, it grabs these ancient systems.”

Moreover, he sees a link between the frisson-inducing musical moments and the core emotional, adaptive moments of animal existence.

“The most powerful indicator of sadness is crying,” he says, “and when music stylizes the separation cry, that is what activates the chill. That kind of sound—like a crescendo, like a single trumpet coming out of a background score, those musical moments that have a dramatic impact on you—might be similar to a mother who has lost her child, hearing the child cry. It focuses the mind and tells you the child is lost. There is a musical moment that you can make beauty out of.”

The chill could even be the brain’s thermoregulatory network sending a signal to reestablish the warmth, socially and thermally,
of body-to-body contact.

“Social connectedness is emotionally warm and comfortable,” Panksepp says. “That’s the way we envision love and attachment—this secure base. When you’re alone, you feel isolated. You feel cold. There’s a certain kind of internal pain, psychological pain. Another loving person alleviates that promptly.”

The chill could even be a way of emotionally and physically motivating a mother to care for a child.

Mother and Child Reunion

One or two million years ago, a woman gave birth. Then as now, it was difficult. The hominid brain had expanded. Baby heads were larger. To make it into the world, a would-be newborn needed a compressible skull. The mother needed a wider birth canal. Even then, it was a tight fit.

To ease the passage, the baby arrived before its brain was fully formed. If the baby was to flourish, and if the mother was to see her reproductive effort succeed, the baby needed to let its needs be known and the mother had to be fully engaged in the baby’s development.

As with her fellow primates, the mother had a repertoire of caring motions—touching, stroking, embracing, hugging. Now came something new: a set of emotional sounds, a musical dialog in which the mother and child could get and hold each other’s attention, bond emotionally, and, in the baby’s case, develop socially. Ellen Dissanayake calls this “proto-music.” A former WSU music major and an affiliate professor in the University of Washington School of Music, she hypothesizes that it was a core evolutionary moment of clear value to our species and the growth of what we now call music.

“Because this mother-infant interaction occurs everywhere—I mean, everybody does it—I can hypothesize that it’s an evolved, universal behavior,” she says.

After those early proto-musical moments, it’s easy to imagine successive millions of young mothers and babies building and refining sweet, intimate duets, cooing, calling, responding, and gesturing. It has a name: “motherese.” Like much of what we now call jazz, it is improvised in a rhythmic, coordinated call and response of high-pitched and exaggerated tones, often with split-second accuracy.

“We don’t teach babies to like this motherese,” Dissanayake says. “We don’t talk that way to anybody else. They teach us to do it for them by responding the way they do. They smile and kick and look really cute and wiggle, and that rewards us so we keep doing it.”

One such reward is the increased flow of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” “that makes the mother unknown to herself love the baby. That’s the nuts and bolts of this interaction.”

It’s as if the music of mom is the ancestral food of love.

Dissanayake, the author of What Is Art For? (see spring 2009 issue), sees the mother-child duet eventually getting emancipated into a formalized and ritualized ensemble performance. The rhythms and tones that transfixed mother and child became the notes, chords, motifs, and beats that built, sustained, and shaped the emotions of performers and audiences—who in aboriginal cultures are often one and the same. Incorporated into ceremonies, they allayed fears, cushioned grief, encouraged romance, bonded lovers, and fostered the coordination and cooperation of people.

“Rhythm and doing things together also helps to allay anxiety,” says Dissanayake, “and there was a lot of anxiety in pre-modern life.”

Today, it’s possible to imagine music helping build bonds between groups of opera fans or disenfranchised, rebellious teens drawn to their chosen genre. A headphone-clad student may seem oblivious to the humanity walking by, but we might still see him or her as being locked into what Panksepp calls “a social domain.”

But to more fully appreciate music’s role, rewind the past few hundred or thousand years, what Dissanayake calls the recent modern “nanosecond of evolutionary time.” Then, she says, you’ll see music and the act of making music as an essential of human life.


On the web

Did Neanderthals and other early humans sing? Seeking the biological roots of music in the loud calls of primates, lions, hyenas, and wolves (Ed Hagen, WSU, and Peter Hammerstein, Musicae Scientiae, 291-320. PDF)

If music is the food of love, what about survival and reproductive success? (Ellen Dissanayake, Musicae Scientiae 2008 Special Issue: 169-195. PDF)

Emotional sounds and the brain: the neuro-affective foundations of musical appreciation (Jaak Panksepp and Günther Bernatzky, Behavioural Processes 60 (2002) 133/155. PDF)

Music and the Brain  – A series of podcasts from the Library of Congress :: The Library’s Music and the Brain events offer lectures, conversations and symposia about the explosion of new research at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and music. Project chair Kay Redfield Jamison convenes scientists and scholars, composers, performers, theorists, physicians, psychologists, and other experts at the Library for a compelling 2-year series, with generous support from the Dana Foundation.