A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a lecture by Jamshed Bharucha. Currently the president of Cooper Union, he has spent his research career investigating music cognition and its neural correlates. During the talk, he presented a few cool findings, as well as his theory for the purpose of music. (Keep in mind that many psychologists, including Steven Pinker, think that music is a side effect – an accident – of the evolution of language, and that it does not necessarily have any additional survival purpose).
The first intriguing part of Jamshed’s talk actually connected music to language. One of his students remarked that she sometimes perceived melodic intervals in people’s everyday speech, and that these intervals related to speaker’s emotional state. To test this, Jamshed brought in professional actors to read lines in different ways – angry, happy, sad, and pleasant. For example, “Let’s go” was read as “Let’s go!” or “Let’s gooo” (in a whiny, tearful way), depending on the emotion that the actor was assigned to portray. Strikingly, the melodic interval of almost every sad reading was a descending minor third – an interval that has been associated with sadness over many, many years of music composition. The intervals for the happy readings were more scattered, while there were two distinct intervals that reflected anger (I don’t remember which). To me, this made sense, because the efficient communication of negative emotions is usually way more crucial to survival than communication of positive emotions (e.g., “A predator is coming!”).
So, one might think that Jamshed’s theory of the purpose of music is the same as that for language – communication, but more specifically, the communication of affect. However, he mentioned that there is much more to music than emotion. Most musicians talk about structure – things like tempo, timbre, chords, etc. that go beyond producing certain feelings in the listener. So maybe it’s not emotion that music tries to communicate to other people, but rather, brain states in general. Our brains tend to respond to music in similar ways, so when we share music with other people or listen to it with them, our brain states are synchronized with theirs. This synchronization leads to social cohesion, since people with similar brain states might feel a connection with each other! In fact, we do see that music is a significant factor in the formation of identity in teenagers and adolescents (as I’ve mentioned before, musical tastes tend to stabilize by 18, probably because you’ve lived through the most important years for social cohesion – that is, for aligning yourself with people with whom you share similarities). And music has long been used as a tool in religion and small societies for bringing people together. After all, what makes you feel more connected with others than singing and dancing? Music may even predate language as a way for people to communicate very simple brain states.
To take this theory further, this may be why people who are friends or lovers tend to like the same things – the same types of music, movies, art, etc…because shared experience leads to social cohesion. Liking the same music means that your brain states are aligned when you both listen to it, and this helps to foster relationships. I would be curious to see if there is any research on “bonding” hormones, such as oxytocin, and the shared experience of music.