Humans have made music for tens of thousands of years, going back to prehistoric times. Archaeologists have even found remnants of a “flute” fashioned by Neanderthals. And in recent years, neuroscientists and psychologists have uncovered further evidence that music has been intertwined with human evolution. Judging by the ways that our brains and bodies respond, it seems humans may be wired for music.
Music appreciation starts at birth. Research has found that lullabies lower heart rates and induce deeper sleep in infants; infants also have shown the ability to identify fundamental properties of music, such as pitch and rhythm, with the same accuracy as musicians. In fact, in a recent study, brain scans of two- and three-day-old babies indicated that they recognized a drumming pattern and were surprised when the drummer missed a beat.
As children, songs help us learn essential knowledge, including the letters of the alphabet and the names of the 50 states—a learning device that continues to serve us well into adulthood, suggesting to neuroscientists that music plays a pivotal role in helping the brain form new pathways.
As we all know, music also has a huge influence on our emotions—a fact recently documented at the neural level. Research by Robert Zatorre at the Montreal Neurological Institute has shown that when people listen to music they say they enjoy, their brain activity spikes in regions involved in reward and motivation. On the flip side, another study found that dissonant music activates brain structures involved in unpleasant emotional states.
In his recent book Musicophilia, neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks tells intriguing tales of how music has helped those suffering from neurological disorders. For instance, he writes, music has been shown to bring words to the mouths of stroke patients who are otherwise unable to speak; liberate people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, inspiring relatively motionless people to move; and improve the mood, behavior, and cognitive functioning of people with Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Even for people with advanced dementia, hearing old, familiar songs can rummage up seemingly lost memories, especially motor memories that go with certain dances.
And humans aren’t the only animals whose brains seem wired for music. Extensive neuroscience research on birds has found that they produce new brain cells, a process called “neurogenesis,” at higher rates during the months when they are learning the greatest number of new songs. Researchers have even identified genes in birds and mammals that are associated with the ability to learn songs and develop language.
What’s more, animals ranging from great apes to whales to seals have been found to make music, whether through drumming or singing. And in one study, when a researcher tried to teach koi (cousins to goldfish) to associate certain music with a food reward, the results showed that the fish were able to distinguish classical music from the blues! The language of music may indeed be universal.
Taken together, this research suggests the deep evolutionary roots of music, and music’s primal role in human development. Music truly provides a window into human emotion, memory, and learning. And you can dance to it, too.