The Mystery of Music

Finn McBride
5 min readJan 7, 2023

Music is wiggly air. Yet it can make us feel the deepest of emotions. Why? Come with me on a journey, dear reader, as we try to answer this question.

In 1997, the well-known linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker ignited a firestorm with his claims about music, which were made in a very popular and influential book, How the Mind Works. In the book, he wrote the following:

As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world. Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to simulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.

Later, he makes a final, scalding judgement:

I suspect that music is auditory cheesecake, and exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots… of our mental faculties.

As could be expected, his claims were met with anger. Many were unable to square the idea that one of the most intimate elements of their emotional lives could be nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.” To make matters worse, Pinker at one point even compares music to pornography: a spandrel that only exists because it exploits aspects of our evolved minds.

One common criticism of Pinker’s ideas about music was that they suffered from what evolutionary biologists call the “bias for the EEA” (environment of evolutionary adaptedness). This bias pushes thinkers to think about the human mind as something who’s development was essentially finished about 100,000 years ago. It pushes them to believe that all of our fundamental adaptation and evolution took place before this date, and that all the things that have come after are nothing but applications and exploitations of a cognitive architecture that had already been laid down.

In the archeologist Steven Mithen’s book The Prehistory of the Mind, he provides an important challenge to this bias, pointing out that an important revolution in human adaptation took place as early as 40,000 years ago, when things like art, religion, and complex, multi-part tools started to make their way to the core of human culture. I’m not going to go through Mithen’s entire argument, but in short he argues that this revolution can be attributed to what he calls “cognitive fluidity”: a spike in creativity and innovation that occurs when previously isolated modules of our cognitive architecture become more readily accessible to one another.

Just because some of his assumptions may be flawed, however, doesn’t mean that Pinker’s ideas about music don’t have merit. As a linguist, he understands that language has an element known as prosody: the musical element, dealing with tone, tempo, rhythm, melody, etc. To view music as an exaptation of prosody — as a way for us to play with the rawer, more emotional, less semantic elements of language — makes a lot of sense.

Despite this, there is evidence to suggest that music is not a derivation of language, but that language may in fact be a semanticization of music. For example, homo heidelbergensis, the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals, had remarkably well-developed vocal apparatuses, comparable to those of modern humans. However, homo heidelbergensis lived 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, while language developed no later than 80,000 years ago. So what did they need such complex vocal apparatuses for, if not for some type of proto-language that had tone, rhythm, emotion, expression… but no words? And what could such a proto-language be but music?

Another piece of evidence for this idea lies in the size of canals found in the base of ancient human skulls. The more articulatory work the tongue does, the larger the nerve that supplies it. And the larger the nerve, the larger the opening in the base of the skull that this nerve passes through. Thus, we can get a decent idea of how many sounds an ancient human was making based on the size of a canal in the base of their skull. And, while apes and monkeys have comparatively small canals, humans who lived long before language developed had canals nearly identical to those of humans living today.

In the words of Solomon Henschen, “The musical faculty is phylogenetically older than language; some animals have a musical faculty — birds in a high degree. It is also ontogenetically older, for the child begins to sing earlier than to speak.” If music is indeed this primitive, that would explain why it is so universal, to the point that Norwegians acculturated to a Western musical tradition make precisely the same associations between emotions and musical intervals as are made in ancient Indian music, which is radically different in many ways.

Regardless of music’s origins, however, one thing cannot be denied: it’s beauty. Some, such as David Deutsch, the father of quantum computing, have been so taken by its beauty as to say that it is an objective property of the universe, transcending all of human thought, culture, and experience. And equal to the power of this beauty is its mysteriousness. In the words of Darwin:

How the sense of beauty in its simplest form — that is, the reception of a peculiar kind of pleasure from certain colors, forms, and sounds — was first developed in the mind of man and of the lower animals, is a very obscure subject … how the sense of beauty in its simplest form was first acquired, — we do not know.

We do not know… but we can guess. One of my favorite theories of beauty comes from the philosophy Maurice Merleau-Ponty, drawing on ideas that have strong roots in Plato.

According to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, there is a firm schism between appearance and reality. At the core of Kant’s philosophy is the idea of noumena, things in themselves, and phenomena, the appearances of the things. According to Kant, an insurmountable gap exists between noumena and phenomena, and human beings are destined to spent eternity studying phenomena, never penetrating to the noumena beneath them.

For Kant, appearances obscure reality. In general, Merleau-Ponty agrees with this, but he doesn’t believe that appearances always obscure reality. According to Merleau-Ponty, there is an exception. And in a very Platonic vein, Merleau-Ponty claims that this exception is beauty: that in beauty appearances are opening us up to the depths of reality, rather than closing us down.

I don’t know if Merleau-Ponty is right, but I’ve certainly had experiences that lend his view credence. I’ve sometimes felt while listening to music, for example, that the music was imparting deeper truths upon me than science, philosophy, or any object in the world of phenomena ever could. Maybe this is a trick of the mind. Maybe it is, in Pinker’s words, “auditory cheesecake.” But there’s always the possibility that it’s not.

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Finn McBride

The Skrillex of blogging. My Wattpad is @ireallylovemangos