How did music evolve? Harvard study reveals a surprising theory. No, it’s not a sexual mating call

A battle is brewing among musical anthropologists. A plucky new article in the academic journal Behavior and Brain Sciences argues that the prevailing views on the evolution of music are “incomplete or wrong.” In academia, those are fighting words.

Music has long been hypothesized to have emerged either as a tool of social bonding, as a mating call, or as an inadvertent byproduct of other brain abilities like speaking and hearing. Psychologist Steven Pinker took the latter view, memorably describing music as “auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.”

Now, two Harvard psychologists, a UCLA cognitive scientist, and an anthropologist from Washington State have joined forces to swat down those theories: “I don’t think we can completely dismiss the ‘auditory cheesecake’ hypothesis, but it really doesn’t offer a very compelling explanation for the entire package of evidence,” says coauthor Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University, pointing out that many species make similar vocal signals.


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