Is music part of the "human nature" of Homo sapiens?
More precisely, is music "an evolutionary adaptation embedded in our biology?" Or is it just a pleasurable but useless leisure activity like some of us consider golfing, or in Steven Pinker's immortal words, "auditory cheesecake?"
In Theme and Variations, I argue for the human-nature concept along with other scientists who, with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, claim that "music is the universal language of mankind." Now we have more evidence to support our argument.
Other behavioral patterns we might call human nature include language, religion, mate preference, kinship systems, social relationships, morality, political and economic beliefs, and alas, violence and war.
In a recent issue of Science, 19 scientists report on a large collaborative study from a dozen prestigious institutions around the world (three where I have been: Eastman School of Music, Washington University, Penn State). Those authors include Steven Pinker.
The group systematically analyzed a huge body of data – "conducted a natural history of song" – about the features of vocal music accumulated over almost 100 years from 315 small societies around the globe, including native the American Hopi, Blackfoot, and Iroquois and distant others like Kurds, Tajik, and Turkmen. They studied, 1) ethnographic texts on musical behavior, i.e., writings about the circumstances where music is played and heard, and 2) audio field recordings of four kinds of songs, those for dance, healing, love, and lullaby. They applied "tools of computational social science" . . . to answer six questions, including, "Does music appear universally?" i.e., does every human society on the planet play and listen to music?
Conclusions, amply illustrated by charts, pictures, and diagrams, are: "Music 1) is, in fact, universal: It exists in every society . . . , 2) regularly supports certain types of behavior, and 3) has acoustic features that are systematically related to the goals and responses of singers and listeners . . . . 4) It is produced worldwide in diverse behavioral contexts that vary in formality, arousal, and religiosity. 5) Music does appear to be tied to specific perceptual, cognitive, and affective faculties, including language (all societies put words to their songs), motor control (people in all societies dance), auditory analysis, and 6) all musical systems have signatures of tonality . . . ."