Music, ethics, evolution at TEDxTWU

Here’s the text of a TEDxTWU talk I gave for TWU’s 50th anniversary weekend on music, ethics, and evolution.

Music, Ethics, and Evolution

15 Sept 2012


What is music for?

Today I want to explore one small question: “What is music for?” Maybe I should have said ‘short question’ because it surely isn’t a small question. Music is something we are all drawn to. We all participate in music and collect music. We can’t explain why we are so drawn to music, but we want to. But how often do we ask what music is for? As this is a complex question, I won’t leave you in suspense. Here’s how I answer this question:

Music places us into relationships with others. It asks us to see the world with and for others. It is for loving your neighbor. In short, music is for ethical relationships.

Today I’ll explain why this is my answer by looking at how we experience music and by touching on some of the science of music, especially cultural evolution. If I’m successful, you will say ‘yes, of course, I know that’. But agreeing with my answer of what music is for means radically rethinking the ways that we think about, consume, and use music.

Before answering our main question, perhaps we should start at an even more fundamental question:

What is music?

Surely now we’ve gotten to an easier question. Well, not really.

One answer is that music is ‘universal’. It is true that there is no known culture now or in the past that doesn’t have something like music (Cross 1999,10). But now complications arise, because while musicality is a human universal, musical practice and features are not. We would be hard pressed to find common traits to tie together different musical practices (Nettl 2005, 17). Of course, the most common claim accompanying the idea that music is universal is that everyone then should appreciate Mozart or Bach. While globalization has created a shared culture in which people from all over the world appreciate music from Adele to Beethoven to Coltrane, this does not mean that music is universal.

New Zealand, 1642

Here’s a story to explain what I mean: In 1642, a ship of Dutch explorers spotted a group of indigenous people off the coast of New Zealand. The Dutch signaled with trumpets, and the New Zealander’s signaled back. The Dutch took this as a sign of greeting, and sent an unarmed boat to land. Their trumpet, however, had been heard as an invitation to fight, and they killed most of the sailors (Lodge 2009, 627). In this situation, the Dutch explorers assumed the universality of music, and paid for the mistake with their lives.

There are even more differences in ideas about music. Our particular situation of purchasing and owning music is quite recent when taking a larger historical view. Even though all cultures have music, there is no ‘universal’ music. Musical practice can best be thought of as a family resemblance. You might have a nose like your grandpa’s, eyes like your aunt, and ears like your second-cousin. Get the four of you together and you can see that you are all related, but you cannot find one feature to tie you all together.

So, what is music?

So, perhaps we can answer the ‘what is music’ question this way:

Musical is a culturally particular practice, but the biological capacity for music is universal.

In other words, we all have the ability to make music, but we make music in different ways. But is there anything more universal to music than this? We’ll need to take a closer look if we are to answer this on our quest to ask what music is for.

One of the common misconceptions about music – unfortunately often through exaggerated claims in the media – is that scientific studies result in universal claims about music. Lots of the work in the science and neuroscience of music is valuable, but instead of getting to musical universals it most often teaches us about musical responses within our culture. And then there are times when claims that are just plain wrong become overblown.

Baby Geniuses

How many of you have something branded ‘Baby Mozart’ or ‘Baby Einstein’ or ‘Baby “some smart person’s name here”’ around? Well, let’s look at the what led to the idea that flashing some lights and playing Mozart through some 1980s sounding synthesizers will make your baby a genius. Oh, and by the way, the picture you are seeing is my one year old daughter with one of her favorite toys, a flashing jukebox of synthy classical hits.

The Mozart Effect

There was a study in 1993 where the researcher got a handful of grad students to listen to some Mozart and then do a spatial reasoning test (Rauscher 1993). The study found that listening to Mozart provided a temporary rise in abstract reasoning skills (and by temporary we’re talking less than an hour). What the study didn’t show was that listening to Mozart was better at doing this than listening to Dr. Dre or going for a run. And what it sure didn’t show was that listening to classical music when you are two years old or even in utero makes you smarter. But that didn’t seem to matter. The ‘Mozart Effect’ seemed to scientifically confirm what many people believed already, mainly that the ‘great’ music could make you great as well. The ‘Mozart Effect’ made its way through popular culture and contributed greatly to the whole edu-toy movement (Slaboda 2007). This idea was so quickly accepted that in 1998 the governor of Georgia sought to buy every new baby a classical music album. Turns out a major record company stepped in and provided the albums for free, hoping to cash in on the trend.

(By the way, all of this isn’t to say that music cannot enhance childhood development. There is plenty of research showing that the mental and physical coordination required to learn an instrument does aid development.)

Music and science in the news

This trend of using science to make universal claims about music continues today (seems I cannot go week without a new headline about something new science has proved about music). Here are a couple headlines from the past couple months:

‘Study proves music is getting sadder’ (the original headline)

‘New study says music is way more depressing now’

This study makes huge assumptions, including the claim that slower music is sadder. Slower also could indicate more relaxed.

‘Pop music too loud and all sounds the same: official’ (Reuters)

  • The ‘loudness’ referenced in this study actually has to do with recording technique, not the loudness of ‘those kids and their loud music’. There are other problems too, but I won’t get into them here (check my blog).

Science can tell us lots about music, but it must be remembered that science is studying the brains and music of a particular time and place, and people in different times and places may not respond the same way.

So while the particular responses might not be universal, one thing that is universal is that we respond to music. And this leads us to the topic of entrainment.


Entrainment, roughly speaking, is the ability to coordinate rhythms with others. Let’s do a quick entrainment experiment. I’ll clap, and you follow.

Hurrah, entrainment! Now, try to get a group of dogs in a room to do the same thing! While entrainment can be found in rudimentary was in some animals (you may have seen the dancing bird on youtube), it is very sophisticated in human beings. And it goes beyond just coordinating rhythms and physical movement and includes the sharing of emotional states.

Here’s a personal example of musical entrainment in action. In the first several months of my eldest daughters life, either my wife or I rocked her to sleep while singing to her (often to the melody of Brahms’ lullaby). Singing became an import element of bedtime, a signal to calm down and get ready to sleep. Entrainment between myself and my daughter took place, resulting in a shared emotional state despite the lack of a shared spoken language. Now, when she started figuring out that bed wasn’t her favorite place, she didn’t entrain quite so easily. But then she started sining along with me, and we shared emotional and physical entrainment, and she ended up singing herself to sleep. Since the caregiver-infant relationship does not have a shared language, music provides much of the early social and emotional entrainment that establishes attachments.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples where music has created a shared place for relationships with others. Perhaps it was a feeling of togetherness when singing along to a song at a concert or church service, or maybe during the spontaneous singing of the national anthem we saw when the Olympics were in Vancouver a couple years ago. Music therapy is based on the idea that music can help people regulate and share emotions.

The Evolution of Culture

Now, this has larger implications about what music is for. One of the key moments in the evolution of our species was the ability to share with others through language, empathy, and cooperation. Since musical experience is bound to human relationships and seems to have predated language, it may have been the key to one of the most important periods in human history: the development of culture. Far from ‘auditory cheesecake’ (Steven Pinker), something nice to have but unimportant, music might have been the most important thing that human beings ever did (Cross 1999, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010). Before the development of language, music could have enabled the sharing of emotional states and the coordination of complex actions that allowed for the survival of our species and the development of culture, a distinguishing feature of human beings.

But just as music can create connection and togetherness, music can also exert violence. For example, in Guantanamo Bay, music was used as torture. I’m not talking about playing ‘Achey Breaky Heart’ all day. In this case, music from the iPods of soldiers was blasted through the prison at a level that would not allow prisoners to sleep, think, or pray. National anthems can create a sense of togetherness, but they can also exclude others. In the 1990s, Croat prisoners were forced to sing the Yugoslav national anthem while being beaten (Cloonan and Johnson 2002, 34).

Music and Ethics

So what does this all mean? How do all of these explorations help us answer our opening question: ‘What is music for?’ From looking at experiences of music and evolutionary science, it seems that one universal we can find is that music is a way of relating to others. This means that music is essentially related to ethics. In other words, music is about loving our neighbors.

Musical experience is one of the ways we interact with others in profound ways that go beyond language. Musical experience is attractive in part because it leads us beyond what we can articulate and understand and leads us to the mysteries of ourselves, other people, and beyond. Music has the potential to create ethical and violent relationships. Note that my argument has not been that certain types or styles of music are ethical, but that the key is how music is used.

If music is about the ethics of loving other people, that might mean a radical change in the ways that we think about and use music in the marketplace, in our churches, in the law, and in our daily lives. So if we answer the question ‘what is music for’ with the answer ‘to love other people’, what changes will we bring about to make that happen? This is the question I want to leave you with today: after looking more into what music is for, how can you love other people in the ways you use music?


Cloonan, M. J., Bruce. (2002). Killing Me Softly with His Song: An Initial Investigation into the Use of Popular Music as a Tool of Oppression. Popular Music Vol. 21, No. 1, 27–39.

Cross, I. (1999). Is Music the Most Important Thing We Ever Did ? Music, Development and Evolution. In S. W. Yi (Ed.), Music, Mind, and Science ? (pp. 10–39). Seoul: Seoul National University Press.

Cross, I. (2003). Music and Biocultural Evolution. In T. H. M. Martin Clayton, Richard (Ed.), The Cultural Study of Music : A Critical Introduction (pp. 19–30). London: Routledge.

Cross, I. (2008). Musicality and the Human Capacity for Culture. Musicae Scientiae Special Issue: Narrative in music and interaction, 147–167.

Cross, I. (2009). The Evolutionary Nature of Musical Meaning. Musicae Scientiae Special Issue: Music and evolution, 179–200.

Cross, I. (2010). The Evolutionary Basis of Meaning in Music: Some Neurological and Neuroscientific Implications. In F. C. Rose (Ed.), The Neurology of Music. London, Imperial College Press.

Lodge, M. (2009). Music Historiography in New Zealand. In Z. Blazekovic (Ed.), Music’s Intellectual History (pp. 625–632). New York: RILM.

Nettl, B. (2005). The Study of Ethnomusicology : Thirty-One Issues and Concepts. Urbana, Ill.; Chesham: University of Illinois Press; Combined Academic distributor.

Rauscher, F. H., Gordon L. Shaw Katherine N. Ky. (1993). Music and Spatial Task Performance. Nature Vol. 365, 611.

Slaboda, J. A. (2007). Mozart in Psychology. Music Performance Research Vol 1(1), 66–75.


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