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Why Do We Listen to Music? (Science Responds)


Of all the fascinating theories about why it exists and how it has always existed, this one unifies them all.

One of the most evident magical elements of music, and also its most captivating, is that the motive of its transcendence has never been clear to anybody, and yet the fact is undeniable. We know that music translates other worlds into our own and strengthens our understanding, and we know that if outlives everything. But we can’t explain it. For years, philosophers and scientists have tried to determine the purpose of music in human life. For Darwin it was the only human faculty that is beyond our understanding, while Kant said that music is essentially useless because it does not provide any advantage to survival. But nevertheless he asked himself where it came from and how it works.

Each study has provided a stupendous piece to the mosaic of an answer, but a physics researcher at Harvard called Leonid Perlovsky appears to have united all the answers to provide an argument that does not sound so hare-brained. He believes that music serves a deep evolutionary function. In an article published by Conversation he summarizes years of research by arguing that “music is evolutionary adaptation, one which helps us to navigate a world full of contradictions.”

Perlovsky states that the “universal purpose” of music comes from its ability to help humans cope with cognitive dissonance, that feeling of emotional discomfort we experience when we learn new information that contradicts or opposes our existing beliefs. It is a powerful source of anxiety that affects our decision-making and learning ability. It is, in fact, one of the most studied phenomena of all social psychology, and one that we all experience several times a day.

The tendency of the individual is to seek consistency among their cognitions (either opinions or beliefs). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors, something must be done to eliminate dissonance. One way to alleviate this is by deleting or rejecting contradictory knowledge. Here, according to Perlovsky, is where music comes in.

“While language divides the world into different, scattered pieces, music unites the world as a whole,” Perlovsky writes. “Our psyche requires both.”

Music, according to his research, smoothens out the difficulties of processing new information. As proof of that he describes some experiments carried out in 2012. In one, for example, he asked a group of 4-year-old children to categorize a group of toys as “favorite” and “least favorite,” and then asked them not to play with their “second favorite.”

This led, of course, to dissonance. The children enjoyed playing with their second-favorite toy but they had difficulty rationalizing that with their definitive declaration that they didn’t like it as much as their favorite one. When the researchers tried to encourage the children to play some more, they found that they had completely devalued the chosen toy: they had suppressed their original love for it. However, when that same experiment was carried out with background music “the toy reclaimed its original value,” Perlovsky says. “The contradictory knowledge did not make the children simply reject the toy.”

In other words, music affects our perspective to the extent that conflicts, either day-to-day or deeper ones, acquire a conciliatory rhythm in our mind. His theory could be the terrain where some of the more fascinating discoveries about music come together. We have the theory that music has existed for as long as language because, like language, it is an extraordinary benefit of evolutionary adaptation. And we know that even the most stubborn senses cannot resist music.

If people are willing to deceive themselves or ignore new information, then how can human culture evolve? After all, the basis of culture is the accumulation of new knowledge, much of which contradicts existing knowledge. That is what music is for. All that remains is to find the answer to the question once asked by Aristotle: “Why does music, being just sounds, remind us of the states of our soul?”

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