Evolution of Human Music through Sexual Selection.

By G.F. Miller in N.L. Wallin, B. Merker, & S. Brown (Eds.).

The Origins of music, MIT Press, pp 329-360


Presented by: Alana Pontrelli, Luky Pongquan, JC Santos



     In the 1900’s Darwin’s idea that human music, like bird songs, had evolved to attract sexual mates was ignored. Very few theorists had thoroughly researched the idea that music’s benefits were reproductive and sexually selected to function as a courtship display. Darwin considered music to be the “single best example of mate choice having shaped a human behavioral trait” (2).  In this article, Miller makes the argument that music is a complex biological adaptation and that its primary function evolved to attract mates for reproductive purposes.

     Darwin supports his idea by presenting the argument that human music is a biological adaptation. He cites the universality of music across cultures and history. In addition, he brings up the vital point that all humans are receptive to musical tones and rhythm suggesting that this is a biological function that requires no conscious awareness to produce. Humans have the inherent ability to generate musical abilities with hardly any effort. To further support the idea that human music is a complex biological adaptation, the article relates music with language. It contains many of the same complex qualities that language does, yet it does embody its own uniqueness. First, it is universal across time and the human species. Second, it occurs during a specific developmental period suggesting that music production increases after puberty and peaks during young adulthood when courtship behavior is intense, then it subsides as the adult grows older and must attend to parental demands. Third, it involves specialized memory capacity where adults can recognize and reproduce tunes. Fourth, it shows strong cortical lateralization. Music also has clear similarities with other species (ex. birds, whales) and it can provoke strong emotions. Unlike other skills that must be practiced and learned, music is a “species-typical trait of man” (5).

     There are four specific questions that evolutionary biologists focus their attention on regarding music, its purpose and its benefits. This adaptionist approach allows theorists to view music in a cost-benefit spectrum. Every trait has costs because they all require energy or matter to be used. Dancing, singing, and the production and creation of music would have had high costs on our ancestors. These costs include; music is noisy and would attract predators, it requires energy for a long period of time, practice and the time spent practicing to perform at optimum level, and it also prevents young children from getting their rest. Only a small minority of potential traits actually evolves because the benefits of their fitness exceed the costs of fitness.

Two types of sexual selection were identified by Darwin in the 1900’s; aggressive rivalry and mate choice. While rivalry produces weapon and fighting between males, mate choice produces ornaments that the males “wear” to attract the females. Until recently, sexual selection viewed males as constantly fighting to attain the “possession” of females and rejecting the possibility that females had a choice concerning their mates. Indicators became an aspect of sexual selection since it was thought to allow animals to “advertise reproductively imprint things like age, health, fertility, status, and general fitness” (7). The article mentions that music shows many elements that may function as indicators such as rhythm, singing in key, virtuosic performance, and melodic creativity. Although the indicators functions for music are still tentative the author suggests that established methods for testing indicator hypotheses are available.




            Miller states that from the sexual selection theory, one can hypothesize that music and displays, such as dancing, can function as an indicator to a potential mate.  The indicator hypotheses involves the idea that music was used an indicator for reproductive potential. For example, dancing can be an indicator of one's aerobic fitness, coordination, strength, and health.  Singing can represent voice control that shows self-confidence, status, and extroversion.  Rhythm can indicate the complexity and development of the brain.  Melodic Creativity can show the learning capabilities and social intelligence to be able to produce a kind of harmony.  Miller makes an important point that the indicators do not immediately provoke copulation, but instead works as a slow and long term advantage.  There is no specific direct benefit of sexual reproduction, but the female or male may put into memory one's musical behavior, which can lead to becoming a sexual prospect.

            Miller then goes on to discuss the specificity of music as a aesthetic display.  The basic idea involves a species bias to like another species because of his or her display.  For example, bright colors are more often preferred for mate choice to duller colors.  For music or sound displays, louder is often more preferred to softer sounds.  In addition, lower pitch sounds are also more preferred then higher pitch sounds.  A longer duration of music is also more preferred then a shorter sound or duration. Lastly, a musical form that is higher in complexity is often more preferred then one with a lower complexity.  The advantage of an aesthetic display revolves around the idea that what we find appealing today may have been appealing for our ancestors, which confirms how sexual selection theory favored mates with musical behavioral traits.

            Miller moves on to discuss how the preference for mates with musical behavioral traits may have evolved through the runaway theory.  This theory suggests that music was emotionally moving or inspiring for the females, which paralleled the males increase in that specific trait of musical performance.  More importantly, the preference for that trait passed down from generations to generations, causing an explosion for mates with musical capabilities. 

            He then discusses how creativity in human music was favored over ritualization in many other species. For example, frogs have a ritualized call to warn other male competitors and attract the females.  Ritualization has four features, redundancy, conspicuousness, stereotype, and alerting components.  Redundancy is defined as the idea that there is a repetition over time.  Conspicuousness is defined as a high intensity.  A stereotype means a type of standardized component used throughout that species.  Lastly, a alerting component is defined as a functional warning for predators.  However, human music did not have a complete ritualization of music.  There needed to be a sense of creativity to make it interesting and project to the potential mate, that he or she will be entertaining in the long term run.  The creativity of music also represented intelligence to the potential mate.

            In the next section, Miller discusses how human music was found 40,000 years ago in the Pleistocene.  For example, the Neanderthal had created a bone flute 40,000 years ago.  There have also been cave paintings in the Upper Paleolithic age that shows dancing. This data suggests that human music was common and sophisticated by 40,000 years ago.

            An important question, Miller states is why music is made in groups?  Although one may presume that music evolved through group selection, Miller points out that music made in-groups actually show an individual advantage and costs.  Music made in-groups may not have been for the entire group.  Group selection could enforce this kind of musical trait, but the advantages of reproduction were specific for the individual. 

            Lastly, Miller concludes that there should be more data to further understand the complexities of human music. Although there has been studies done on the communication, language, and calls of animal species, there has not been many studies that examined the evolution of music for humans.




"Music is a biological adaptation, universal within our species, distinct from other adaptations, and too complex to have arisen except through direct selection from some survival or reproductive benefit."




Article Outline


Introduction: A Darwinian approach to music evolution

-         analogy with study of bird songs and human music

-         both aid survival through sexual selection theory


Darwin on human music


            -considered music the single best example of mate choice

            -strategy for arguing that human music is a biological adaptation and a product of sexual selection: “biological adaptation”= requires no conscious awareness

            -both men and women produce music

-rationale is that sexually selected traits are present in both sexes and he assumed both male and female mate choices among our ancestors


An Adaptionist approach to music


            -Four key questions of evolutionary biologists

1.)    What is “music” for?

2.)    What adaptive functions are served by specific behaviors connect to music (i.e. singing, chanting, humming, whistling etc)?

3.)    Why did the fitness benefits of music (making and listening) exceed the fitness costs?

4.)    Music can be thought of as a type of signal emitted to influence the behavior of its receiver: who generates these signals, under what conditions, to what purpose? Who receives these signals and whom does it benefit?


-         Fitness: the survival or reproductive advantages of a trait that outweighs costs

Survival & Reproduction advantages > costs


            -Costs include


                        -attracts predators

                        -long periods of practice

                        -disturbs sleeping babies


Design Features of Language and Music


            -Music = Language

1.)    universal across cultures and recorded history

2.)    appears according to a standard development schedule

-increases after puberty, peaks in young adulthood during the period of intense courtship, and declines gradually with age and parenting demands

3.)    involves a specialized memory capacity

4.)    convergent evolution (similar to birds and whales)

5.)    provokes strong emotions which suggest a biological adaptation for production and reception

6.)    musical abilities show strong cortical lateralization


Sexual Selection theory: the Basics


-         2 different types of sexual selection

1.)    aggressive rivalry

2.)    mate choice

-         based on indicators such as age, health, fertility, status, and fitness (ex. Peacock’s tail)

-suggests that music may be a set of sexually-selected indicators



Sexual Selection Theory


I.                    Indicator Hypothesis Theory

A.     Music functions as indicators

-          dancing reveals aerobic fitness, coordination, strength, and health

-         Voice control ó self confidence, status, and extroversion vs. nervousness

-         Rhythm ó brain more developed and complex

-         Melodic creativity ó social intelligence and maximal learning capability

-         Virtuosic performance ó motor coordination and sexual availability

-         **Does not provoke immediate copulation, works indirectly by putting themselves into memory of a sexual prospect which can influence mating decision later

B.     Music as Sexually Selected Aesthetic display

-         BASIC IDEA: mate choice works through animal sensation, perception, and cognition ó some animals have a bias towards one then another for courtship displays

-         i.e. Bright colors preferred more then duller colors

-         larger displays over smaller displays

-         higher contrast over lower contrast

-         i.e. for sounds displays

-         louder rather then softer

-         more frequent rather than less frequent

-         longer in duration rather than shorter

-         lower in pitch rather then higher

-         higher in complexity rather than lower

-         Advantage of aesthetic Display: any aspect of music that we find appealing could also have been appealing to our ancestors ó lead to sexual selection in favor of musical productions

-         Outcome: Runaway Theory: Any emotional or spiritual preference that influence mate choice

-         music that emotionally moved or inspired tended to attract more females ó which caused an increase in the females preferential trait to mate with males who exhibit the characteristic

-         The interaction of Ritualization and creativity in human music

-         4 Features of Ritualization ó recognizable

-         redundancy

-         conspicuousness

-         stereotype (standardized)

-         alerting components

-         Human Music had to be creative because it makes it interesting

-         shows that you can keep them entertained and not bored

-         indication of intelligence and creativity

-         Human Music in the Pleistocene

-         Neanderthal Bone Flute in 40, 000 yr. ago

-         Cave in Upper Paleolithic painting show dancing

-         Shows that human music was common and sophisticated by 40,000 yr. ago

-         Why is Music made in groups?

-         Even though music made in groups, does not mean that it is made for the entire group

-         there is an individual advantage and costs for the musical behavior

-         group selection can enforce this kind of musical trait but it works for the individual

-         i.e. concerts ó meet a lot of potential mates, music more fun with other people around

-         Conclusion

-         more studies need to be done (i.e. quantitative data on humans)


"Music is a biological adaptation, universal within our species, distinct from other adaptations, and too complex to have arisen except through direct selection from some survival or reproductive benefit."