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The Music Instinct

March 7, 2010

Guy Dammann in The Observer:

In How the Mind WorksSteven Pinker laid down the evolutionary-psychological law about music. “Music,” he put it, “is auditory cheesecake.” For those who avoid cheesecake, whether administered orally or aurally, he added: music is “a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest … to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once”.

Understandably, some people took against this remark. Humanity accords cheesecake (and even recreational drugs) a certain respect, but to equate them with music? A universal element of human culture that is at the same time unknown in animal societies, music seems to reach to the very core of what it means to be human. The sense of communal identity in many tribal societies is built and maintained through musical activity, while the average western citizen allows music a role in his or her sense of individual identity vastly more formative than any other art form.

Those taking umbrage at Pinker’s cheesecake quip fell into two opposing camps. On the side of evolutionary science, many thought he had simply failed to grasp the nettle: since it is indisputably the case that humankind in some sense needs music, there must be an evolutionary account that explains this need along the lines attempted by Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. [More]

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