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Origins of music in credible signaling

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 August 2020

Samuel A. Mehr
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA02138,;; Data Science Initiative, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA02138 School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington6012, New Zealand
Max M. Krasnow
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA02138,;;
Gregory A. Bryant
Department of Communication, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA90095,; Center for Behavior, Evolution, & Culture, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA90095
Edward H. Hagen
Department of Anthropology, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA98686, USA.;


Music comprises a diverse category of cognitive phenomena that likely represent both the effects of psychological adaptations that are specific to music (e.g., rhythmic entrainment) and the effects of adaptations for non-musical functions (e.g., auditory scene analysis). How did music evolve? Here, we show that prevailing views on the evolution of music – that music is a byproduct of other evolved faculties, evolved for social bonding, or evolved to signal mate quality – are incomplete or wrong. We argue instead that music evolved as a credible signal in at least two contexts: coalitional interactions and infant care. Specifically, we propose that (1) the production and reception of coordinated, entrained rhythmic displays is a co-evolved system for credibly signaling coalition strength, size, and coordination ability; and (2) the production and reception of infant-directed song is a co-evolved system for credibly signaling parental attention to secondarily altricial infants. These proposals, supported by interdisciplinary evidence, suggest that basic features of music, such as melody and rhythm, result from adaptations in the proper domain of human music. The adaptations provide a foundation for the cultural evolution of music in its actual domain, yielding the diversity of musical forms and musical behaviors found worldwide.

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All authors contributed to this paper and are listed in order of reverse seniority.


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