This past year, I have been on a quest to understand more about what music does for us. What are the benefits? Why do we enjoy it? Where did it start? The scientist buried deep under my liberal artist wanted to know the biological purpose for music in our lives. It has survived for so long, and there is evidence of instruments that goes back to the time of the Neanderthals, so surely there is a reason it has stuck around and continues to have an impact. The short answer is, there unfortunately isn’t a whole lot of evidence evolutionarily that explains the purpose of music. The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought music was useless. We don’t need it for survival.
However, physics and cognition researcher Leonid Perlovsky believes the contrary: music serves a “universal purpose.” In one experiment, a group of 4-year-olds discredited the value of a toy in having to choose a favorite, but when they were asked to do the same thing while music was playing, they still played with the toy, despite it not being their favorite. In a group of 15-year-olds, while music was playing, they spent more time working on more difficult problems on a multiple choice test, which resulted in higher test scores. In both of these studies, the presence of the music created a calming effect that allowed the subjects to complete a task they were otherwise uncomfortable with.
Perlovsky concludes that the biological purpose of music is to give us a sense of peace in a world that doesn’t always make sense. Music is calming and provides a balance in our lives. “Music soothes the difficulties involved processing conflicting information.”
Take that, Kant!