Music: A Drug, Which Used To Be Stronger Than It Is Now

16 October, 2007
If music is like a drug, then why haven't we evolved resistance to it? Or have we indeed already evolved resistance? In which case, the emotional and pleasurable effect of music may have been much stronger in the past than it is now.

In a previous article, I asked: Is Music a Drug?

One question I didn't ask in that article is:

If music is a drug, which creates false feelings, why haven't we evolved resistance to it?

This is a reasonable question to ask. After all, we have been listening to music for at least 9,000 years, which should be long enough for some degree of resistance to evolve.

So I asked myself this question, and after I had asked it, a possible answer occurred to me: maybe we already have. In other words, maybe music used to be a much stronger drug than it is now. So strong that it corrupted our minds and distracted us fatally from solving life's problems. Perhaps so strong that it almost made the human species go extinct from self-neglect.

But now we have developed a partial resistance to this effect that music has on us. For whatever reason, the resistance is not total, and music continues to have emotional and pleasurable effects on us, but, these effects are but residual shadows of what music used to be.

The Alleged "Niceness" of Music

An underlying theme in most analyses of music is that music is something "nice" and "good". This assumption tends to dominate even scientific analyses of music, with the implication that if music exists, it must exist to serve some biological purpose and be beneficial with respect to long-term reproductive success.

This "niceness" assumption can be seen within some of the more popular theories of music:

The niceness assumption is rarely stated as such, but it often betrays itself when the authors of scientific articles and papers write introductions which describe music using warm fuzzy words like "rich" and "wonderful".

The Niceness of Drugs

If a junkie was writing about the effects of heroin, he or she might be inspired to describe heroin as "wonderful", possibly even more "wonderful" than music. But most of us would recognise that this was a purely subjective view, and one that ignores the overall and long-term negative effects of strong mind-altering drugs.

And from a purely biological point of view, we know that strong drugs do not serve any biological purpose at all; the only reason for their consumption is the corrupting effect that they have on the internal reward systems in the brains of those who consume then.

What this example teaches us is that if something is "nice", and we don't know what it is for, then it may not necessarily be an adaptation.

Which may be the case for music.

What If Early Modern Humans Had Found An Easy Way to Make A Really Strong Drug?

One of the major risks of being a more intelligent species is that you are better at corrupting your own biological motivational systems. And modern humans are very good at inventing dangerous pleasures.

What if our early ancestors had found a way to invent a strong drug, for example, 70,000 years ago? (There's a reason why I choose this time, which I explain in a later article.)

If the drug in question was easy enough to make, then it would have been impossible to avoid the temptation to take it. If even children could make it for themselves, then there would be little hope of making it to adulthood without succumbing.

If might seem that group selection could protect the species as a whole from such a threat. But if we consider detailed scenarios, it doesn't work out. Consider a tribe X which has given in to the drug, and has ceased to make any serious effort to look after itself or to defend itself. Tribe Y attacks tribe X. Tribe Y meets little resistance. They kill all the men, and all the children. But of course we cannot expect victorious warriors to struggle for nothing, so the women from the defeated tribe are enslaved and kept as second wives. Some of these women introduce their new husbands to the secret pleasure. And now tribe Y is screwed as well.

What if Music Was That Drug?

If we think of music as a drug, then it is a temptation even more difficult to avoid than a chemical drug. Absolutely no ingredients are required to make it other than the knowledge of what sounds to make. Melody comes from the voice, and rhythm can be provided by banging any number of objects together. And you have less choice about whether to "consume" it, because if someone nearby decides to start making music, then you are going to hear it.

The Evolution of Resistance

If our early ancestors had found an easy recipe for a drug as strong as heroin, this would have created an immediate selective pressure for their bodies to become resistant to that drug. Of course if the effects of a drug depend on its similarity to the brain's own chemicals, there may be limited options for evolving resistance, since the design of the brain is somewhat "locked in" to the various neurotransmitters that it uses for communication. After all, if we consider alcohol, which has been around for a long time, we can see that any resistance that we have evolved to that drug is fairly limited (given the observed frequency of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems in the general population).

To consider how difficult it might be to evolve resistance to the drug-like effects of music, we need to have some understanding of why music has such an effect.

Given the persistence and universality of music, whatever it is that causes music to exist must be a very basic and important brain function, one that is too important to do without. At the same time, given the complete non-obviousness of what the purpose of our response to music is, this function must be one that is currently hidden from us.

I will consider a possible theory about what this function might be, and what that implies about the evolution of resistance to music, in my next article.