Is Music Simply “Auditory Cheesecake”?

Psychologist Steven Pinker ignited a firestorm in 1997 by infamously claiming that music is auditory cheesecake—nothing but a pleasant by-product of the processes of evolutionary selection and not essential for human survival or reproduction.[1] Unlike language, which he believes to be biologically adaptive, Pinker argues that music is merely a technology that humans have invented for entertainment. Could this really be true—that music is no more than an enjoyable diversion for humankind?

Although many parents have unwittingly tried to use some form of Pinker’s argument to dissuade their college students from majoring in music, a surprising number of scholars have vigorously come to music’s defense, particularly in the sciences. A small sampling of the scientific research on music’s role in evolution includes the pioneering compendium of chapters by biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, ethologists, and linguists in The Origins of Music (2000);[2] archaeologist Steven Mithen’s articulate plea for music’s centrality in the human condition in The Singing Neanderthals (2006);[3] and Michael Arbib’s edited compilation of chapters on the development of brain mechanisms that support language and music in humans and animals in Language, Music, and the Brain: A Mysterious Relationship (2013).[4]

Thus, since the dawn of the 21st century, it appears as though the evolutionary role of music has become a hot topic for certain researchers in biology, neuroscience, and archaeology—areas that had heretofore not exactly been at the forefront of music scholarship. Clearly, many scientists have taken umbrage with Pinker’s declaration about the superficiality of music in evolutionary terms, and biomusicology has emerged as a bona-fide field.

Because of the sheer amount of new research on scientific aspects of musical behavior, traditional musicologists like me, who come from a humanistic background, are both fascinated and sometimes overwhelmed by the deluge of empirical studies on music. I believe that humanistic scholars must be part of the new scholarly conversation about music, however. On the one hand, empirical approaches to the study of musicality, which is the biological capacity to make and receive music, reveal many key insights about implicit musical behaviors that can be highly illuminating to humanists. On the other hand, traditional musicologists, who rely on analytical, interpretive, and historical methodologies, have everything to say about music as a cultural product—a manifestation of our musicality. Despite the obvious disparities in research method, I do not want to dwell on the apparent incompatibility of empirical and humanistic approaches in this essay. Instead, I would like to focus on what humanistic scholars might learn about our inherent musicality from our colleagues in the sciences. In other words, how might musicological research be enhanced by understanding more about the biological capacity to make and receive music? In this essay I will discuss one of many possible examples.

As I ponder the information I have learned about the biological aspects of music-making, one intriguing question concerns the origins of music as a species-specific adaptation. Could music be shared—at least in part—by members of other species? If so, how might that information help to redefine the way we look at music?

One of the most fascinating aspects about animal communication is the luxurious display made by some animals, whose apparent “excesses” surpass the basic purposes of communicating about territoriality or mating. [5] To this point, musicologist and semiotician Dario Martinelli argues that “human communication tends to economy of expression. With other animals this tendency is much more evident . . . Not a single sign in excess. It is thus very intriguing that an aesthetic form of communication is, in human and nonhuman animals, so rich and ‘wasteful.’ All of a sudden, the demand for economic signs disappears, and we see the message flourishing, becoming redundant, creative, and playful.” [6]

For me, the most captivating example of creativity and playfulness in animal communication is the song of the humpback whale, which seems to be uncannily reminiscent of human music. Based on research done in the 1970s by Katherine Payne, an internationally renowned acoustic biologist, humpback whales appear to be one of the most ardent and avid “composers” (Payne’s term) among all the animals whose sound communications have been studied. And one of Payne’s most interesting pieces is about the nature of innovation in whale song: “The Progressively Changing Songs of Humpback Whales: A Window on the Creative Process in a Wild Animal.” [7]

Whale song first emerges during the mating period, and variations occur constantly throughout the season. Musical phrases are introduced, abbreviated, interrupted, and substituted with new sounds in a constant process of acoustical transformation. Moreover, Payne argues that by studying the development of whale song over several years, we can recognize transitional stages in the song that demonstrate definable patterns and rules. [8] Thus, the creative play that directs whale song appears to be both structured and endlessly innovative. Even when the male stops singing temporarily during the mating season, he will pick up where he left off at the end of summer. According to Martinelli, it is as though whale song becomes a kind of self-rewarding game. [9]

While a certain amount of diversity in whale song may have allowed an individual to prevail over a competitor during mating season, one must ask why whales would continue to exceed the mark in such an elaborate display well beyond the mating period? Composer and musicologist François-Bernard Mâche surmises that such excesses turn out to be a source of pleasure and satisfaction and not a disadvantage.[10] To that point, Martinelli notes that exercising one’s natural creative powers and proclivities provides a kind of deeply rooted pleasure that German psychologist Karl Bühler calls funktionslust—a pleasure that Martinelli argues is an excellent survival strategy.[11] For whales, creating and listening to the ongoing transformation of whale song seems to provide this kind of profound joy. And for humans? Could it be that making and listening to music could satisfy an innate funktionslust?

Scholars in the sciences are now hotly debating whether the origins of music as a biological adaptation are due to social bonding, credible signaling, sexual selection, or infant survival, to name some of the contending reasons (Savage et al. 2021 and Mehr et al. 2021 are two recent examples of such debates).[12] Although I am not qualified to comment on the evolutionary viability of music as an adaptive behavior, I wonder about whether the notion of music as an example of funktionslust might somehow also figure into the discussion. Could the deep pleasure associated with the act of making and receiving music be considered one of music’s many roles that are fundamental to our survival as a species and not simply an example of auditory cheesecake? The creativity and play associated with the ongoing acoustical transformations of whale song seem to demonstrate the significance of funktionslust for joy and satisfaction among whales—arguably a genuine strategy for achieving happiness and, therefore, survival. Could musical funktionslust work similarly for humans? As a humanistic scholar, I find even the possibility of such a thought both heartening and empowering.


This post was written by Dr. Francesca R. Sborgi Lawson, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.


[1] Pinker, Steven. 1997. How the Mind Works. New York: W.W. Norton.

[2] Wallin, Nils., L., Björn Merker, and Steven Brown, eds. 2000. The Origins of Music. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

[3] Mithen, Steven. 2006. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, and Body. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[4] Arbib, Michael A., ed. 2013. Language, Music, and the Brain: A Mysterious Relationship.

Cambridge: The MIT Press.

[5] Mâche, François-Bernard. 2000. “The Necessity of and Problems with a Universal Musicology.” In Origins of Music, edited by Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown, 473-479. Cambridge: The MIT Press; Sebeok, Thomas A. 1981. The Play of Musement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[6] Martinelli, Dario. 2009. Of Birds, Whales, and Other Musicians: An Introduction to Zoomusicology, 195. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.

[7] Payne, Katharine. 2000. “The Progressively Changing Songs of Humpback Whales: A Window

on the Creative Process in a Wild Animal.” In The Origins of Music, edited by Nils L.

Wallin, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown, 135-150. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

[8] Payne, ibid.

[9] Martinelli, ibid., 151.

[10] Mâche, ibid., 478.

[11] Martinelli, ibid., 191, 206.

[12] Mehr, Samuel A., Max M. Krasnow, Gregory A. Bryant, Edward H. Hagen. 2020. “Origins of music in credible signaling.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Aug 26;44: e60. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X20000345; Savage, Patrick E., Psyche Loui, Bronwyn Tarr, Adena Schachner, Luke Glowacki, Steven Mithen, W. Tecumseh Fitch. 2020. “Music as a coevolved system for social bonding.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Aug 20; 44: e59. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X20000333.

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