All together now three evolutionary perks of singing

Posted: December 24, 2014 at 3:46 pm


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8 hours ago by Susan Maury, The Conversation Cranking out a tune cements our social networks. Julie/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

We're enjoying the one time of year when protests of "I can't sing!" are laid aside and we sing carols with others. For some this is a once-a-year special event; the rest of the year is left to the professionals to handle the singing (except, perhaps, some alone time in the shower or car).

Music and singing in particular, as the oldest and only ubiquitous form of music creation plays a central role in our lives and shared community experiences, and this has been true for every culture for as far back as we can trace our human ancestors.

So does singing in a group provide specific and tangible benefits, or is it merely a curious ability that provides entertainment through creative expression?

This is a question currently of great interest to evolutionary theorists, linguists, psychologists and musicologists. The debate took off when psychologist Steven Pinker stated his opinion that music is a spandrel a useless evolutionary by-product of another, useful, trait. In this case, he suggested that music is a spandrel of language development, providing no advantage and serving no purpose.

There are strong links between music and language development, although there is no consensus on the actual nature of the relationship. Arguments include theories that:

A strong body of research conducted with choirs indicates that membership has many benefits to individual wellbeing and physical health. It is possible these effects are due to people the singers participating in something they enjoy doing. Or, there may be something more elemental taking place.

If these findings are viewed through an evolutionary lens, though, there is compelling evidence that music making provided some very specific benefits for our ancestors. Specifically, there are three theories which have been proposed that, if true, may explain these effects while suggesting that group singing is still beneficial to all:

Sing us a song, you're the hominid

Our hominid ancestors used music to create shared emotional experiences. This would have been particularly important for early hominids struggling to survive, because emotions serve as a kind of "red flag" to our cognitive processing systems, signalling that something critical requires attention.

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All together now three evolutionary perks of singing

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December 24th, 2014 at 3:46 pm