Music & Sex - Part One: Let's Start at the Beginning, Shall We?

By: Adam Bunch

Music & Sex - Part One: Let's Start at the Beginning, Shall We?
Charles Darwin

February 8, 2010

When it comes to nature documentaries, I'm a bit of an addict. I have been ever since I was a kid. I've spent countless hours perched in front of the television learning about rainforests and the Sahara and the African savannah. As you can imagine, that's meant seeing some fairly shocking examples of animal mating rituals. A few especially mind-blowing moments stand out: a group of male whales desperately flailing away with eight-foot-long penises as they try to impregnate a reluctant female, Topi antelope so exhausted from day after day spent breeding and fighting that hyenas can pick them off the edges of the herd at will, and—at the end of an episode of David Attenborough's The Life of Birds—footage of the Australian lyrebird's mating call.

The lyrebird is a beautiful animal, looking something like a brown peacock with its long, elaborately decorative tail. But when it comes time to find a mate, the male of the species has another trick up his sleeve. He clears out a small area on the ground in the forest, and he starts to sing a song unlike any other in the world.

Well, actually, I suppose that's not strictly true. His song is, in fact, exactly like other birds'. In order to impress the female with the complexity of his composition, he has the remarkable ability to mimic the calls of the other species he hears around him. One after the other, in a performance that's been known to last nearly an hour, he might let out the shriek of a kookaburra, the warble of a magpie and the whistle of a flock of parrots. Even more amazingly, he doesn't stop there. The lyrebird can copy other sounds, too. And that means his song can incorporate everything from the click of a camera shutter to wailing car alarms and even the distant roar of construction-—all recreated with such an uncanny accuracy that you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the bird's imitation and the real thing.

Of course, the lyrebird is hardly the only animal to use mating calls as part of a sexual display. There's a seemingly endless list of "love songs" in the wild—from a whale's haunting moan to the honk of a horny penguin—all used by animals to attract a mate's attention, or to prove their fitness and suitability for breeding. Listening to a chimpanzee's guttural mating hoots, it's easy to imagine our prehistoric ancestors using similar sounds for the same purpose—and that those sounds would have gradually evolved into more complex melodies and rhythms over time, eventually becoming the music that we know today. It certainly explains the sexual thrill you might feel as your favourite singer steps out on stage. Once you've thought of  Mick Jagger as the modern human equivalent of the lyrebird, strutting around like a peacock, using his songs to attract more mates than less musically-gifted males, the original, fundamental connection between music and sex seems clear. Songs were invented as a way to get laid.

This theory on the sexual origins of music is so intuitive, in fact, that it was proposed by the very first evolutionary biologist. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin declared his belief that "musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex." It's a position that still has plenty of supporters in the scientific community today. But, as it turns out, the origins of the relationship between music and sex may not be so clear-cut. Not everyone signs on to that theory.

"It's possible," admits Robert Zatorre, when I ask him about it in his office at Montreal's McGill University. But he's not convinced. He's a pioneering neuroscientist who has studied the way music affects the human brain and he has his doubts. "There are a few holes with that argument," he explains. "If you look at primates for example—who are, of course, our closest evolutionary relatives—the mating signals are always emitted by the males and the females shop around to see who is making the best calls. So if music evolved from that, then you would have to assume that you should be able to see a bigger difference in terms of music production being more male and music reception being more female... There's no evidence for it anthropologically. All societies have music-and there are often gender differences in terms of the role that music plays, but I've never heard of a society where only the men sing and the women listen. It just doesn't ring true."

And Dr. Zatorre is far from alone in his skepticism.

Steven Pinker, an enormously influential cognitive psychologist, is the most famous critic of the theory that music arose with an evolutionary purpose. Instead, he argues that it's a bi-product of other developments-an evolutionary coincidence. "As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless," he wrote in his book, The Language Instinct, adding that, "music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged."

That's not to say he thinks that music doesn't play an important and valuable role in our lives—far from it. He compares music to reading, an activity that wasn't selected for by evolutionary forces, but is made possible by abilities that were. In the case of music, Pinker suspects it tapped into evolutionary adaptations like our ability to recognize harmonic sounds in order to understand speech, our instinctual responses to emotional vocalizations like growls and sighs, and natural rhythms developed for basic motor control. "Maybe what music does," he explained to Richard Dawkins in a recent interview, "is it combines bits and pieces of all these other parts of the brain, packs them into a super-normal stimulus-something that actually presses our buttons harder than anything in the natural environment would-and we enjoy it."

Pinker's theory on the origins of music, however—just like Darwin's and several other plausible explanations that have been put forward—is just that: a theory. Scientists openly acknowledge that short of being able to travel back in time to collect empirical evidence, any theory on the prehistoric link between music and sex in humans is essentially un-provable.

Now, when it comes to the connection between music and sex in modern human culture, on the other hand, there's plenty of evidence to talk about. And that will bring us to part two of this feature, starting with a love affair in Paris in 1832.

Continue reading with Part Two: Rock Star Sex Gods or find more from Sex Week here.

Video: The lyrebird mating call from David Attenborough's The Life of Birds

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