Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — the common chord that runs through us all, intricately connecting each of our brains and the evolution of mankind.
As a biologist I learned early on about music’s role in evolution. As a clinician I saw its therapeutic value. When I became a songwriter years later I actually felt it for first time.
Humans have been singing since we first appeared about six to seven million years ago. Music and the brain have been intricately connected throughout our evolution, and music-making played a key role in reproduction and species survival, helping individuals find their best mates. Song was also vital for communication, searching for food, protecting the clan, and ultimately, the development of societies. Over thousands of generations, singing also appears to have been instrumental in the development of language.
Music may be the only single stimulus that “turns on” all the many areas of the brain — from language and physical movement to memories and emotions. Because of this, songs would have helped encourage the incredible evolution of the brain itself into a most unique human feature.
Darwin described music’s major role in sexual selection as one that is more essential than natural selection. While the earliest human songs helped shape our society, we must now wonder if the unnatural world has also wounded our music. We have have fake exercise and processed food. Has our music suffered too? And what are the consequences?
And your bird can sing
To understand how songs can affect a species, and possibly lead to extinction, we can take a lesson from songbirds. They are relatively easy to study, with much of the information gained applicable to humans.
Of the many species of songbirds, some have disappeared — literally died out — in recent years. Scientists have studied this process, and discovered that, as the progression of extinction was well underway, a red flag appeared. The early warning signal was that their songs underwent significant and rapid changes.
In looking for specific indicators of species survival, researchers discovered birds suddenly singing poor repertoires were dying out. Their range of songs was less appealing and diminished, as was the song structure.
In birds facing extinction, simplification became another negative feature of their songs. Those singing simpler songs with poor repertoires were more prone to extinction compared to those singing their previously more complex pieces. Overall, the lower quality songs were associated with less sexual reproduction and a diminishing population. For humans, simple songs can be among the most beautiful and at the same time difficult to write, as most songwriters know. But simplistic songs that are shallow and lacking creative substance may reflect poor brain function.
The continued worldwide urbanization, especially the ever-increasing problem of noise pollution from road traffic, airplanes and other machinery, results in birds changing their tune. Unfortunately, these songs are less sexually attracting, resulting in reduced populations.
Is rock ‘n’ roll really here to stay?
When it comes to human music, significant changes have occurred in recent decades — not unlike those of songbirds going extinct. One comparison can be made between today’s songs with those from the 1950s and 60s: Overall, they have gone from active to passive.
An active song is a powerful cultural influence, a passive one is not. This may be significant because for millions of years, musical forces influenced the masses to create healthier humans, while advancing more complex societies. Anthropologists describe humanity’s first social structures forming around the comfort and vital forces of songs. But a change from an active to a passive society can lead to stagnation.
The fact that folk music has fallen out of vogue today may also be a serious sign of a society suffering from amusia. Throughout history, folk music has been the active music, not to mention that it’s the origin of rock ‘n’ roll and almost all other genres.
Producer Rick Rubin says music’s peak may have been the 1960s into the 70s, a period that corresponds to changes in drug use: the shift from creative psychedelics to harder, harmful drugs. This also reflects a larger cultural change, a sort of musical regression from using our minds to just reflexively tapping a toe.
Rubin is more than a producer. He has become the wise man of music, and the go-to guy for both the industry and songwriters. And he likes the bottom line — his comment on the difference between the songs of yesterday and today: “Back then it was an artistic statement,” he says. “Today a good song is one that gets on the radio, yesterday a good song was one people liked.”
The most influential and mainstream songs exposed to the human species today come from radio, TV and Internet, advertising, and the music industry’s top hit of the day. But it does not include the many great songs written and played by singer-songwriters who are mostly “underground.” These musical influences, heard by far fewer listeners, play a relatively minor role socially — a very unfortunate fact.
In addition to social factors and industry observations, scientific studies of human songs have also been done. These are not exactly like those performed on songbirds for obvious reasons. The results, however, can be interpreted with remarkably similar conclusions. Both demonstrate a significant reduction in song quality, especially in relation to diversity and frequency. And both have been affected by their respective unhealthy environment, also changing song frequency, and volume as well.
Perhaps a simpler way to interpret the studies is to say that, in both cases, the essence of song has changed — and the music has ceased to evolve. As a reflection of brain function, stagnating music is not a healthy sign for any species.
Choose your beat
Can we really compare the changing songs of birds and humans, and what they might infer? Scientists often look elsewhere in the animal kingdom to better understand humanity. So, yes, we can make an intelligent comparison. Sometimes we are wrong, but it often provides us with invaluable information about our own existence.
Plus, there is some encouraging news. A recent study on Statista.com marked a music industry milestone. Over the last decade, for the first time ever, current releases accounted for less than half of total album sales in the United States as catalog albums outsold new releases by more than four million units. Nielsen defines catalog releases as any release older than 18 months, thus including old Beatles albums as well as more dated releases of current artists.
It seems people still have the innate craving to listen to real music, and maybe this holds the key to evolution. The seeming deterioration of human song is certainly not the only factor that may hint at the demise of the human species. It’s not about whether we survive or not, but which humans will endure the extinction process.
What does all this mean for the average music listener? Think of music coming into the brain like eating food. We want to be a healthy consumer, but avoid the junk as well. The best suggestion is to play the type of music you like — the only way to know this is if it makes you feel good when you listen to it.
Here are three simple steps to make your musical experience more enjoyable and health-promoting:
- Spend more time listening to quality music. It’s easier these days with online services, but many people still have CDs or even vinyl album collections (and borrowing them is easier than you think). Listen to the music like you would watch a movie — front and center. Play the music you enjoy most. Whether rock, folk, classical, rap or all of it, play songs at home, office, in the car or wherever. Good speakers, headphones or earbuds are important for your brain to really hear all the musical components. Include the music you liked when younger, the songs you recall when first falling in love, or your favorites for whatever reason. Music videos and music movies are also great ways to stimulate the brain.
- Spend time listening to music that is new to you, however recent or old. If you somehow missed them, some of the great albums are a place to start: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, etc. You can also go to my music website and listen to six albums for free (and download them).
- Avoid listening to bad music, which is an insult to the brain. This comes from advertisements, mostly on radio and TV stations but it’s almost everywhere — planes, shopping malls, stores, even on the phone line while waiting on hold. Tune it out!
The brain is a musical one, and not only is listening healthy, playing music is particularly good for us. No matter your level of ability, even a beginner, your brain will love any form of musical activity. So sing along with your favorites, even pick up an instrument if you are so inclined.