Birds Do It!
—Cole Porter, “Let’s Do It”
Birds do it. Bees do it.
Or do they?
Did the love song begin here, in nests and hives, on trees and in the air? Attempts to explain the appeal of the love song—and, in fact, all kinds of music—from an evolutionary perspective often start by looking at the courting activities of birds and other animals. Artists would have good reason to be rankled at this genealogy. The creation of art—the making of something new where there was nothing before—was once seen as analogous to the divine force itself. But if artists once claimed kinship to God, they now find themselves categorized as mere imitators of the birds and the bees.
Darwin was quite insistent on this matter. The birth of music, he claimed, was best understood by studying the melodic vocalizations of the animal kingdom, especially those of birds. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin devoted almost twice as much space to bird songs as to human music. He saw these melodies, which play an important part in courtship and mating, as the prototype for more advanced types of music. Just as birds sing to attract the opposite sex, “primeval man, or rather some early progenitor of man, probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences… This power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes,—would have expressed various emotions, such as love, jealousy, triumph,—and would have served as a challenge to rivals.” Put simply, all songs were originally love songs.
In its long history, music has brought people together in many ways—in work and worship, ritual and recreation, and other settings where social cohesion can benefit from its aural glue, its ability to transform isolated individuals into a larger whole. The love song, the focus of our attention, brings people together on a more intimate level, but even here the diversity and range of its uses are remarkable, encompassing everything from purely procreative purposes to the most stylized forms of modern-day romance. All kinds of coupling, even those that involve more than just a couple, have found expression in song, but also the metaphysical yearnings for a higher love untarnished by the desires of the flesh. The love song sometimes comes to us embedded in ritual and ceremony, or broadcast over the airwaves and through cyberspace, but it can also flourish when hidden from view during a private moment or clandestine rendezvous. Each of these demands our attention as we explore the history of this multifaceted music.
Darwin, for his part, aimed to trace all these manifestations back to the same biological origins; and once he found this key, he decided that it unlocked many doors. Early human songs of courtship and mating also served, he surmised, as the foundation for language. Not just vocal music but, according to Darwin, even instrumental performances had their roots in the animal kingdom. He called attention to the “drumming to the snipe’s tail, the tapping of the woodpecker’s beak,” perceiving them as the forerunners of our musical rhythms. He heard prototypes for human song in the croaks of frogs and the squeaks of mice, in the sounds of alligators and tortoises, even in the “pleasing” notes produced by the “beautifully constructed stridulating organs” of insects and spiders.
The music of modern times, he insisted, continues to bear the traces of these evolutionary origins. “Love is still the commonest theme of our songs,” Darwin noted. Nor should this be surprising. “From the deeply-laid principle of inherited associations, musical tones in this case would be likely to call up vaguely and indefinitely the strong emotions of a long-past age.” He pushed his premise to lengths few are willing to travel, asserting confidently that birds “have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we do. This is shown by our enjoyment of the singing of birds, and by our women, both civilized and savage, decking their heads with borrowed plumes, and using gems which are hardly more brilliantly colored than the naked skin and wattles of certain birds.” The many philosophers who have debated the nature of our aesthetic sense may be pleased or dismayed, as they see fit, by the apparent simplicity of this solution to the problem of music’s origin. No longer need they, like Pythagoras, seek for the source of music in the harmony of the spheres, but in the precoital squeals and grunts, the chirps and croaks of mating season at the zoo.
Darwin’s focus on bird songs may appear odd at first glance, given the apparently wide evolutionary and biological gap between humans and birds. Monkeys or gorillas, with closer kinship to us, might seem more appropriate test cases for his theories. But though Darwin briefly examined the connections between primate calls and human music, the evidence drawn from such examples, as we shall see later, is far less compelling. The vocalizing skills of birds, in contrast, provide a dazzling demonstration of melodic inventiveness and purposeful sound-making. The sheer variety of some species rivals that of skilled human musicians. The nightingale knows hundreds of songs, and ornithologists Donald E. Kroodsma and Linda D. Parker have written about a brown thrasher who, based on analysis and recordings, appeared to have a repertoire of more than 1,800 different song units. Yet, other species, such as the European redwing and white-crowned sparrow, know only one song, and others offer no melodies when courting their mate. But is this all so different from human societies, where both the pop song crooner and the so-called “strong, silent type” can find true love?
Almost from the start, scholars from a range of disciplines attempted to rebut Darwin’s views on music. “In my opinion the simple beating of a drum contains more ‘music’ than all the sounds uttered by birds,” wrote music historian Richard Wallaschek in 1893. Three years earlier, sociologist Herbert Spencer had published his refutation of Darwin’s theory of music, in which he noted the many instances of birds singing outside of mating season and the prevalence of animal calls unconnected with courtship:
Speaking perhaps for many Victorians, the celebrated art critic John Ruskin went even further in his criticism, not only rejecting the attempt to ground aesthetics in mating behavior, but taking particular exception to Darwin’s focus on “obscene processes and prurient apparitions.” (Perhaps Ruskin’s own sexual squeamishness came to the forefront here—according to some commentators, he never consummated his marriage because he was so distraught over the unexpected discovery, made on his honeymoon night, that women possess pubic hair.)
Yet even Darwin hedged his bets, noting that bird songs serve an additional purpose, allowing the mate to assert territorial claims as well as court the female. But he gave little emphasis to this more belligerent function of music. One might indeed argue that war songs, not love songs, inspired the vocalizing of our earliest singing ancestors. Could this hypothesis provide a more appropriate evolutionary explanation for the origin of music? Researchers Edward Hagen and Gregory Bryant have recently argued that the role of music and dance in human natural selection derives from its unsurpassed power in drawing people together into large groups, rather than merely pairing men and women into procreating couples. Its evolutionary purpose in human societies, under this hypothesis, was coalition formation for war and other collective projects. In traditional societies, they argue, humans sing and dance in groups, not in couples or alone. Also humans show a marked preference for singing in same-sex groups. And certainly communal war songs outnumber personal love songs in many preindustrial cultures. Hagen and Bryant’s hypothesis is further supported by studies showing that men and women asked to rank the attributes that attract them to the opposite sex give low marks to vocal qualities. According to the skeptics, if Darwin were right in linking the birth of human song to mating practices, a resonant voice or perfect pitch would rank higher on the desirability scale.
Meanwhile a growing body of research has documented the aggressive qualities of bird song. In the 1970s, ornithologist Douglas Smith found that birds surgically deprived of their singing ability were far more susceptible to territorial intrusions by other males. In some instances, however, they apparently continued to mate with females. Around this same time, zoologist J. R. Krebs demonstrated that when recordings of a male’s song are played on loudspeakers, the sound alone can dissuade rivals from entering his territory. Although birds do not sing in unison, the way a human choir might, they will cooperate with other members of their group in establishing territorial rights by means of song. Even the apparently romantic dueting practices of male and female songbirds may be, according to zoologist Wolfgang Wickler, as much signs of cooperative territory-claiming as they are protestations of undying love. From this perspective, bird songs didn’t evolve into love songs, but they did anticipate Neighborhood Watch.
Darwin’s case is hardly strengthened by a consideration of the singing behavior of primates. “In contrast to birds, singing behavior is rare in mammals,” writes primatologist Thomas Geissmann, who notes that it can be found in only 11 percent of primate species. This comparative scarcity of singing primates does not prevent Geissmann from surmising that “loud calls in modern apes and music in modern humans are derived from a common ancestral form of loud call.” Yet even granting this, one is hard-pressed to see this early vocalizing as linked to mating and courtship. “If this interpretation is correct,” Geissmann continues, “early hominid music may also have served functions resembling those of ape loud calls. Loud calls are believed to serve a variety of functions, including territorial advertisement; intergroup intimidation and spacing; announcing the precise locality of specific individuals, food sources or danger; and strengthening intragroup cohesion.”
What has love to do with all this? Apparently very little. Geissmann concludes by suggesting that the functional role of early hominid music was “to display and possibly reinforce the unity of a social group toward other groups.” Musician Leonard Williams, father of the renowned guitarist John Williams, spent many years living amid a community of monkeys and thus had the dubious privilege of hearing and watching them fornicate on a regular basis. He too concluded that their calls and cries were “in no way connected with mating behavior.” They do make sounds when they copulate, but these are “sighs, sobs, grunts and squeaks, and are anything but musical.”
But just when Darwin’s proposed evolutionary connection between animal songs and human music courtship seems about to collapse for lack of evidence, genetic science rushes to his rescue. In just the past few years, researchers have uncovered a host of hitherto unsuspected biological connections between music and sexual behavior, as well as between bird song and human music-making. The hormone vasopressin and its avian counterpart, vasotocin, have emerged as the key “missing links” connecting these different spheres of behavior. The injection of just a tiny amount of vasotocin in a frog’s brain immediately leads to the initiation of mating behavior, and stimulation of vasopressin receptors in certain brain regions can turn a promiscuous vole into a monogamous one. Some have even started calling vasopressin the “monogamy hormone.” A 2001 study found that young chicks exhibited less social inhibition when exposed to oxytocin or vasotocin, or—in a surprising discovery—to recordings of Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata. And what about humans? Researchers have found that vasopressin not only plays a key role in regulating our sexual behavior—men in a state of sexual arousal show markedly higher levels—but is also linked to musical aptitude in humans, and even to receptivity in listening to music. If song and sex share the same hormonal triggers, might they also possess an intertwined evolutionary history?
And the plot thickens! Research conducted by Sarah Earp and Donna L. Maney at Emory University in 2012 shows that the neural patterns in female songbirds when exposed to the mating songs of males of their species resemble neural responses in the mesolimbic reward pathway of humans enjoying a musical performance. Neuroscience strikes another blow for Darwin! And, coming back full circle to The Descent of Man, recent research tells us that the avian hormone vasotocin, which differs by only one amino acid from our “monogamy hormone” vasopressin, is connected to increased singing by male sparrows and the acquisition of stable stereotyped song patterns in songbirds. Certainly there are many missing evolutionary links between the white-throated sparrow and the Homo sapiens performing in a rock band, but the basic functionality seems the same. Survival of the fittest is, at least to some extent, survival of the most melodic.
But the best evidence linking music and human mating behavior requires no observation of birds or monkeys, or unraveling of DNA strands. Just listen to the radio. In a survey of thousands of commercial recordings, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller found that 90 percent were recorded by males, most of them made during their peak years of sexual activity. This finding matches results, drawn across a wide range of species, that mating display practices tend to be exaggerated in one sex. If we judge by the Billboard charts, males initiate most of the musical courtships in human society, just as with Darwin’s birds. (This finding is all the more striking when we consider the evidence, presented in the following chapters, that women have played a decisive role in shaping many of the key characteristics of love songs—but, as we shall see, even when women serve as innovators, men often move to the forefront as performers.) “Music is what happens,” Miller explains, “when a smart, group-living, anthropoid ape stumbles into the evolutionary wonderland of runaway sexual selection for complex acoustic displays.” He sings a song or, even better, has a hit record on the charts.
Ted Gioia is a music historian and the author of nine books, including The History of Jazz and Delta Blues, both selected as notable books of the year in The New York Times. Love Songs continues his pioneering research into the music of everyday life, previously featured in Work Songs and Healing Songs, both winners of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.
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Editor’s note: This excerpt originally published 12 February 2015. We’ve updated the layout to our current CMS and republished it today for all you vasopressin- and vasotocin-addled love bugs out there.