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Many Minds

Sep 1, 2021

Why do we make music? Why do we love music? Well, you say, because it's in our nature. Our brains were sculpted over the course of evolution to delight in sonic sequences, to remember melodies, to revel in rhythms.

Perhaps. But, actually, not everyone thinks music is an adaptation. Not everything we do was directly shaped by natural selection. And even if music was an evolutionary adaptation, that raises a bunch of further questions, like: Why would musical abilities have been an advantage? Why did music emerge in our species, but not, say, in chimps? What were the first contexts in which music took shape? What were we singing or drumming or making all that racket about?

For today's episode we're going behind a recent paper that explores these questions. My guest is Dr. Ed Hagen, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology Washington State University – Vancouver. For a couple decades now, on and off, Ed has been thinking and writing about the origins of music. Along with his co-authors Samuel Mehr, Max Krasnow, and Greg Bryant, Ed recently published a paper in the journal Behavioral & Brain Sciences titled 'Origins of music in credible signaling.'

Ed and I talk about what first got him musing about music, back in graduate school. We consider the functions of vocal signaling in birds, wolves, chimps, and other creatures. We discuss three prominent ideas about the roots of music: Darwin's idea that it evolved as a way for males to advertise their quality, Pinker's idea that music is like cheesecake, and—perhaps the most popular of all—the idea that music evolved to help cement social bonds. And, of course, we dig into the meat Ed and company’s paper, their alternative proposal. They argue that the roots of music lie in two contexts: coalition signaling and infant care. We’ll get into the specifics, of course.

One of my biggest takeaways from this conversation is that it’s a fascinating time to be interested in the deep history of music. Seems like a bit of a subfield is coalescing around the topic. In fact—as Ed and I talk about—their paper was actually one of two papers on the origins of music published in the very same issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. If you want to dive deeper, definitely check out the other article as well. 

One last note—and this is something I keep forgetting to mention: If you have ideas about who we should interview, or about which papers or topics we should feature, we would *love* to hear from you. Just find us on Twitter, or send an email to That's

Alright, on to my conversation with Dr. Ed Hagen. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here


Notes and links

3:00 – A 2003 paper by Dr. Hagen and co-author Greg Bryant about music as a “coalition signaling system.”

10:50 – An example of a gibbon song.

12:00 – The companion paper, led by Patrick Savage, advances the social bonding view.

15:30 – Darwin’s theory of the origins of music was laid out in The Descent of Man.

20:20 – Steven Pinker proposed the “auditory cheesecake” hypothesis in How the Mind Works.   

28:30 – An early article on how singing is preserved in aphasia.

42:00 – A paper on chimpanzee pant hoots; a video showing an example.

46:00 – Long-standing listeners will recall that we briefly discussed “contact calls” in our episode on piloerection.

51:00 – The study showing that dance music and lullabies are perhaps the most readily recognized genres of music, and the past episode where Manvir Singh and I discussed this.

55:30 – A book by Brian Hayden on feasting in pre-industrial societies.

1:00:30 – One advocate of the idea that language may have emerged from music is W. Tecumseh Fitch, who wrote The Evolution of Language.

Dr. Hagen recommends you check out the companion paper—which advances the social bonding view and which appeared in the same issue of Behavioral & Brain Sciences—and Steven Mithen’s book, The Singing Neanderthals.

You can find Dr. Hagen on Twitter (@ed_hagen) and follow him at his website

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Isabelle Laumer. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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