Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution, Part 3

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In this series, Jeff Warren has described shortcomings in recent attempts to apply scientific techniques to the study of how music comes to have meaning. This week, Warren concludes by highlighting how scientific investigation and description can help us understand meaning in music. Warren then asks us to consider how this perspective of music might renew our appreciation and practice of music in the church.

Music and Cultural Evolution

Returning to our exploration of the confluence of music, science, and Christianity, I’ll reiterate that the way music is practiced in different cultures may be different, but every culture we know of has music; or, as Cambridge scholar Ian Cross puts it, “humans are one single, recently emerged species, biologically fairly uniform though culturally diverse.”1 Cross’ work specifically explores the role music might have played in the evolution of humans as relational beings, and explicitly denies Steven Pinker’s argument that music is “auditory cheesecake,” an evolutionary leftover from the past. In contrast, Cross asks if music might have been the most important thing we ever did.2 The key to his argument is that music’s “floating intentionality” allows for a kind of mutual participation among different individuals that he calls “entrainment,” opening the possibility of shared emotional states that may have been critical to the evolution of culture.

Cross uses the term “floating intentionality” to suggest how “music’s meanings appear intimately bound to the contexts in which it is experienced,” but nevertheless are still flexible.3 The uses of national anthems provide examples of floating intentionality, as the meaning of the music changes depending on the context and the interpersonal negotiation of meaning. Corporately singing national anthems can enable a feeling of togetherness, a recognition that we are all in the same place. It can create or deepen values and feelings of ‘brotherhood’. (Of course, this need not be the case, as national anthems have also been used to accompany torture).

Usually considered to be unique to humans, entrainment includes the synchronization required to sing together, but is more than just the physical coordination of making sounds at the same time as others. It is a continuous feedback loop wherein you or I listen to the sounds of others and alter our own sounds in response, which in turn influence the sounds of others. Entrainment is listening to and coordinating with other people, and involves the recognition that other people are different from us while at the same time actively engaging in relationship with them.

Another of Cross’ insights is that “music, in its ability to embody, entrain and transposably intentionalize sound and action can be interpreted as providing a medium within which participants can interact in ways characteristic of shared intentionality whilst enabling individual interpretations of that shared intentionality.”4 In other words, music creates a space where expressive purposes—not just sounds—may be negotiated and explored in community. Singing together, one example of such entrainment, has “shared intentionality”, because participants have made the decision to sing with others and share something of themselves with others. But at the same time, entrainment supports the ability for “individual interpretations” and experiences of what’s going on. This gives very strong support for the Protestant tradition of corporate singing in worship services, precisely because music can be understood as a way of enacting Paul’s image of the Body of Christ as a community of individual parts acting as themselves but nevertheless in concert. Music and culture are unique to humanity, and Cross proposes that the shared intentionality of music, facilitating shared emotional states, and was at least a partial cause for the emergence of culture as a distinctively human quality.

One final example of music as a kind of beneficial social regulation is the musical relationship between caregiver and infant—what Cross calls “protomusical activities.”5 Since the caregiver-infant relationship does not have a shared language, music provides much of the early social and emotional entrainment that establishes attachments. In the first several months of my daughter’s life, either my wife or I rocked her to sleep while singing to her (often to the melody of Brahms’s lullaby). Singing became an import element of bedtime. When she was old enough to sit up, my daughter would sit on my lap and I would play the acoustic guitar and sing to her. ‘Skip to my Lou’ was the song she chose to react to with smiles and baby dances. In these musical encounters, entrainment between myself and by daughter took place, resulting in a shared emotional state despite the lack of a shared spoken language . Cross does not just find that such encounters enhance learning more about music, but suggests that “proto-musical behaviours may play a functional role in general development.”6

Caregiver-infant musical encounters thus have a double benefit. First, they help the child develop as they form “connections between different domains of infant competence such as the psychological, the biological, and the mechanical.”7 Second, they provide shared sounds that allow for response to the needs of the other person. Responses are sometimes emotionally entrained (sleeping when hearing a lullaby), but the flexibility of musical meaning – its “floating intentionality” – means that meanings and relationships can be negotiated. As my daughter grew older, the same songs still bonded us, but in different ways. For a couple months when she was a year old, she decided that she preferred staying up to going to bed. I only needed to sing the first to notes of Brahms’s lullaby before she would begin shaking her head in protest. She began resisting the entrainment of the lullaby, so bedtime ceased to include singing that song. Singing that lullaby no longer resulted in emotional entrainment, but certainly remained a way of responding and interacting.

One of the key moments in the evolution of our species was the ability to share with others through language, empathy, and cooperation. Since musical experience is bound to human relationships and seems to have predated language, it may have been the key to one of the most important periods in human history: the development of culture. Although speculative, if this argument is correct Christians may need to re-examine how they think about music and why they value it. Is music something beautiful to enjoy and little more, or is it a primary tool that allows us to relate to others? Music might be a human universal, but music as strictly pleasure is not. The contemporary view of music as a commodity that can be stockpiled to build individual identity is not universal either. What is universal about music, though, is that it has the potential to communicate and share emotional states.

In this three-part series of posts I have approached various topics relating to music and science to show that encountering other people is foundational to musical experience. If music is fundamentally inter-relational, then all musical experience has ethical implications, and that needs to be considered in any scientific investigation. But how might this understanding contribute to the charged discussions on the role of music in worship services?

The view that music in church is a ‘seeker sensitive’ tool to fill the pews seems to have resulted in church music that increasingly presents like a rock concert. For example, one of my local churches blacks out the congregation and uses light shows and smoke machines to pair with sound levels over 100 decibels. Combine that with melodies that are outside of the vocal range of a large percentage of the congregation and corporate singing participation is minimal. If we recognize that the evolutionary and divine purpose of music is to encounter and respond to others, and that we respond to others differently after we entrain with them through listening to and singing with them, perhaps we will also reconsider the value of corporate singing in church. Though that topic is worthy of a post all its own, the “takeaway” of this look at some of the science of music may be as simple as this: musical encounters can and should be enactments of loving your neighbour.




Warren, Jeff R.. "Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution, Part 3" N.p., 22 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 May 2017.


Warren, J. (2012, January 22). Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution, Part 3
Retrieved May 22, 2017, from

References & Credits

1. Cross, Ian. 'Music and Biocultural Evolution' in ed. Trevor Herbert, Martin Clayton & Richard Middleton, The Cultural Study of Music : A Critical Introduction (Routledge: London, 2003): 21.

2. —— 'Is Music the Most Important Thing We Ever Did ? Music, Development and Evolution' in ed. Suk Won Yi,Music, Mind, and Science (Seoul National University Press: Seoul, 1999).

3. —— 'Music and Biocultural Evolution' in ed. Trevor Herbert Martin Clayton & Richard Middleton, The Cultural Study of Music : A Critical Introduction (Routledge: London, 2003): 18.

4. —— 'Musicality and the Human Capacity for Culture', Musicae Scientiae Special Issue: Narrative in music and interaction (2008): 159. 147-167.

5. —— 'Music and Biocultural Evolution' (2003): 27.

6. —— 'Is Music the Most Important Thing We Ever Did ? Music, Development and Evolution' (1999): 27.

7. ——. 'Music and Biocultural Evolution' (2003): 27.

nb.: Many of Ian Cross’s publications are on his website.

About the Author

Jeff R. Warren

Jeff R. Warren is Assistant Professor of Music at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He has presented and published internationally on musical improvisation, meaning in music, soundscape, modern European philosophy, psychology, and ethics. Jeff’s creative work includes jazz composition, performance on double bass, and sound installations. Jeff received his doctorate in music and philosophy from Royal Holloway, University of London.

More posts by Jeff R. Warren