Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Music as Auditory Cheesecake

  • Hadas ShintelEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2851-1



As per Pinker’s hypothesis, music is not evolutionary adaptive, but rather is a by-product of other evolutionarily evolved traits, and one that serves no biological function. Pinker suggests that music is an “auditory cheesecake.” Cheesecake fulfills our evolved desire for fat and sugar, but the desire for cheesecake did not evolve and is merely a by-product, pleasurable but biologically useless. Similarly, Pinker regards music as a highly pleasurable by-product of the evolution of other mental faculties, primarily language.


In How the Mind Works (Pinker, 1997), Steven Pinker offers an account of how the major faculties of mind were designed by natural selection. However, not all mental faculties have evolved through natural selection. Music, for Pinker, represents a clear example of a nonadaptive “pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once” (p. 528), an auditory cheesecake. Although it may contribute to the well-being of the individual, music is biologically useless: “It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world. Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged” (p. 528).

Instead of being an adaptation that was the direct target of natural selection, Pinker sees music as capitalizing on preexisting adaptive mental faculties: (1) language, in particular prosody, which involves the analysis of intonation contours, metrical structure, and hierarchical grouping of phrases; (2) auditory scene analysis, which draws on attention to harmonic relations for the process of segregating components from different sources and integrating components originating from the same source; (3) emotional calls that use acoustic signals associated with specific emotions and thus serve a communicative function; (4) habitat selection which involves attention to evocative environmental sounds; (5) motor control, involved in the rhythmic movement to music. All of these are fitness enhancing and are rewarded by a sensation of pleasure emitted by the pleasure centers of the brain. Music, as a pleasure technology, pushes all the right buttons, without enhancing fitness itself.

The Pleasure of Music

Before turning to the issue of the biological function of music and its evolutionary roots, it is important not to overlook the emphasis, embedded in Pinker’s cheesecake hypothesis, on music’s unique ability to evoke pleasure. Whether or not the pleasure derived from music is an upshot of music’s ability to stimulate the mental faculties suggested by pinker as providing the mental machinery for music, research provided support for the notion that music is experienced as a highly potent emotion-evoking pleasure-inducing stimulus. Furthermore, the rewarding effect of music appears to be mediated by the same reward brain circuits as the effect of biologically relevant rewarding stimuli; for example, research has implicated the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system as involved in musical pleasure (see Chanda and Levitin 2013).

Music: Adaptation or Cultural Creation?

Pinker’s position lies at one extreme of the debate regarding music’s adaptive function. For Pinker, music is not an adaptation, produced through the process of natural selection for its current function, but rather a spandrel, a by-product of other adaptive mental functions. But moreover, even music’s current use is biologically functionless (as suggested by the cheesecake analogy). A less extreme position is Patel’s theory that sees music as a human invention, albeit a biologically powerful one (Patel 2010). Like Pinker, Patel argues that music is rooted in non-musical functions, and thus a parsimonious explanation would not assume it has been shaped by natural selection. However, Patel sees music as a “transformative technology of the mind” in the sense that musical engagement and training can have beneficial enduring effects on other brain functions, such as language, attention, and executive function, thereby transforming the biological functions underlying it. These effects span individual timescales, as music needs to be learned anew by each generation and does not involve any further modification of the human brain specifically for musicality.

At the other extreme of the debate lie positions that deem music, or musicality, an adaptation. Two kinds of arguments have been advanced in support of music being an adaptation. The first kind of arguments concerns its adaptive function; we will review these arguments in the next section. The second kind focuses on characteristics of music that make it a likely candidate for an evolutionary explanation. For example, music needs to have been around long enough to be shaped by natural selection. Although it is not known at what point in history music came into existence, archeological evidence points to the existence of flutes approximately 40,000 years ago (Conard et al. 2009), suggesting an even older musical tradition. Music is universal and observed across cultures. Furthermore, music needs to be innately constrained to be the target of natural selection. Evidence suggests that at least some aspects of music are indeed innately constrained; for example, even young infants show sensitivity to musical structure, such as melodic pitch contours (see McDermott and Hauser 2005 for a review). However, it is not clear whether music satisfies the criterion of domain-specificity. As suggested by Pinker, sensitivity to pitch can result from adaptations for language and auditory scene analysis (see McDermott and Hauser 2005). The lack of domain-specificity suggests that music may be an exaptation (Gould 1991), not produced by natural selection for its current function but rather coopting traits evolved for other functions. Unlike Pinker’s cheesecake idea, the idea of music as an exaptation leaves open the possibility that it does serve a biological function, albeit a novel one that did not result through natural selection.

The Adaptive Value of Music

Different theories have suggested several ways in which music can be fitness-enhancing. One possibility, suggested already by Darwin in The Descent of Man, is that music evolved through sexual selection and functions to attract sexual mates. Music, and the dance that accompanies it, has features that may act as indicators of fitness, coordination, strength, and health (Miller 2000). On the other hand, in contrast to other species in which song is performed by males, mainly during mating season, music is performed by both males and females in a wide range of contexts. Currently, empirical evidence for the function of music in sexual selection is lacking.

Another possibility is that the function of music lies in its role in childcare. Cross-culturally, caregivers use lullabies and play songs to soothe infants and regulate their arousal; such expressive vocal communication also strengthens mother–infant affiliative bonding. Thus, songs and rhythmic vocalizations may have adaptive value for the infant. Infant Directed Speech (“motherese”), with its exaggerated intonation contours and stress patterns, may fill a similar function (Trehub, 2003).

Another potential function of music is in increasing group cohesion. Dunbar (2004) proposed that music functioned as vocal grooming, replacing physical grooming when group size increased too much to allow for physical grooming. According to Dunbar, vocal grooming mimics the endorphin-releasing effects of social grooming, thereby creating feelings of warmth and trust that contribute to social bonding. Music may also promote rhythmic synchronization and coordination at the group level, thereby contributing to group identity and cooperation (Brown 2000).


The idea of music as an auditory cheesecake was suggested by Pinker as a counterexample to his adaptationist account of the major faculties of mind. Pinker suggests that features we see as beneficial or adaptive, in the colloquial sense of the word of contributing to better adjustment, may not be adaptive in the biological sense, and were not the target of natural selection. Music is a by-product of the evolution of other metal functions, pleasure-inducing, but nonetheless biologically functionless.

Although Pinker’s point regarding the pleasure-inducing effects of music is uncontested, his view regarding the evolutionary roots of music and its function has been disputed by theories that suggested various potential adaptive functions of music. In effect, Pinker’s controversial suggestion has sparked a renewed interest in the evolution of music. However, much of the debate remains speculative and is in need of clear empirically testable hypotheses and empirical evidence.



  1. Brown, S. (2000). Evolutionary models of music: From sexual selection to group selection. In F. Tonneau & N. S. Thompson (Eds.), Perspectives in ethology 13: Behavior, evolution and culture (pp. 231–281). Boston: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Chanda, M. L., & Levitin, D. J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(4), 179–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Conard, N. J., Malina, M., & Münzel, S. C. (2009). New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany. Nature, 460(7256), 737.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dunbar, R. (2004). Language, music and laughter in evolutionary perspective. In D. K. Oller, U. Griebel, G. B. Muller, G. P. Wagner, & W. Callebaut (Eds.), Evolution of communication systems: A comparative approach (pp. 257–274). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Gould, S. J. (1991). Exaptation: A crucial tool for evolutionary psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 47, 43–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. McDermott, J., & Hauser, M. (2005). The origins of music: Innateness, uniqueness, and evolution. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23(1), 29–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Miller, G. F. (2000). Evolution of music through sexual selection. In N. L. Wallin, B. Merker, & S. Brown (Eds.), The origins of music (pp. 329–360). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Patel, A. D. (2010). Music, biological evolution, and the brain. In C. Levander & C. Henry (Eds.), Emerging disciplines (pp. 91–144). Houston: Rice University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. London: Allen Lane.Google Scholar
  10. Trehub, S. E. (2003). The developmental origins of musicality. Nature Neuroscience, 6(7), 669–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCenter for Academic StudiesOr YehudaIsrael

Section editors and affiliations

  • Guilherme S. Lopes
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA