Prelude: The Harmonious UniverseIn his 1997 book How the Mind Works, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker sparked outrage by claiming that 'Music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties'. Music could vanish from our species, he said, and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Some people interpreted this as a challenge to prove that music has a fundamental evolutionary value, that it has somehow helped us to survive as a species, that we are genetically predisposed to be music-makers and music-lovers. They seemed to feel that the very dignity and value of music was at stake.
But although there are already strong reasons to suspect that Pinker may be wrong about the evolutionary role of music, it's a mistake to think that the fundamental value of music rests on such a disproof. The fact is that it is meaningless to imagine a culture that has no music, because music is an inevitable product of human intelligence, regardless of whether or not that is a genetic inheritance. The human mind possesses the mental apparatus for musicality, and it will make use of these tools whether we like it or not. I show in The Music Instinct that music isn't something we as a species do by choice – it is ingrained in our auditory, cognitive and motor functions. Even if Pinker were correct that music serves no adaptive purpose, you could not eliminate it from our cultures without changing our brains. The Music Instinct is about how our brains turn sound into music, and how musicians in all culture and all times have structured their compositions and performances to take advantage of that: to make music that is coherent, emotive and meaningful to us.