Identification Friend or Foe, A Precursor of Music Appreciation?


      Abstract:  Music appreciation even in non-musicians requires an enormous ability to analyze sound rather effortlessly.  It has not been at all clear how Darwinian selection could have achieved this result without depending on some other trait with much more survival value.  Here are Charles Darwin’s very words from the Descent of Man:  As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man…they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.”           The new insight is that this trait might be voice recognition, which obviously has great survival value. Some confirmation of the hypothesis is possible by interviewing tone-deaf people.  Further testing of such individuals for subnormal voice recognition is recommended, perhaps with functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) for confirmation of activating similar cerebral zones during attempts to recognize music and voices.

      Face recognition.  The instant recognition of faces is a “hard wired” ability that is of obvious survival value in terms of recognizing friend or foe.  This ability has been well studied by students of animal behavior.  I was especially intrigued by recent research on face recognition using sheep as the study subjects (1).  Twenty sheep were trained to recognize pictures of sheep or human faces that were placed at junctions in a maze with food rewards for correct choices.  The sheep were very adept.  If sheep can do it, who can’t?  The evolutionary implication is that humans  and sheep must  have had a common ancestor some tens of millions of years ago already in possession of this brain circuitry.

        Sound localization.   My first inkling of the vast quantity of sophisticated information that we obtain from sound was from informal experiments we did in physiology class in medical school to demonstrate our ability to localize  the spatial origin of a sound.  This ability depends on differential loudness in the two ears and even more on the different arrival time of the sound in the two ears being  noted by the brain and meaningful calculations being automatically made. Apparently this ability is hard wired, not learned.   We are born with it.  Babies can do it from an early age.  Deaf people with two hearing aids can localize sounds like the rest of us.  This phenomenon, like face recognition, demonstrates that we also obtain much sophisticated information from sound.        

       Voice recognition.  Instant recognition of voices is of even greater survival value.  Here is an example of how amazingly accurate and instantaneous this can be.  When we went through Peace Corps training in l968, our l4 year old daughter Margaret chose to take training for teaching English as a second language with the college graduate volunteers and was permitted to do so since the Peace Corps encourages flexibility. Ten years later, after no further contact with Norman, a fellow student, she answered the telephone in a Manhattan home where she was a house guest.  Norman was also visiting in New York from California (no clues there), made the phone call, and got the wrong number; but she recognized Norman’s voice and replied to him instantly in Farsi, their mutual exotic language, and they both freaked out.­ In the context Norman was obviously speaking English over the Manhattan telephone.  Margaret not only recognized his voice instantly, but effortlessly remembered some (vital) information about how to best communicate with this voice.  I am sure we have all had similar if less striking episodes of sudden recognition of voices out of context with no helpful clues.­ Gradually, I realized that this ability is automatic, that it is not learned, and that it has enormous survival value, comparable to the electronic equipment in military aviation that is programmed to recognize other aircraft as friend or foe.  Incidentally, voice recognition, like face recognition, is prevalent among animals (4) ­

       The precursor of music appreciation?  The minute details of the sound of the same words spoken by different vocal apparatus which we perceive so readily could be a correlate of "music" appreciation with selection for survival, not because appreciation of music is that vital. Obtaining all this information from sound waves had already been achieved by evolutionary selection for differentiating friends from enemies just like face recognition and localizing sounds.  Without this insight, or some so far unidentified alternative one, the biological basis of music appreciation would be very difficult to explain.  The sophisticated ability to analyze and appreciate music (even by non-musicians) defies direct rationalization by saying it has survival value for its own sake.  Rather it must be riding “piggy-back” on some other biological imperative such as identification of friend or foe.  In other words, without this persisting ability to gain so much information effortlessly from sound, music appreciation could not have happened because it does not have enough survival value in and of itself.  Compare with literature arising from language and literacy with no new biological evolution. 

       Language, literacy, and appreciation of literature..  Captain Fitzroy of Darwin’s Beagle voyage had kidnapped five Tierra del Fuegians on a previous voyage and saw to their education in England at his own


expense (3).  They did learn English and presumably could have achieved literacy after a few more years in England.  The Captain believed that primitive races of man are fully human and not inferior to Europeans because they all descended from Adam.  Their apparent inferiority, in his thinking, arose from cultural deprivation after dispersal from Eden.  According to this line of thought, language leads to story telling and, on achieving literacy, to enjoying literature without further biological evolution.  This fact has been repeatedly confirmed because of the activities of missionaries in creating alphabets for languages previously only spoken.  A similar thing may have happened with music appreciation appearing without any new evolution long before written language was invented.

       Emotion.  There is also an emotional component to sound and music alike.  Strange sounds and music attract and excite us.  Familiar sounds and music sooth and reassure us just as familiar voices do.  Our varying response to different pieces of music  is probably related.   Familiar music is comforting  so we feel pleased  and reassured  on hearing a tune we recognize and have long enjoyed, work songs lighten the burden of hard work, and marching music keeps the military marching on through difficult times.  A further point confirming that music appreciation is related to the hard wired “identification of friend or foe,” is the commonplace fact that songs are much easier to “memorize” than even  rhythmical prose and that the tune is even easier to remember than the words.  Learning tunes is almost inadvertent at times. (Haven’t you had trouble with an irksomely recurring tune?) 

       Tone deafness.  Do people afflicted by congenital amusia (tone deafness) have trouble recognizing voices?  Which areas in the brain are active when recognizing voices?   Testing for ability to recognize voices would be a relatively easy laboratory experiment. Deficiency of this ability in congenital amusia would favor our hypothesis. Finding the regions of the brain active during this activity would require a functional MRI scanner (magnetic resonance imagining), now widely used in mapping the various functional areas of the brain and their interactions.  If the areas found to be active while recognizing voices showed striking similarities with areas active while listening to music, this would also tend to confirm our hypothesis that music appreciation arose indirectly from voice recognition and its large survival advantage.  I do have a friend who is “tone deaf”. He volunteers that his ability to recognize voices is very poor, virtually absent when no other context is present.

        Absolute pitch.  It is of interest that trained musicians are less likely to have absolute pitch than the rest of us, and almost all individuals of primitive races of  man possess this trait (many things that we learn are more interesting in retrospect than when we first learned them—I am still looking for the reference).  Many sounds in the wild are identifiable not only as a tune, but also by the pitch, which is absolute, thus helping primitive man to interpret the sounds of the jungle more promptly. Other animals may also have absolute pitch (2). Modern musicians are confronted with the transposing the key of many pieces to make them easier to play or sing. Besides, the frequency of the “standard A” has been increased by some committee a couple of times in my lifetime, so, seemingly paradoxically, extensive musical training may blunt an innate ability.

         Summary.   Music appreciation requires much sophisticated neural circuitry that evolved to enhance identification of sounds especially voices, so music appreciation is riding rather incidentally on these high priority survival traits (obviously not directly enhancing the high priority traits).

John A. Frantz, MD, NASW, August 9, 2007           



1)      Kendrick, Keith M. da Costa A.P.  Leigh, L.E.  Hinton M.R.  Peirce, J.W. (Nov 8, 2001).  Sheep Don’t Forget a Face.  Nature. 414 (6860) pp 165-6.

2)  McDermott, Josh and Hauser, Marc (March 10, 2005)  The Origin of Music: Innateness, Uniqueness, and          .         .    Evolution.  Music Perception 23 (1) pp 29-59   This article briefly mentions absolute pitch in animals and .     .    .     primitive man on page 53—mostly it’s an excellent  review of the entire field of music evolution.

3)      Morehead, Alan  (1969). Darwin and the Beagle.  Harper and Row

4)      Silk, Joan B. (2007). Social Components of Fitness in Primate Groups.  Science.  317 (5843) pp 1347-1351

For more about evolutionary biology see also:  1) The Biology of Addiction  & 2)  Biology’s Integrating Insights for Medical Science 

both under the category Other Science and Technology  on  <  >