The evolution of music

Music also undergoes a natural selection process. Image: Shutterstock

Music can evolve by the process of natural selection, the same way species evolve in the natural world.


You don’t have to have the talents of Beethoven to create music — in fact, it seems that you don’t even need to be creative. Scientists Robert MacCallum and Armund Leroi from Imperial College London have developed a program called DarwinTunes, which generates bursts of noise that evolve based on the preferences of thousands of listeners.

Natural selection refers to Darwin’s idea that within a population there is always variation. Some variants are undesirable and go extinct, while others do exceptionally well and thrive. Scientists have tried to apply this method to human culture, claiming that words, songs, images and ideas undergo a similar process — i.e. these cultural artefacts mutate, some die out and others catch on and become great hits.

Researchers wanted to test this theory by investigating whether pleasing music could evolve from inharmonious chaos. The 6,931 participants listened to 100 audio loops and rated them on a five-point scale, which guided the evolutionary process. The loops that got higher ratings were combined with others to produce new audio loops; the lower rated ones were culled. They found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms.

“We have shown that a simple Darwinian process can produce music,” wrote MacCullum in a report. “Although our system is an artificial one, it may shed light on the evolution of real musical cultures. Our experiment demonstrates the creative role of consumer selection in shaping the music we listen to.”

However, past a certain point, evolution slowed and the tunes stopped evolving — the “˜daughter tunes’ were less well liked than their “˜parents’, leaving the music stranded on an evolutionary plateau.

MacCallum says he doesn’t think composers should feel threatened by DarwinTunes. “It took 10 and a half days of human time to create a four-bar Steve Reichian jingle,” he said.

Still, the study offers insights into how music has evolved through time. Scientists know that there are rules for what constitutes a pleasing sound, some of which are culturally driven and some of which may be hard-wired in our brains. The results of this experiment suggest that listeners aren’t just passive consumers but play a highly influential role in music’s evolution.

You can join in on the experiment and listen to the music as it evolves here.

Source: Imperial College

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