Research Topic

Music Cognition

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Music, its power over us, its functions in cognition and behaviour, its origins and evolution remain a scientific mystery. 2400 years ago Aristotle asked, “why music, just mere sounds, remind states of soul?” Kant was not able to explain and account for the role of music in human life: “it merely plays

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Music, its power over us, its functions in cognition and behaviour, its origins and evolution remain a scientific mystery. 2400 years ago Aristotle asked, “why music, just mere sounds, remind states of soul?” Kant was not able to explain and account for the role of music in human life: “it merely plays with senses.” Darwin, considered music “the greatest mystery.”


Today, contemporary thinkers, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and musicologists still cannot explain music and its primary function and role in human life. Pinker, following Kant, has suggested that music is “auditory cheesecake,” that just happens to “tickle the sensitive spots.” A few years ago, Nature published a series of essays on music. Their authors agreed that “none… has yet been able to answer the fundamental question: why does music have such power over us?” “Music is a human cultural universal that serves no obvious adaptive purpose, making its evolution a puzzle for evolutionary biologists”.


At present there are many open and unanswered questions regarding the origins of music, its fundamental role in human life and culture, as well as the biological functions of music cognition. We welcome contributions that provide new theories and emerging evidence that will promote a fuller scientific understanding of the origins and historical evolution of music and music cognition. Some of the questions surrounding this achallenge include:



  • - Did music and cognition evolve jointly? What might the implications of this be in terms of the evolution of biological species? What are the cognitive functions of music? Are there particular cognitive functions that music provides? Or is music biologically unnecessary to humans and other species?

  • - Is music similar to language in some way, or is this a misleading analogy? Has music originated alongside with language or are these abilities evolutionary unrelated? Do music and language share a joint evolutionary precursor or function? What has been the role of language prosody in this evolution? Is music in different cultures related to any aspects of language in these same cultures? What does neuroscientific and psychological data and evidence suggest about relations between language and music? What can we learn from the brain about particular responses to music? Are there specific specializations related to music? Is there a unique function of music or is music merely neurobiological “entertainment”? Are historical changes in musical styles random statistical variations or are there relationships between musical styles and historical cultural changes?

  • - Animal voices appear to unify emotional and semantic content. Humans can consciously differentiate the two. Is this related to the origins of music and language or is there some other evolutionary function?

  • - Is human music similar to birdsong? Was the origin of music in evolution driven by sexual selection, like peacock tails? Is music an “honest signal”?

  • - Is music’s adaptive value related to sexual selection? Or is it related to the social benefits of group living and cultural survival? Does it relate to child rearing and motherese?

  • - Is music simply a non-adaptive pleasure-seeking behaviour?

  • - Many people listen to music because of emotions it evokes. What is the adaptive function of musical emotions? Do emotions from musical experiences contribute for human adaption or exaptation? Are there specific emotions related to music? How these emotions can be measured?


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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