How music helps resolve our deepest inner conflicts

Music unifies the world into a whole. Feliciano Guimarães/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Billions of people enjoy music; many feel that they can’t live without it.


It’s a question that has puzzled scientists and philosophers for centuries. 2,400 years ago Aristotle wondered, “Why does music, being just sounds, remind us of the states of our soul?”

In the 19th century Darwin tried to decipher if our ability to create music evolved by natural selection. Of all human faculties, only music seemed beyond understanding; flummoxed, he came to the conclusion that “music is the greatest mystery.”

More than 200 years ago, Kant declared music useless. And near the end of the 20th century, celebrated psychologist Steven Pinker – also unable to comprehend its purpose – called music “auditory cheesecake.”

A few years ago, the respected journal Nature published a series of essays about music. Their conclusion? That it’s impossible to explain what music is and why it affects us so strongly – and that it’s not even clear if music can serve “an obvious adaptive function.”

But my recent research suggests otherwise: music is an evolutionary adaptation, one that helps us navigate a world rife with contradictions.

The crippling effect of cognitive dissonance

Music’s effect on our brains is closely related to what’s been dubbed “the greatest discovery in social psychology” of the 20th century: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the idea that people experience unpleasant feelings when they either possess contradictory knowledge, or are confronted with new information that opposes existing beliefs.

One way we alleviate dissonance is through suppressing or rejecting this contradictory knowledge.

Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes” illustrates this common human response. In the tale, the fox is distressed over the fact that he can’t reach a bunch of grapes. Even more unpleasant is the dissonance he experiences: the grapes are so tempting and so close – yet unattainable.

‘If I can’t have it, I don’t want it’: the fable ‘The Fox and the Grapes’ illustrates cognitive dissonance, a core human response to conflicting information. Wikimedia Commons

As a result, the fox attempts to alleviate the dissonance by rationalizing, “Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.”

During the 20th century hundreds of experiments confirmed this common psychological response. When faced with dissonant thoughts, children, teens and adults all responded the same way: if I can’t have it, then I don’t need it.

A manifestation of cognitive dissonance is the rejection of new knowledge. Even some great scientific discoveries have had to wait decades for recognition and acceptance, because they contradicted existing beliefs that people didn’t want to surrender. For example, Einstein didn’t receive a Nobel Prize for his Theory of Relativity – now considered one of the greatest discoveries in the history of mankind – because it contradicted our core beliefs about space and time.

Music helps us grapple with dissonance

So if people are willing to deceive themselves or ignore new information, how has human culture evolved? After all, the foundation of culture is the accumulation of new knowledge – much of which contradicts existing knowledge.

Consider language: when language emerged in our species, every new word was a nugget of new information that contradicted an existing idea or belief. A powerful mechanism of the mind must have evolved to enable our ancestors to overcome these unpleasant dissonances that split their world, and allowed them to keep contradictory knowledge – to absorb new words rather than immediately discarding them.

Could it be that this ability was enabled by music? While language splits the world into detailed, distinct pieces, music unifies the world into a whole. Our psyche requires both.

Several experiments have proven music’s ability to help us overcome cognitive dissonances and retain contradictory knowledge.

For example, in one experiment, an experimenter gave a group of four-year-old boys five popular Pokemon toys. Playing with each boy individually, she had them rank, one by one, their preferences for the five toys. Then the experimenter told each subject that she needed to leave for few minutes, and asked him not to play with his second-ranked toy. When she returned, she re-initiated play and found that the formerly second-ranked toy was entirely ignored. When confronted with conflicting information (“I like this toy, but I shouldn’t play with it”), each boy apparently rejected his initial preference for it.

But when the experimenter turned on music when leaving, the toy retained its original value. The contradictory knowledge didn’t lead the boys to simply discard the toy.

In another experiment, we gave a group of fifteen-year-old students a typical multiple choice exam, and asked them to record the difficulty of each question, along with how much time it took them to answer each one.

It turned out that more difficult questions were answered faster (and grades suffered), because students didn’t want to prolong unpleasant dissonance of choosing between difficult options. However when Mozart’s music played in the background, they spent more time on the difficult questions. Their scores improved.

Life’s big choices become more informed

Beyond multiple choice tests, we’re constantly confronted with choices in our day-to-day lives – from the mundane (what to buy for lunch), to the major (whether or not to accept a job offer). We often use both intuition and pragmatism when evaluating complex situations, but we also incorporate emotion.

And then there are choices related to two universal themes of our existence – love and death – which are inherently steeped in contradictions.

With love, we’d like to fully trust it. But we know that to fully trust is dangerous – that we can be betrayed and disappointed. With death, one of the most difficult contradictions of all is our longing to believe in spiritual eternity and our knowledge that our time on Earth is finite.

Is it any coincidence, then, that there are so many songs about love and betrayal? Or that we are drawn to sorrowful songs in times of mourning?

The idea is that music – which can convey an array of nuanced emotions – helps us reconcile our own conflicted emotions when making choices. And the more diverse, differentiated emotions we possess, the more well-founded our decisions become. Whether it’s choosing to play with a toy or deciding to propose to a boyfriend or girlfriend, our research shows that music can enhance our cognitive abilities.

Thus, because we constantly grapple with cognitive dissonances, we created music, in part, to help us tolerate – and overcome – them.

This is the universal purpose of music.