Did humans 'evolve' to find beauty in Math? This means that they must of had some advantage (with good music taste) to pass on genetic code.

According to http://plus.maths.org/content/magical-mathematics-music, "No musical notes fit together better than those which are exactly one octave apart. Pairs of notes like Middle C and High C. Or Middle G and High G. Such pairs arise constantly in popular music."

Did those who find a Middle G and High G awesome, actually more likely to survive than those who just thought..."Its sounds ahh, Ok"??? I find the musical survival advantage to be absolutely ridiculous! It is not possible the appreciation of math in music came from evolution. If it wasn't evolution, it came from creation & design. Math in Music proving the existence of god may be the best(only) evidence we have!

  • A related and possibly illuminating question would be: Could it have been otherwise? The answer belongs to biology, neurophysiology, and a bit of physics. (I suspect octaves are now hardwired into the brain, and it would take a lot more brain and energy to hardwire any other pattern into the brain.)
    – user3164
    Jun 17, 2014 at 7:12
  • @Watson our perception that "frequencies that are integer multiples of one another" is physically related to the fact that the cochlea is primarily a linear (albeit coiled) receptor, and thus its normal modes are integer multiples of a fundamental.
    – Dave
    Jun 17, 2014 at 13:03
  • @Dave That may very well be, although I did see another (or related) potential explanation on the neural level. However, the point I implicitly made is that there is virtually no role for philosophy here. :)
    – user3164
    Jun 17, 2014 at 13:16
  • 4
    This question appears to be off-topic because it appears to be (mostly, ignoring the god hypothesis) about biology or cognitive science (or even physics), which have SE sites.
    – user3164
    Jun 17, 2014 at 18:10
  • 1
    In your question you say "If it wasn't evolution, it came from creation & design" which is saying "If not X then always Y". Just because something is not evolution doesn't mean it's design and vice versa. Jun 17, 2014 at 20:46

5 Answers 5


In How the Mind Works Stephen Pinker (and references therein) argued that music, in itself, is not a product of natural selection; rather natural selection acts (acted) more immediately on lower level brain functions: pattern matching, sensory processing etc. Music then developed (culturally) to stimulate these adaptive brain functions, in a way that is pleasurable. Here's a short (popular) article on work following up on this idea. By no means is this settled science, I'm posting it mainly to indicate that there is another potential mechanism when looking at evolutionary processes: the feature under consideration is a side effect (without significant evolutionary effects per se) of features that are under selective pressure.

There is evidence that other mammals, almost certainly other primates and likely (due to similar brain structure) other mammals, perceive octaves as equivalent. Thus any selective pressure for this type of perception was occurring long before humans evolved. There is also some hypotheses on why octave equivalence could have been selected for in the first place.


Orderliness and proper proportion are characteristics of everything that is beautiful. Since math deals with order and proportion, it is no coincidence that music,* can be beautiful.

*(Music was a branch of mathematics in the Middle Ages; cf. the Quadrivium:

  1. Arithmetic
  2. Geometry
  3. Astronomy
  4. Music


  • Yes, very true. But, beauty is just what we 'perceive' to be beautiful. Just as easily a human could think a 200hz vibration jumping to a 300hz vibration is beauty. What is remarkable is that it follows set mathematical patterns in which we do find beautiful. The question is how did this come to be? Can it be explained by evolution? Jun 17, 2014 at 6:09
  • @JustinTyme surely it is not merely arbitrary what we find beautiful. Especially not in music -- or at least not completely. As far as I am aware, no culture finds deeply non-harmonic sounds in conjunction to be beautiful.
    – virmaior
    Jun 18, 2014 at 2:46
  • Yes, it is no accident that we "tune" our guitar to certain pleasing frequencies. And the combinations and jumps follow mathematical pattens. Surprising, this is proven and can be found in countless research. Jun 18, 2014 at 2:53

I would say the tonal appreciation is due to basic physics; so neither evolutionary or by design.

Each octave is simply a doubling of frequency. The actual frequencies of musical note can be found by

enter image description here

Ref: Piano key frequencies

where n is the musical key number, e.g. middle C (C4) is 40

Plotting frequencies for C4 and C5 shows the major nodes are coincident, which is obviously going to have some perceived resonance.

enter image description here

Also, G4, which is a perfect fifth above C4 is approximately the same number of hertz above C4 as C4 is above C3. So again these tuneful resonances have a physical basis.

enter image description here


The question misrepresents the growth of knowledge in general and evolution in particular. The way evolution works is as follows. Mutation produces variation in genes, which causes variation in phenotypes. Some phenotypes manage to interact with the environment in such a way that genes are copied, others don't. The way this happens is that some of the genes contain useful or explanatory information (knowledge) about the environment. Neither genes nor evolution intends to create any such knowledge but it does so nevertheless. For example, the genes that influence wing development in sparrows instantiate some useful information about how to fly. Genes for sexual traits like peacock feathers instantiate some information about the brains of peahens. However, all knowledge has reach: it solves problems it was not invented to solve. If we understood how sparrow's wings work we might be able to make small robots to go spy on other countries or deliver small parcels or whatever.

At some point in the past, evolution created an adaptation in human beings that had a lot of reach: the ability to create new explanatory knowledge instantiated in our brains and in books, films and so on. As a consequence of this, human beings can create knowledge about new sets of priorities that have nothing to do with genes. We can create any kind of knowledge that seems worthwhile. The only way to find out what is worthwhile is by conjecture and criticism and there always going to be unsolved problems connected with what we find worthwhile. While we don't know why music would be worthwhile but it does seem to be the case that aesthetics, including musical aesthetics, is objectively worthwhile, see:


and "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch.

Note that none of this can be explained by creationism because creationism doesn't pick out any particular set of properties of the world as being impossible. The way the world would be constituted would be entirely a result of God's whims. So creationism can't rule out that God would make the entire world a giant peach or that he would make Beethoven sound bad to us.

  • If beauty is defined as an entity fulfilling its creators purpose, we reverse engineer beauty to find truth. And rediscovering the building blocks of the universeis not only possible, it has happened. The patterns are not only in music, but in everything.In every flower pedal, lies the Fibonacci series. In every bee hive, rabbit den and even the human limbs the golden ratio is found. As Socrates said, "All we know is that we know nothing"... leaves the possibilities of everything on the table. If we only see the tip of the elephants tail... We wouldn't even say the Elephant is a rope. Jun 18, 2014 at 3:20
  • Your definition of beauty doesn't make any sense. For example, by your logic Auschwitz was beautiful. You say we know nothing and so everything is on the table. First, that contradicts the position you expressed in your question. Have you changed your mind about that and if so why? Second, that idea is wrong. I have explained some stuff we do know and it rules out your position.
    – alanf
    Jun 18, 2014 at 8:11

I'm a person of faith, but this is not a good argument. The fact that you personally find the entire concept of an evolutionary advantage to musical appreciation to be laughable is not compelling --at least not to anyone who isn't willing to accept your premise exactly as given.

For instance, I myself believe that we'll soon discover that appreciation of the arts actually conveys strong practical and thus evolutionary advantages.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that the fact we both live in a beautiful universe and that we have the capacity to appreciate it speaks to the existence and nature of God, but that's my perspective as a believer --I'm not sure that line of argument would speak to a sceptic.

  • Appreciation of arts is different from the frequency combinations you find appreciation for. Jun 18, 2014 at 3:09
  • Yes, but arguably all art is composed of patterns. If there is in fact any evolutionary advantage to appreciating art, it would almost certainly be associated to the faculty to appreciate the basic patterns of art --such as the resonance of intervals such as the octave, the fifth, the fourth and so on. Jun 18, 2014 at 13:14

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .