7/31/13 - did music come before language?

In today's selection -- one of the surprising characteristics of our species is the power that music holds over us. It is often the case that a song can influence our emotional state and day-to-day lives more than the information we glean from articles and books. In Western societies we have lost the sense of the central position that music once occupied in communal life, it is still central in most parts of the world today -- and there is no culture anywhere in the world that does not have music, and in which people do not join together to sing or dance. In fact, some scientists reference what they view as an actual binding of nervous systems in communal music activities -- and view music as a critical instrument of social cohesion in society even if it is a neglected instrument in Western societies. And though it is controversial, it should not be surprising that some scientists believe that in the evolutionary development of humans, music came before language and was a path to the development of language:

"There are significant similarities between music and language, suggesting at least a common origin. For example, many subtle aspects of language are mediated by regions of the right hemisphere which also mediate the performance and experience of music. Furthermore these right hemisphere regions are the homologues of areas in the left hemisphere that are involved with language production and comprehension -- they are in the 'same' position on the other side of the brain. ...

"When it comes to understanding the origins of language, however, there is less agreement, and speculation has followed one of three paths. There are those who believe that music is a useless spin-off, or epiphenomenon, of the development of language; there are those, on the contrary, who believe that language itself developed out of musical communication (a kind of singing); and finally there are those who hold that music and language developed independently but alongside one another, out of a common ancestor, which has been dubbed 'musilanguage'. ...

"The evidence of the fossil record is, as I say, that the control of voice and respiration needed for singing apparently came into being long before they would ever have been required by language. But is there any reason, apart from this, why we should adopt the view that music came first?

"There are, if nothing else, some indications on the matter. In the first place, the 'syntax' of music is simpler, less highly evolved, than that of language, suggesting an earlier origin. More importantly, observation of the development of language in children confirms that the musical aspects of language do indeed come first. Intonation, phrasing and rhythm develop first; syntax and vocabulary come only later. Newborns are already sensitive to the rhythms of language; they prefer 'infant-directed speech' -- otherwise known as 'baby talk' -- which emphasizes what is called prosody, the music of speech. In response to this, mothers expand the pitch excursions, broaden the repertoire and raise the overall pitch of their speech, as well as slowing the tempo and emphasising its rhythm, as soon as their child is born. Newborn infants can distinguish the timbre and intonation of their mother's voice, and prefer it to any other; and can distinguish the unique intonation of their 'mother' tongue, which again they prefer to others. ...

"Ultimately music is the communication of emotion, the most fundamental form of communication, which in phylogeny, as well as ontogeny, came and comes first. Neurological research strongly supports the assumption that 'our love of music reflects the ancestral ability of our mammalian brain to transmit and receive basic emotional sounds: the prosody and rhythmic motion that emerge intuitively from entrainment of the body in emotional expression. ... Presumably such 'mechanisms' were highly important for group survival. They were also likely to have deep roots: 'the deeply emotional stirrings generated by music: writes the influential anthropologist Robin Dunbar, 'suggest to me that music has very ancient origins, long predating the evolution of language.'

"This conclusion has not been universally welcomed. There are a number of reasons, but one stands out, at least as far as concerns geneticists. Developments must demonstrate evolutionary advantage. Language, it is reasoned, gives a huge advantage in the power it confers to its possessor: but what has music to do with power -- what advantage can it yield? It doesn't apparently put you in a position to deliver a knockout blow to the opposition, and doesn't look like a way of pushing your genes. So music has been seen as a pointless 'exaptation' of language: that is to say, an adaptation of a skill, originally developed for its competitive advantage in one area, to a quite different purpose. ... Steven Pinker certainly sees it as [as an irrelevant spin-off], and even suggests that music is as meaningless and self-indulgent as pornography or a taste for fatty food. ...

"That we could use non-verbal means, such as music, to communicate is, in any case, hardly surprising. The shock comes partly from the way we in the West now view music: we have lost the sense of the central position that music once occupied in communal life, and still does in most parts of the world today. Despite the fact that there is no culture anywhere in the world that does not have music, and in which people do not join together to sing or dance, we have relegated music to the sidelines of life. We might think of music as an individualistic, even solitary experience, but that is rare in the history of the world. In more traditionally structured societies, performance of music plays both an integral, and an integrative, role not only in celebration, religious festivals, and other rituals, but also in daily work and recreation; and it is above all a shared performance, not just something we listen to passively. It has a vital way of binding people together, helping them to be aware of shared humanity, shared feelings and experiences, and actively drawing them together. In our world, competition and specialisation have made music something compartmentalised, somewhere away from life's core. So Oliver Sacks writes:

'This primal role of music is to some extent lost today, when we have a special class of composers and performers, and the rest of us are often reduced to passive listening. One has to go to a concert, or a church, or a music festival, to recapture the collective excitement and bonding of music. In such a situation, there seems to be an actual binding of nervous systems.'

"But if it should turn out that music leads to language, rather than language to music, it helps us understand for the first time the otherwise baffling historical fact that poetry evolved before prose. Prose was at first known as pezos logos, literally 'pedestrian, or walking, logos', as opposed to the usual dancing logos of poetry. In fact early poetry was sung: so the evolution of literary skill progresses, if that is the correct word, from right-hemisphere music (words that are sung), to right-hemisphere language (the metaphorical language of poetry), to left hemisphere language (the referential language of prose)."


Iain McGilchrist


The Master and His Emissary


Yale University Press


Copyright 2009 by Iain McGilchrist


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