Did Music Evolve Before Language?
    By Hank Campbell | February 20th 2010 03:19 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Did music evolve before language?  It's not a trivial idea and there has been debate about it since literally the days of Darwin - Sir Charles himself proposed the notion in "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex" that a 'musical protolanguage' model could mean that music came before language.

    Darwin is often invoked to legitimize new (and old) ideas and people who want to respond to criticisms that music is an invention rather than a product of evolution are happy to take support where they can get it, but that is not much of a defense.   Darwin's second book had to address evolution directly, a move he carefully avoided in "Origin of Species", because language was the mechanism critics such as Friederich Max Müller, professor of linguistics at Oxford University, used in attacking the whole theory: "language is the Rubicon which divides man from beast, and no animal will ever cross it … the science of language will yet enable us to withstand the extreme theories of the Darwinians, and to draw a hard and fast line between man and brute."

    If language was the great divide between man and other animals a 'multicomponent' view of language had to be in effect for evolution to meet critics.  While mammals have music as a rarity, it is more common in birds.   This went well with Darwin's insistence that the issue should not be human evolution but rather a broad theory of evolution in which general principles like sexual selection provided explanations of unique human traits.

    The old boy had something going for him.  Basically in a few pages he laid out that evolution brought a general increase in mental abilities but then sexual selection brought about the capacity for more complex vocal control, what we know as singing.  Attributing meaning to the 'songs' by early man spurred further increases in intelligence.

    Intriguing stuff.

    Today we are discovering a lot more about music and the brain but some of it feels like old ground.  We get that electricity is the 'currency' of the nervous system and that mapping changes in that flow can tell us something but, like with fMRI studies, it is difficult to make it anything more than correlation.

    Correlation is not always a bad thing, of course.  Nina Kraus, Professor, Neurobiology&Physiology, Otolaryngology at Northwestern, analyzes learning-associated brain plasticity and says that music is a multisensory auditory experience, which we all instinctively know, but that stimulus and response are too closely correlated to be ignored.  As an example she used 'da' as a music recording and showed it as brain perception.  She did this with three intonations of 'da' and it had its value but suddenly the three "da"s became Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and a much different thing, to the delight of a room full of cynical journalists.

    Gottfriend Schlaug of Harvard Medical School does something a little more direct that may be circumstantial but is a powerful exclamation point for a 'music came first' argument.  His work with patients who have suffered severe lesions on the left side of their brain showed that while they could not speak - no language skill as we might define it - they were able to sing phrases like "I am thirsty", sometimes within two minutes of having the phrase mapped to a melody.

    This 'melodic intonation therapy' might help patients who lack spoken language ability to communicate in ways they now lack - the cost is enormous, as you can imagine, but most new research is.  Of course, the big question is, how much does music relate to other complex cognitive abilities? 

    Hard to say.  Nouns and verbs have no musical counterpart and music lacks linguistic syntax; as Aniruddh Patel, Senior Fellow at the Neurosciences Institute puts it, "who did what to whom."  So for every piece of evidence showing overlap there are likely as many examples of cases where dissociation is just as obvious.   Patel seeks to unify those inconsistencies in a hypothesis he called "Shared Syntactic Integration Resource Hypothesis" (SSIRH), saying basically that language and musical representations may be stored in separate areas, so can be damaged independently, but that there is overlap in the networks themselves.

    Is that evidence for evolution of musical ability first?  Not so much.  Schlaug's results, for example, are preliminary and part of an ongoing clinical trial so he does not overreach their significance.  But it is sure interesting to see people who cannot communicate with words use words in a melody.

    More reading:

    Musical syntactic processing in agrammatic Broca's aphasia, Patel et al,

    "The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body" by Steve Mithen, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 2005.

    Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited by W. Tecumseh Fitch


    Hank: thanks for posting this - you have given me something to sink my teeth into.

    Nouns and verbs have no musical counterpart and music lacks linguistic syntax; as Aniruddh Patel, Senior Fellow at the Neurosciences Institute puts it, "who did what to whom."

    Where 'syntax' means either 'an ordered relation in serial time' or 'a set of rules which show that symbol x is more likely to be followed by a member of the symbol subset 'y' than subset 'z', then music does indeed have syntax.

    Shannon's rules of entropy are as applicable to music as to language.  Were that not so we could never remember a tune, since, by implication of the negative, any random note whatsoever could be followed by any random note whatsoever in any context or subcontext whatsoever.  A long, staccato sequence of a single note would be music, and not a panic alarm.

    Music has its themes and phrases just as much as language, and when you just absolutely must tap your foot or sway your body, perhaps its because your brain recognises that at that point it is hearing verbs: words which portray or command actions.
    Gerhard Adam
    But it is sure interesting to see people who cannot communicate with words use words in a melody.
    We've already seen this with artists that may have speech defects like stuttering have no problems when singing.  It's also interesting that singing in closely related languages (like the UK versus American english) there doesn't appear to be any accent to the vocalizations.  In addition, singing in a language foreign to the singer is much easier than having to speak the same phrases.

    Of course, it's hard to argue that natural selection functioned on singing.  One evening of watching American Idol auditions and it's clear that natural selection has not been up to the task.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Of course, it's hard to argue that natural selection functioned on singing.  One evening of watching American Idol auditions and it's clear that natural selection has not been up to the task.

    LOL.  Cynic!
    Dave Deamer

    Hank -- Nice article! Food for thought, as Patrick pointed out. After digesting it, here are a couple of thoughts that grew out of your nutritious essay.

    When we think of music, we tend to think of combinations of notes called a melody, so how could melody have had a selective effect in human evolution? I can imagine a tribe of our primitive human ancestors in Africa 200,000 years ago, and one of the young women, not yet mated, happens to learn how to imitate the melodic sequence of notes sung by a local bird. This immediately makes her stand out in contrast to all the other young women, and she is selected by the dominant male. Her genome, with its particular talent for singing, gets passed on to her progeny long before anyone learns a language. 

    But there is something in music even more primitive than melody, which is rhythm. A young male, not yet mated, learns how to make a rhythmic drum beat on a hollow log, perhaps imitating another bird, a woodpecker. Young females are attracted to the interesting sound and gather round to admire this novelty. Before long, the drummer’s genome is passed along to his progeny. 

    Are melody and rhythm still selective factors today? You referred to American Idol to make the point that it seems not to be a factor. I have never watched this program, but I have looked in on the UK version called Britain Has Talent! Last year, a rather plain, middle aged woman took the stage, and the camera panned out over the audience and judges, who clearly were bracing themselves for some screeching. The music began, the woman sang, and the world was electrified. I think that, as a general rule, someone who can do this for an audience will have a much greater chance of reproductive success.

    I would say that music came first simply from looking at what animals do with music (birds were mentioned but what about frogs, crickets, whales and more...) and also what babies do even before they can speak. Babies both respond to music and are capable of creating their own "songs" long before they say "mama, dada". 
    As both a musician and technocogninetisist, I am aware of the powerful effects that both the listening to music, but more importantly, the creation of it can have on a person's ability to think more creatively in other areas, thus increasing one's intelligence overall.

    Of course that would depend on what kind of music it was...