Charles Darwin wrote: “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man…they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed.”
But Steven Pinker, who has been described as psychology’s first rock star, declared that musical cognition was not worth studying as it was merely “auditory cheesecake”, a byproduct of language.
Certainly, language and music have much in common both consist of complex sequences of unlimited variety. Just as there is no limit to the number of different sentences we can produce or understand, so music provides us with a seemingly endless variety of tunes and compositions. Both require precise timing, and both are predominantly based on sound, with a substantial element of bodily movement as well. Language can be accomplished by gesture alone, as in sign languages, and most of us gesture as we speak. Similarly, music gets the body moving through association with dance or rhythmic tapping.
In many ways language and music are also intertwined. The most obvious example is song, where the melodic accompaniment may help to convey emotion. It may also serve a mnemonic function. It is easier to remember words sung to a tune than to remember them as simple sequences, and songs are widely exploited in teaching language to young children. Poetry may also have the rhythmic quality of music, and again may have evolved to help our preliterate ancestors remember stories, and pass them on to the next generations. Ordinary speech itself has a melodic component, known as prosody. The rise and fall of the voice can signal emotion, or differentiate statements from questions or commands.
Many languages, known as tonal languages, use different tones to distinguish between words themselves. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, there are five different tonal contours, so the word approximately rendered as “ma” can mean five different things. Thus the sentence “Mama ma ma de ma ma?”, given the right intonation, can be taken to mean “Is mother scolding the horse’s hemp?”—not an everyday utterance, to be sure, but it makes the point.
The language of the Piraha, a small Amazon community in Brazil, is also tonal, and the people there can communicate quite effectively simply by whistling or humming—an ability that we are all equipped with to varying degrees. If you can name any note played on the piano without looking at it, you have what is known as absolute pitch. This ability is more common in musicians, especially if trained from an early age, and is more easily taught to five-year-olds than to adults. It is fairly rare in our culture, but common in speakers of tonal languages. This raises the possibility that language arose from music, an idea developed by the archaeologist Steven Mithen in his book The Singing Neanderthals.
The languages with the earliest roots are those of sub-Saharan Africa, and nearly all of these are tonal. A language consisting purely of tones would not have the precision of modern speech, but the addition of additional sounds, including click sounds in Africa and the regular consonants and differentiated vowels of our own language, would have ensured greater labelling capacity. There are more than 1500 different speech sounds in the world’s languages, but no language uses more than 10% of them, which could be why tones have dropped out of many languages. Language is over-endowed with phonetic possibility.
Pinker argues that music merely exploits brain circuits that evolved for spoken language, but the reverse may very well be true. Both language and music may descend from movement, and rhythm is inherent in most bodily activity, whether in breathing, eating, walking, swimming or, dare I say, copulation. Chimpanzees emit pant hoot calls while drumming their hands or feet against a hard surface, and gorillas beat their chests rhythmically while emitting threatening vocalisations.
If music is auditory cheesecake, then language is muesli, honed from the more holistic processes of dance and melody to provide the communicative precision needed to convey the particularities of our lives, whether social or physical. By the same token, however, it is largely stripped of direct appeal to instinct and emotion. Music still gets in touch with our emotions in a way that speech cannot—as Hans Christian Andersen put it, “where words fail, music speaks.”