Before Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music and speech are not the same thing. One is abstract and arbitrary; the other is concrete and absolute. One uses sound as its subject matter; the other as a vehicle for logos. The grammar of one is built on pitch, key, rhythm, harmony and technique; the grammar of the other is based on morphemes, phonemes, words, syntax and sentences. One stimulates imprecise affective states; the other imparts precise information. One stems from emotion; the other from reason. Despite these dissimilarities, both music and speech grew from the primal necessity for self-expression.

In the evolution of human communication, wordless vocal music—as distinct from song—is speculated to have preceded structured language. Part of this view is rooted in observation. As anyone familiar with infants knows, our earliest attempts to communicate vocally involve singsong patterns of mostly vowel sounds. Although indefinite, this “naked language” is unmistakable in its desire to relay specific thoughts and needs (often intelligible only to the parent). The result is an emotive sequence of tones approaching, though not identical to, music.

This could lead us to the now-defunct theory of recapitulation (or biogenetic law), popularized by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), in which the stages of child development are thought to encompass developmental stages of the species as a whole, which extended over millennia. In that old theory, the infant’s progress from nonsense vocables to coherent speech is a repetition of what our prehistoric ancestors went through, only in quick time. Modern biology has dumped this idea into the dustbin of mythology. However, the premise that music-speech predated language-speech has been revived, though in a more limited way.

One intriguing example is Steven Mithen’s 2005 book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. Mithen, a professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, has traced pseudo-singing to Neanderthals, a Middle to Late Pleistocene species closely related to modern humans. According to Mithen, while Neanderthals lacked the neural circuitry for language, they did have a proto-musical form of communication that incorporated sound and gesture, influenced emotional states and behavior, and was rhythmic, melodic and temporally controlled—that is, “a prelinguistic musical mode of thought and action.” He has coined a cumbersome neologism to describe the phenomenon: “Hmmmmm,” for holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, musical, and mimetic.

Although the title of the book suggests that Neanderthals “sang,” Mithen is careful to state that their vocalization was neither language nor music as we know them today. This implies a more nuanced and complex line of evolution than the earlier simplistic formula of song to speech. Of course, it is impossible to know for sure whether a music-like activity evolved prior to and/or gave rise to language. Without the aid of a time machine, we are reliant on the sophisticated, yet ultimately limited, tools of archaeology, anthropology, psychology and neuroscience. But speculate we can.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

2 thoughts on “Before Speech

  1. John Morton

    Another interesting post Jonathan. There’s little doubt in my mind, as a father of five and with four grandchildren, that the amazingly rapid, and rather magical, progression from utterances to language involves processes that are still not understood. In a broader sense, the inheritance of characteristics, talents etc., rather than merely physical traits, is similarly not accepted in many circles.

    The difference between language and music is rendered to be more complicated by poetry, of course and, when we speak, the rising and falling of pitch is one of many nuances that can play a part even in court proceedings etc. This is why, over here, wearing the niqab is discouraged. Jazz ‘scat’ singing is another hybrid, I suppose.


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