Musical Dialects

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin received a package in 1858 from Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and evolutionary theorist whose reputation rivaled that of Darwin himself. Spencer’s gift was a collection of essays on wide-ranging topics, including “The Origin and Function of Music.” Darwin wrote Spencer a letter of gratitude, noting, “Your article on Music has also interested me much, for I had often thought on the subject and had come to nearly the same conclusion with you, though unable to support the notion in any detail.” The idea proposed was that music developed from the rhythm and pitch contours of emotional speech.

As the years went by, Darwin remained “unable to support” this intuitive hypothesis, and eventually flipped the scenario. Rather than putting speech before music, he proposed that biological urges gave rise to musical sounds, which then developed into speech. Specifically, he situated music’s origins in courtship displays, when our ancestors, “like animals of all kinds [were] excited not only by love, but by the strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph.” The cries that sprang forth, presumably akin to animal mating calls, were the precursors of language. Darwin’s theory had the benefit of rooting music (and subsequently language) in an adaptive process: “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”

The issue is far from conclusively decided. Contemporary theorists are split between Spencerians, who view music as an outgrowth of language, and Darwinians, who view language as a byproduct of music. This chicken-or-the-egg debate is likely to remain unsettled, in part because of the absence of the proverbial time machine, and in part because music and language are so inextricably intertwined.

However music and language came about, it is clear that they mirror one another. Both Spencer and Darwin based their theories on evidence of musical characteristics in expressive speech. Similarly, those who study global musics often find the syntactic and tonal patterns of regional dialects reflected in the phrasings, cadences, inflections, and intonations of regional songs. Indeed, distinct language forms help explain the variability of timbre, modal, and structural preferences from place to place. The folk melodies of Algeria and Zambia may not have much in common, but each is tied to speech patterns used in those countries.

A good illustration of the speech-song convergence is Steve Reich’s three-movement piece, Different Trains (1988). The melodic content of each movement derives from interviews recorded in the United States and Europe. Looped spoken phrases, drawn from recollections about the years leading up to, during, and immediately after the Second World War, are paralleled and developed by a string quartet—an effect that simultaneously highlights and enhances the musicality of the spoken words.

Yet, none of this tells us which came first in the history of our species. Music and language have existed side by side for eons. Musical norms have affected speech organization, just as speech organization has affected musical norms. In the end, the question of evolutionary sequence is less important than the very indispensability and interdependence of music and language.

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

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