Tag Archives: Herbert Spencer

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.

Expressing Expression

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The popular appreciation of music as a language beyond words has origins in nineteenth-century German Romanticism and its unrestrained obsession with the expressiveness of musical sound. While composers of the genre were busy expanding the emotional dimensions of their craft, poets were writing about music with equal sentimental effusiveness. The expression heard in the works of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms inspired poets like Tieck, Schlegel and Heine to pour out laudatory verses proclaiming music’s unsurpassed ability to convey true feeling. To the poets, music was the embodiment of expression itself—their most venerated aesthetic principle—and they regularly infused their poems with musical references in hopes of harnessing that emotive power. Their ethos is captured in a quote from E. T. A. Hoffmann: “Music is the most romantic of all the arts—one might almost say, the only entirely romantic one.”

The view of music as a transmitter of emotions spread throughout Europe and influenced other fields. Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher and biologist, concluded that “primitives” developed the capacity for music specifically as a means of communicating their state of being. This anthropological assumption, while a product of its time, had many antecedents. The ancient Greeks, for instance, devised a musical system comprised of modes intended to evoke or intensify particular reactions. Other societies past and present possess a similar (if not as systematic) awareness of music’s potential to penetrate and manipulate our inner lives. Nonetheless, the exuberance with which Romantic-era writers emphasized and exalted music’s expressiveness has not been equaled.

As an example, here are some of Hoffmann’s comments on Beethoven: “Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens us to the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!”

Embedded in this characteristically verbose appraisal is the contradictory concession that music is “immeasurable” and thus incapable of being justly described in words. Goethe said it best: “Music begins where words end.” Try as they might to explain the sounds and effects, the poets freely admitted that their verse—like other art forms—could only approximate the purity of emotional transmission they felt in music. Theirs was an era when composers and performers greatly expanded the range and intensity of dynamics, phrasing, articulation, tempo, harmony and all manner of musical coloration. Sympathetic feelings aroused in audiences reached unprecedented levels, and it was widely held that the soul of music made contact with the soul of the listener. All of this put music outside the grasp of language.

It is not necessary to adopt the often-exaggerated stance of the Romantics to value music’s emotional impact. Nor must one agree with the view of post-modern detractors, who argue that feelings induced by music are illusory, to acknowledge the limits of musical expression. Still, it is easy to accept the basic Romantic assertion: our emotional responses to music, real or imagined, account largely for our interest in the art form.

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