Tag Archives: Speech


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause identifies two categories of organism-derived sounds: biophony, sounds created by non-human animals, and anthropophony, sounds produced by human beings. Some of these sounds are “musical” in the inclusive sense of displaying structured and intentional patterns that unfold over time. Precisely which sounds fit under this broad definition is debatable. However, on a basic level, we are intuitively attentive to musical sounds around us, both creaturely and human-made. What is perhaps less obvious—and more fundamental—is the extent to which our sense of music is physiologically derived.

This anthropogenic (human-born) appreciation centers on two essential musical elements: rhythm and melody. Both originate with inborn “instruments.” Heartbeats and breathing lay the foundations of rhythm. The voice sets the template for melody. As individuals mature and cultures progress, these internal mechanisms are translated into external instruments, which are themselves imitations and expansions of the organ-instruments within.

Rhythmic awareness begins in the womb. The underlying neural structures of hearing develop early in utero. By the end of the third trimester, a fetus can distinguish a wide range of frequencies. This includes her own heart rate, which beats 120 to 160 times per minute, and her mother’s, which beats 60 to 80 times per minute. When the infant is born, the tempo of breathing is added to the mix. As the child develops, rhythmic exposure and experimentation are diversified: rocking, clapping, banging, shaking, walking, stomping, dancing. It is no coincidence that excited music is fast-paced, mimicking quick breaths and heartbeats, while relaxed music is slow-paced, mimicking calm breaths and heartbeats. Techno, dirges, marches, meditations, and all manner of musical styles play off these natural rhythms.

Similarly with melody. The mother’s voice, which also resonates in the womb, is our first introduction to melodic patterns. Newborns show a preference for music (organized sound) over noise (confused sound), and for vocal music over instruments. Mothers instinctively communicate through “motherese”—high-pitched, sliding, infant-directed intonations—which, through exaggeration, reinforces characteristics of the native language. The infant, in turn, babbles in language-patterned speech-song long before she can form words. These verbal and verbal-imitative vocables set the framework of melody, both sung and instrumental. In every culture, melody is deeply rooted in the phrasing, inflections, and articulations of the spoken vernacular.

We cannot escape the physiological/anthropogenic basis of music perception and production. Rhythmic and melodic sense are born with us. Our heart, breath, and voice invariably inform which sounds—human and non-human—we hear as music, and which ones we do not.

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

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.