My initial morning task is to feed our outdoor cat, who patiently awaits me by the sliding door to our deck. I fill her dish, but she wants to converse and be petted before she eats. I don’t understand her variations on meow and she doesn’t understand my comments—but timbre and melody adequately communicate the emotional overtones of our relationship.
I then throw out several handfuls of peanuts, and hear an immediate squawky song from a bird waiting in the Japanese maple tree that umbrellas the deck. Birds and squirrels arrive quickly to gather up the peanuts. No petting ritual here. We might wonder why a bird would alert other birds and animals to food it could otherwise have to itself, but then we might also wonder why we alert friends to economic opportunities, and invite them over for dinner.
Communication and collaboration are absolutely essential in a social species.
Many social species (including humans) use two basic forms of communication, (1) a personal intimate form called grooming or caressing that uses touch and body language to establish and maintain bonding and hierarchical relationships within the group, and (2) a more complex auditory signaling system that alerts others in the group to the nature, location, and importance of potential dangers and opportunities.
Human language appears to be the most extensive and complex of all these communication systems. Mastering one’s native oral and written language is an extended major childhood task, and current school standards and assessment programs focus principally on the development of such skills.
Unfortunately, we’ve narrowed our definition of language.
For example, most K-12 schools currently focus on mastering the sequence of letters that constitute a word but not also on the sequence of tones that constitute a melody, on the grammatical structure of language but not also on the structure of musical forms, on the ability to use writing and typing tools but not also on the ability to play a musical instrument.
It’s not that music isn’t ubiquitous in our culture—but it’s become a one-sided message that emanates from stages, loudspeakers, and personal portable pods. We tend to listen to the music of others rather than create our own. I suspect that most folks who sing at all during a given week do it only during religious services—and while liturgical singing is corporate, it isn’t conversational.
Speech transmits information by compressing an extended thought into a stream of rapidly moving phonemic sounds. Conversely, song communicates how we feel about an important unit of information by slowing down the message and inserting emotionally rich rhythmic and melodic elements into dragged-out vowels and text repetitions. For example, hearing or reading factual information on San Francisco isn’t the same as hearing I Left My Heart in San Francisco, even though both formats provide information about San Francisco.
Young people learn to communicate effortlessly via conversation and computers, but as suggested above, many schools seemingly don’t consider music an integral element of language. The reduction (and even elimination) of school music instruction is an enigma, given its ancient human roots and current cultural ubiquity.
It’s even possible that music predated human language, since scientists have discovered 50,000-year-old flutes made from bear bones—and a flute is an advanced musical instrument. Further, adults universally interact with infants via a musical form called motherese—a high-pitched, exaggerated, repetitive, melodic format that engages the rapt attention and mimicked response of infants who can’t understand the words. Music thus introduces infants to speech by preparing their brain to effectively process its complexities and improvisations.
The remarkable mirror neuron system enhances the process. Mirror neurons replicate what’s occurring within the brain of a person who is doing something, and so activate a mimicked response (think of our tendency to yawn when we see another person yawn). They therefore help to explain how infants who interact with adults can learn movements they haven’t made before, such as the complex facial and vocal movements that process music and speech.
Two fascinating informative new books explain the ancient roots and underlying neurobiology of music and the key role it plays in human life and communication. They are thus a valuable resource for those who seek credible evidence that might restore music to a K-12 curriculum that has all but abandoned it, to a culture that doesn’t understand it because of its extended curricular neglect.
The Singing Neanderthals
In The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (2006), Steven Mithen leads readers through the considerable evidence from archeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and musicology that supports the growing belief that musical capabilities within early humans led to language (the opposing belief being that music is basically a pleasant evolutionary by-product of human language).
Mithen is an early pre-history scholar, and his book makes demands on readers with a limited background in the several research areas it explores. Notes and references comprise almost 100 pages of the 400-page book. Still, its breadth, passion, and conversational writing make it fascinating and informative for those who are disturbed by the recent reduction in music education, and realize that they must initially convince educational leaders that the concept of language encompasses music.
For example, language and music are related in that both can be vocal (as in speech and song) and gestural (as in sign language, instrumental music, and dance), and both can exist in a written format. Music and language are both a product of body/head movements that transmit information from one brain to another. Both music and language are hierarchical in that acoustic elements (words, tones) combine into phrases (utterances, melodies) that can further combine into larger entities (stories, symphonies). These and other similarities are possible because of specific related brain properties that Mithen explains and explores to support his belief in the co-evolution of our music and language capabilities.
This Is Your Brain on Music
Daniel Levitin approaches the music/language issue from a career that led him from session musician to sound engineer to record producer to neuroscientist to his current position as a professor of the psychology of electronic communication. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006) is a marvelous book for folks with a reasonable understanding of music who want to understand its underlying neurobiology—what occurs within our brain when we’re listening to or making music.
Levitin rejects the widespread belief that music is something experts do, and that the rest of us should simply appreciate their musical virtuosity. He argues rather that music is an innate human property that develops as easily in children as other forms of language. Preschool children playfully explore the elements of both music and language. Schools then develop basic articulate language skills beyond their informal beginnings, but most schools don’t do the same for music skills and comprehension that must be explicitly taught.
Levitin thus begins his book with an intriguing informative introduction to the elements of music (rhythm, pitch, melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, harmony) that most of us should have learned in school but didn’t. He connects these elements to specific well-known musical works from classical to jazz to hip-hop (and to almost everything in between).
He further connects these musical elements to the appropriate brain systems and functions—demonstrating in the process that music integrates our brain’s emotional, rational, and movement systems in a way that no other activity does. Music is central to the development and maintenance of our brain.
These two persuasive books left me wondering how a supposedly enlightened culture like ours could consciously neglect the development of a definitive brain property. Spoken and written language are obviously superior to music in the transmission of information, but music trumps adjectives and adverbs in the transmission of qualities and feelings. Further, we began life with the music of motherese, and we often return to music when words alone fail us. We truly need to develop both forms of language to be fully human. Do folks really believe that knowing how to harmonize or play an oboe or improvise jazz or analyze a symphony is innate? Do such folks also believe that language is only about knowing, and not also about feeling?