Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch (which governs melody and harmony), rhythm (and its associated concepts tempo, meter, and articulation), dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. Just like math, it is hard to say if music has been invented or just found to exist. Language, on the other hand, may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication. Origin of language is somewhat unknown and there are several assumptions. Some theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that one can not imagine it simply appearing from nothing in its final form, but that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our pre-human ancestors. These theories can be called continuity based theories. The opposite viewpoint is that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans and that it must therefore have appeared fairly suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man. These theories can be defined as discontinuity based. Similarly some theories see language mostly as an innate faculty that is largely genetically encoded, while others see it as a system that is largely cultural, that is learned through social interaction. Currently the only prominent proponent of a discontinuity theory of human language origins is Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky proposes that "some random mutation took place, maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower, and it reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain". While cautioning against taking this story too literally, Chomsky insists that "it may be closer to reality than many other fairy tales that are told about evolutionary processes, including language". Somewhre in November last year Chomsky had an interview with Discover folks - you can read more here.
In interview Chomsky states if you look at the archaeological record, a creative explosion shows up in a narrow window, somewhere between 150000 and roughly 75000 years ago. All of a sudden, there’s an explosion of complex artifacts, symbolic representation, measurement of celestial events, complex social structures - a burst of creative activity that almost every expert on prehistory assumes must have been connected with the sudden emergence of language.
And it doesn’t seem to be connected with physical changes; the articulatory and acoustic (speech and hearing) systems of contemporary humans are not very different from those of 600000 years ago. There was a rapid cognitive change.
And nobody knows why.
Continuity based theories are currently held by a majority of scholars, but they vary in how they envision this development. Those who see language as being mostly innate, for example Steven Pinker, hold the precedents to be animal cognition, whereas those who see language as a socially learned tool of communication, such as Michael Tomasello see it as having developed from animal communication, either primate gestural or vocal communication. Other continuity based models see language as having developed from music.
As per Mark Changizi, we're fish out of water, living in radically unnatural environments and behaving ridiculously for a great ape. So, if one were interested in figuring out which things are fundamentally part of what it is to be human, then those million crazy things we do these days would not be on the list. But what would be on the list? Language is the pinnacle of usefulness, and was key to our domination of the Earth (and the Moon). And music is arguably the pinnacle of the arts. Language and music are fantastically complex, and we're brilliantly capable at absorbing them, and from a young age. That’s how we know we're meant to be doing them, ie., how we know we evolved brains for engaging in language and music. What if we're not, in fact, meant to have language and music? What if our endless yapping and music-filled hours each day are deeply unnatural behaviors for our species?
Mark's take on this is that both language and music are not part of our core - that we never evolved by natural selection to engage in them. The reason we have such a head for language and music is not that we evolved for them, but, rather, that language and music evolved - culturally evolved over millennia - for us. Our brains aren't shaped for these pinnacles of humankind. Rather, these pinnacles of humankind are shaped to be good for our brains. If language and music have shaped themselves to be good for non-linguistic and amusical brains, then what would their shapes have to be?
We have auditory systems which have evolved to be brilliantly capable at processing the sounds from nature, and language and music would need to mimic those sorts of sounds in order to harness our brain. Mark base whole book on this subject. The two most important classes of auditory stimuli for humans are:
- events among objects (most commonly solid objects), and
- events among humans (for example human behavior).
In his research, Mark has shown that the signature sounds in these two auditory domains drive the sounds we humans use in
- speech and
- music, respectively.
For example, the principal source of modulation of pitch in the natural world comes from the Doppler shift, where objects moving toward you have a high pitch and objects moving away have a low pitch; from these pitch modulations a listener can hear an object’s direction of movement relative to his or her position. In the book Mark provides a battery of converging evidence that melody in music has culturally evolved to sound like the (often exaggerations of) Doppler shifts of a person moving in one’s midst. Consider first that a mover’s pitch will modulate within a fixed range, the top and bottom pitches occurring when the mover is headed, respectively, toward and away from you. Do melodies confine themselves to fixed ranges? They tend to, and tessitura is the musical term to refer to this range. In the book Mark runs through a variety of specific predictions. For the full set of arguments for language and music you'll have to read the book, and the preliminary conclusion of the research is that, human speech sounds like solid objects events, and music sounds like human behavior! That’s just what we expect if we were never meant to do language and music. Language and music have the fingerprints of being unnatural (of not having their origins via natural selection) and the giveaway is, ironically, that their shapes are natural (have the structure of natural auditory events).
We also find this for another core capability that we know we're not "meant" to do - reading. Writing was invented much too recently for us to have specialized reading mechanisms in the brain (although there are new hints of early writing as old as 30000 years), and yet reading has the hallmarks of instinct. Mark's research suggests that language and music aren't any more part of our biological identity than reading is. Counterintuitively, then, we aren't "supposed" to be speaking and listening to music. They aren't part of our “core” after all. Or, at least, they aren't part of the core of **** sapiens as the species originally appeared. But, it seems reasonable to insist that, whether or not language and music are part of our natural biological history, they are indeed at the core of what we take to be centrally human now. Being human today is quite a different thing than being the original **** sapiens.
Almost month ago, Geoffrey Miller and Gary Marcus had public discussion whether music is instinct or cultural invention, respectively. In recent years, archaeologists have dug up prehistoric instruments, neuroscientists have uncovered brain areas that are involved in improvisation, and geneticists have identified genes that might help in the learning of music. Yet basic questions persist: Is music a deep biological adaptation in its own right, or is it a cultural invention based mostly on our other capacities for language, learning, and emotion? Marcus goes to say that the oldest known musical artifacts are some bone flutes that are only 35000 years old, a blink in an evolutionary time. And although kids are drawn to music early, they still prefer language when given a choice, and it takes years before children learn something as basic as the fact that minor chords are sad. Of course, music is universal now, but so are mobile phones, and we know that mobile phones aren't evolved adaptations. When we think about music, it's important to remember that an awful lot of features that we take for granted in Western music - like harmony and 12-bar blues structure, to say nothing of pianos or synthesizers, simply didn't exist 1000 years ago. When ethnomusicologists have traded notes to try figure out what's universal about music, there's been surprisingly little consensus. Some forms of music are all about rhythm, with little pitch, for example. Another thing to consider is the music is not quite universal even with cultures. At least 10% of our population is "tone deaf", unable to reproduce the pitch contours even for familiar songs. Everybody learns to talk, but not everybody learns to sing, let alone play an instrument. Some people, like Sigmund Freud, have no interest in music at all. Music is surely common, but not quite as universal as language.
On the other hand, the bone flutes are at least 35000 years old, but vocal music might be a lot older, given the fossil evidence on humans and Neanderthal vocal tracts. Thirty-five-thousand years sounds short in evolutionary terms, but it's still more than a thousand human generations, which is plenty of time for selection to shape a hard-to-learn cultural skill into a talent for music in some people, even if music did originate as a purely cultural invention. Maybe that's not enough time to make music into a finely tuned mental ability like language, but nobody knows yet how long these things take. Whether or not Neanderthals sang, music remains relatively recent in evolutionary terms, less than a 10th of a percent of the time that mammals have been on the planet. Still, we know responsiveness to music starts in the womb and kids show such a keen interest in music. We're born to listen for language, and music sounds sort of like language, so kids respond might respond because of that. But given the choice, infants prefer speech to instrumental music and they analyze language more carefully than music. Video games, television shows and iPhones are all cultural artifacts that were shaped to be irresistible to human brains, and that provoke strong emotions like music, but that doesn't mean that human brains were shaped to be attracted to them. There doesn't seem to be any part of the brain that is fully dedicated to music, and most (if not all) of the areas involved in music seem to have "day jobs" doing other things, like analyzing auditory sounds (temporal cortex), emotion (the amygdala) or linguistic structure (Broca's area). You see much the same diversity of brain regions active when people play video games. Face recognition has a long evolutionary history, and a specific brain region (the fusiform gyrus) attached, but music, like reading, seems to co-opt areas that already had other functions.
Maybe, if we evolved music millions of years ago like they did. But since we're the only great apes with any aptitude for rhythm or melody, human music is probably much more recent: not enough time for such specialization of brain structure. And the songbirds never evolved language. If they had, we'd probably see overlapping brain areas for music and speech in their brains, just like ours. Which would have led their scientist-songbirds to argue that birdsong is just a side-effect of birdspeech.
One counterintuitive principle is that for sexually selected mental traits like music to work well as signals of general brain function and intelligence, they need to recruit a lot of different brain areas and mental abilities. Otherwise they wouldn't be very informative about the brain's general health. If musical talent didn't depend on general intelligence, and general mental health, and general learning ability, it wouldn't be worth paying much attention to when you're choosing a mate. Content analyses show that pop song lyrics have usually concerned Iust, love, or jealousy - around the world, at least throughout the 20th century. There's an emotional resonance to courtship music that you just don't see with purely cultural inventions. So why haven't we found any genes that are specifically tied to music? That's not surprising from a sexual selection perspective. For music to work as a "good genes" indicator in mate choice, music needs to recruit a lot of different genes and gene-regulatory systems and biochemical pathways. You shouldn't expect just a few "music genes" that explain most musical talent, but thousands of contributing genes. But that's not why we haven't found any music genes yet. Nobody's really looked. There's very little gene-hunting work on music, and hardly any twin research on the heritability of musical talent. There are two kinds of music genes that could matter: the music-talent genes that explain individual differences in musical talent among humans, and the music-capacity genes that explain why we have musical abilities at all compared to most other mammals. The music-talent genes might number in the tens of thousands. We already know there are more than half a million DNA base pair differences that contribute to general intelligence differences between people, and a similar number might influence musical intelligence. But those music-talent genes will be much easier to identify using standard molecular genetics methods.
The music-capacity genes that distinguish musical humans from non-musical chimps might be far fewer in number, but much harder to identify. If we can identify them though, and if they also exist in the Neanderthal genome (which is being pieced together now from fossil DNA), we'd know that music is probably at least 200000 years old, because we diverged from Neanderthals by then. So it's true that music doesn't fossilize, but we still might learn when music evolved from the genetics. If we could really show decisively that Neanderthals could sing, that sort of genetic evidence would certainly help, but unless we find genes that are specifically tied to music, it might be hard to go on in the other direction: to deduce whether Neanderthals can sing based on their genomes. Chimpanzees are much less interested in music than humans are, but we still haven't been able to link that to a particular genetic difference.
Of course, as Mark suggests, music might just be illusion of the instinct cause by cultural evolution. Once humans were sufficiently smart and social that cultural evolution could pick up steam, a new blind watchmaker was let loose on the world, one that could muster designs worthy of natural selection, and in a fraction of the time. Cultural selection could shape our artifacts to co-opt our innate capabilities. If the origins of music comes from nature-harnessing then it will have many or all the signature signs of instinct. But it won't be an instinct. Instead, it will be a product of cultural evolution, of nature-harnessing. And it won’t be a mere invention that we must learn. In a sense, the brain doesn't have anything to learn - cultural evolution did all the learning instead, figuring out just the right stimulus shapes that would flow right into our emotional centers and get us hooked. For some further discussion on this topic click here.
So, what is it to be human? Unlike **** sapiens, we're grown in a radically different petri dish. Our habitat is filled with cultural artifacts - the two heavyweights being language and music - designed to harness our brains’ ancient capabilities and transform them into new ones. Humans are more than **** sapiens. Humans are **** sapiens who have been nature-harnessed into an altogether novel creature, one designed in part via natural selection, but also in part via cultural evolution.
Credits: Wikipedia, Discover Magazine, Noam Chomsky, Mark Changizi, Geoffrey Miller, Gary Marcus