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Music and Language

In a previous essay (“Circular Thinking”) I discussed the notion that “emotional memories” play a large part in our emotional lives and behavior. Those unconscious but influential parts of our memory banks contribute to the occasional bouts of depression or anger, for example, in which past experiences get mixed up with what is currently bothering us and exacerbate our state, even when we are aware that those old feelings have nothing to do with what we are currently trying to deal with.

Now I read that music and language involve different parts of the brain, as well. Music is much more associated with emotions, even though at our evolutionary stage they share portions of brain area and likely a lot of our cognitive capacities. In his new book The Singing Neanderthals: the Origins of Music, Language, Body and Mind, Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory at Reading University in England, suggests[1] that the Neanderthals may have developed their musical abilities beyond those of their contemporaries the Cro-Magnons, who were our direct ancestors. Music, he says, is more than entertainment in evolution. It, along with rhythm, is a means of communication requiring much less brain power than does language. The Neanderthals have left little evidence of symbol-using. Considering how long they lasted, however, they could very easily have developed this simpler means to coordinate their activities.

Granted, looking that far in the past (100,000 to 200,000 years ago) involves a lot of speculation. Still, Mithen proposes some interesting ideas that could help explain our own mental characteristics. Before either the Neanderthals or the Cro-Magnons, earlier hominids probably developed the ability to communicate by sounds and body movements that were primitive by even the capabilities of today’s great apes, but that were, nevertheless, an important stage of our development. These abilities were not symbolic; that is, they did not include the facility to combine things like words to make complex thoughts, but were effective in helping the bands of hominids cooperate in the demanding environment of what was to become Europe, to hunt large animals and keep the band together to survive the extremes of weather and uncertain availability of food. The Neanderthals developed this system of grunts and gestures in one direction—that involving the part of the brain that processes musical sound and rhythmic motion—while the Cro-Magnons developed it into early forms of language using a different part of the brain. This, he suggests, may have made a difference in the ultimate survivability of the two branches of hominids. The Neanderthals, as we know, eventually died out.

Music, Mithen contends, has a collective value because of its emotional impact. But it is limited in terms of adaptability—in spite of the acknowledged sophistication of modern music. Perhaps that is why the American Idol television series was able to draw sixty million phoned–in votes for the contestants while our presidential elections are notoriously deficient in voter participation. I’d hate to think that politicians might have to take up playing musical instruments and singing in order to get elected. The requirements of public office don’t often include musical ability. It does seem clear, however, that campaigning aimed at emotional issues get a lot more attention than the complex issues of foreign and domestic policies.

The growth of symbolic language no doubt caused an explosive growth in the ability of our ancestors to develop the complex relationships required for agriculture and civilization. Subsequent to that development, music itself was influenced by language to the effect that modern music represents a complex blending of language and emotion. Johann Sebastian Bach could not have been a Neanderthal—nor could have a modern rapper.

On the other hand, Barbra Streisand singing “People,” or Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting by an open fire . . .” or Whitney Huston singing “I Will Always Love You,” or Carole King singing, “You’ve Got a Friend,” or Dusty Springfield singing “The Look of Love” may have used words, but it was the emotional charge of the music that touched the millions of listeners and made the songs a part of our lives.

I don’t want to disparage the writers of song lyrics. Some of those lyrics are wonderfully etched into my memory. But then, I’m more of a left-brained person. Lyrics are a type of poetry, and poetry is much too complex to draw responses from us in the immediate way that music and rhythm do.

Modern humans have changed the kinds of sound that aroused our ancestors, because we no longer have the same needs. And we have language to provide us with cognitive information. Language is used every day in attempts to manipulate people, with uncertain results. The manipulative effects of music are more predictable. When music becomes language, it involves a delicate balance of the familiar and the novel in order to communicate effectively. That’s where the Neanderthal failed. A sound—a grunt or a wail or a roar—must get to the brain at once and produce an instant response. That’s all the equipment he had on hand. Eventually, it seems, it was not enough.

On the other hand, that emotionally sensitive part of the brain that developed in response to raw sound, the amygdala, has not gone away. We still respond, even at times against our better judgment. And we—or most of us, anyway—still raise the pitch of our voices when we speak to infants, just as the Neanderthal mother did. And infants respond to voices in those higher frequencies whether the language is English, German, or Swahili. Baby talk is universal.

John Denver singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” communicates to us his homesickness through the lyrics of his song, but it’s the melody that touches us so that we feel what he feels. Even if you heard it sung in Japanese, no doubt you’d still hum along as you remember your own country roads.


[1] In “Beyond Words” by William H. McNeill, in The New York Review of Books, April 2006, p.26

May 29, 2006

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