Monday, August 30, 2010

335. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 6: Speech

It's not very difficult to see that the development of language would have provided early humans with an enormous adaptational advantage over both predators and other primates competing for a similar array of resources. What's much more difficult to understand is what sort of adaptational advantage could have been provided by the development of music. At this point, the only answer that makes sense to me is that music and speech must have developed in tandem. Indeed, in order for music to have survived, in the Darwinian sense, it must have functioned as a sign system of some sort from the very beginning.

Is there any evidence for this? Yes:

1. The long-range "proto-musical" interactive hooting of Bonobos, as described by Hohmann and Fruth (see Post 330), appears to function as a type of communication and as such, might certainly confer an advantage with respect to both predators and prey. Since Bonobos appear to have so much in common with the ancestral humans I've defined here as HBP, or Hypothetical Baseline Population, and since their duetting and chorusing have a dynamic so similar to the hocketed vocalizing of Pygmies and Bushmen, it seems reasonable to assume that early humans could have been communicating vocally in a similar manner.

2. The fact that musical pitches and rhythms are perceived not simply acoustically but also semiotically, in terms directly parallel to the phonemic organization of literally all forms of speech (as outlined in the previous post), strongly suggests a historical connection between the two modes of communication.

3. Since music is "phonemic" in the above sense and speech is both phonemic and symbolic (in terms of the so-called signifier/signified relation), it seems reasonable to conclude that phonemic awareness must have preceded symbolic awareness.

4. If, as I have argued in many places on this blog and elsewhere, the musical style of the Pygmies and Bushmen is essentially the same as that of the common ancestor (HBP), then it's difficult to ignore the fact that the vocal music of both groups is dominated by meaningless vocables, with only very brief interjections of meaningful text. As a play of "phonemically" articulated tones, linked syntactically, but with little or no morphological content, it's not difficult to imagine how such a practice might have preceded the development of meaningful speech.

5. The fact that music is not only "phonemic" but also has an important syntactic dimension, tells us, first, that music represents an evolutionary "advance" over primate vocalizations, which appear to lack anything more than the simplest syntactic organization, and, moreover, suggests the possibility that linguistic syntax may have developed from that of music.

An important study of the relation between music and language has just been published in Scientific American Mind: Speaking in Tones, by Diana Deutsch. Her article contains many very interesting observations, based on some of the most recent developments in psychology, cognitive science and linguistics, including some remarkable findings especially relevant to the question at hand that I'll be discussing in the next post.

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