What is the origin of music? — And how does music relate to language? Scientific research into these questions is booming. Psychologists, neurologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and musicologists are in the origins business. Despite the fact that we’ll never have the kind of evidence that may lead to a scientifically valid answer.
Theories may be fables. They still can be evaluated by how well they connect the things we know, and by their power to inspire new enquiries.
One idea that may seem obvious and common sense is that there are aspects of language — more particularly, of speech — that can be called ‘musical’ and expressive: the ‘rhythm’ and ‘melody’ of speech, or prosody. Rudiments of melody, or intonation, are present in the most basic human and animal vocal expressions — screams, calls, sighs, grunts, and so on.
So maybe before there were language and music there was vocal expression, a kind of primitive communication that with growing complexity developed into true language on the one hand, into music on the other. Or, as it has often been put, into the ‘language of ideas’ and the ‘language of feelings’. It being understood that linguistic prosody belongs with the latter rather than with the former.
This sounds like a common sense idea, and it is a quite popular hypothesis in recent scientific research. It inspires more specific inquiries into the musical features of language, into the linguistic features of music, and into the question how both are processed by our brains.
Not every idea that strikes us as obvious must always have been so. What seems trivially sensible today may be yesterday’s nonsense, or revelation.
Herbert Spencer was a popular philosopher of the Victorian age. In a somewhat prattlesome essay on The Origin and Function of Music, published in 1857 in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Spencer pointed out that vocal sounds are expressive because we recognize them as the product of the bodily effort of making them. A happy, open, relaxed sound is made by a happy, open, relaxed body. An anguished sound is made with tensed muscles. And so on. Human shouts, sighs and cries are, just like those of animals, a primitive but effective medium of expressive communication. In music this is developed into an a full-fledged “emotional language”, which is “only second in importance to the language of the intellect; perhaps not even second to it” (p. 407). Spencer thought this expressive-communicative potential of music could explain its evolutionary function. Here he disagreed with Darwin, who thought singing was most likely to be explained as courtship display.
In recent scientific literature Spencer has got a lot of credit for his idea — particularly for establishing a link between muscles and the sound we make. If your muscles contract, you squeak; of they relax, you may yawn or produce another low pitched sound. It even has entered the literature as Spencer’s Law. That is, one of Spencer’s Laws: because there is also Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, Spencer’s Law of Cognitive Development, Spencer’s Law of the Survival of the Fittest (also known as social Darwinism), and the equally sinister Spencer’s Law of Why We Shouldn’t Worry. Leaving aside what looks like a Wild West pulp novel titled Spencer’s Law.
Too much credit for Spencer, at least within the realm of music. For Spencer, who cited no sources, did little else but echo an eighteenth-century commonplace. In 1746 Étienne Bonnot de Condillac had proposed the term ‘action language’ (langage d’action) for what linguists nowadays call protolanguage. He thought of it as the common precursor of music and language, consisting of spontaneous cries along with gestural elements. That roughly similar ideas were proposed a little later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is well known. And that high and loud taxes our muscles more than soft and low has, no doubt, been known since times immemorial.
The idea that prosody is an evolutionary link between music and speech has resonated strongly through the European intellectual world, around 1750. We may find its echo in unexpected places, such as the writings of a German-Dutch musician and writer with the jolly name of Jacob Wilhelm Lustig, who for more than six decades played the organ in Groningen.
In the sixth of his Twelve Discourses on Useful Musical Subjects (Twaalf redeneeringen over nuttige muzikaale onderwerpen, 1756), Lustig too adopts the theory of the expressive protolanguage, casting it however in an orthodox Christian creationist framework. The inventor of music is Adam, and since Adam began his life in Paradise, the first sounds he produced could not have been anything else but “resounding joy and admiration”, “praise and thanksgiving to his Creator” (p. 278).
It may be noted that Rousseau too located the origins of music and language in paradise, albeit a secular paradise, complete with palm trees and fountains. “There, around those fountains, the first discourses were the first songs”, Rousseau wrote sometime in the 1750’s (it wasn’t published until 1781). Here’s Lustig in 1756 (p. 281): “it is not unreasonable to conclude that the two first singers [Adam and Eve] were also the first poets”.
Like Spencer, Lustig bluntly assumes that (in Spencer’s words) “All music is originally vocal”. The inventor of music is therefore not the biblical Jubal, “father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes” (Genesis 4: 21). Jubal has only done what Scripture says he did, inventing musical instruments. It is to Adam, his great-great-great-great-grandfather that Jubal poses the question I’ve quoted in the title. And here is Adam’s answer, taken from Lustig’s Introduction to the Theory of Music (Inleiding tot de muziekkunde, second edition, 1771, p. 125-6) — I won’t try to reproduce the weird flavour of the eighteenth-century Dutch:
Jubal. — Reverend Father Adam, how did you get music? […]
Adam. — I noticed that I was capable of making many various vocal inflections, which on different incidents I gradually changed, and therefore produced by song rather than speech. […] Also, love, joy, grief and other passions often elicited all kinds of inflections and intonations: in this we simply followed the prescription of nature, in such a way as the passion inspired in us. From this originated the first known melodies. They were reproduced by one singer after another, following our innate tendency to imitate, disseminated everywhere, and used as a basis for novel ones.
What distinguishes this and similar Enlightenment fantasies from Spencer’s is mainly, maybe, the latter’s interest in animal behaviour. Eighteenth-century thinkers, and particularly orthodox Christians, may not have been so eager to put human singing on one line with the howling of dogs, the mooing of cows, and the screaming of monkeys (nor were, of course, many nineteenth-century aestheticians).
Does it matter to present-day research when these ideas originated, and how credible they seemed at a given time? — To make a long answer short, I think it matters. Because ideas need a context, and narrowing the context narrows our perspective on that idea and our ability to develop it. In other words, I think that research into human psychology cannot ignore the history of ideas.