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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Language may have evolved from music 

via Tom Coates
Studies in neuroscience and anthropology, however, suggest that music did help human ancestors survive, particularly before language. In "The Singing Neanderthals," which Harvard University Press is publishing Friday, Prof. Mithen weaves those studies into an intriguing argument that "language may have been built on the neural underpinnings of music."

He starts with evidence that music is not merely a side effect of intelligence and language, as some argue. Instead, recent discoveries suggest that music lays sole claim to specific neural real estate. Consider musical savants. Although learning-disabled or retarded, they have astounding musical abilities. One savant could hardly speak or understand words, yet he played flawlessly a simple piano melody from memory despite hearing it only once. In an encore, he added left-hand chords and transposed it into a minor key.

"Music," says Prof. Mithen, "can exist within the brain in the absence of language," a sign that the two evolved independently. And since language impairment does not wipe out musical ability, the latter "must have a longer evolutionary history."

. . .

Music also promotes social bonding, which was crucial when humans were more often hunted than hunter and finding food was no walk on the savannah. Proto-music "became a communication system" for "the expression of emotion and the forging of group identities," argues Prof. Mithen.

Because music has grammar-like qualities such as recursion, it might have served an even greater function. With music in the brain, early humans had the neural foundation for the development of what most distinguishes us from other animals: symbolic thought and language.

Topics: Music | Language | Evolution


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