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Language (Probably) Came From Music

Some of the earliest know representations of instruments. @courtesy Lasceaux.
Ever wonder why we’re born able to understand and love music, but need to be taught language from scratch? It’s (probably) because music came to Homo Sapiens much, much earlier. In fact, it was most likely a precursor to language, and provided the base from which our language skills sprang.
This is why, as a species, we almost certainly developed music prior to language. Musical appreciation is clearly an innate skill, as even infants respond to music. This means that music is baked into our DNA somehow, and thus was probably the result of evolution. Language is a learned skill, more like cooking; both are integral to us as a species, but they are passed down from generation to generation, though not actually something we learn to do instinctively. A child raised by wolves, such as Victor of Aveyron in post-revolution France, might never develop any kind of language but they would almost certainly respond to music.
Of all the arts, music seems to have the strongest physiological effect on us. Music can make us feel sad to the point of crying, delighted, energized, wistful, or cause a welling sensation in your chest. Music can change our mood completely — I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to a great song and said “I needed that.”
Other arts can evoke these emotions, of course, but music seems to be the only art form to pull this off to such a strong degree without the use of storytelling. Titanic is a great movie (I stand by this, but feel free to argue in the comments), but if you tear up at the end it’s because of the lost potential for love between Jack and Rose, not because of the cinematography. The Guernica is a sad, powerful painting, but it is the story it tells of the Spanish Civil War makes it so affecting. It is the subject of the art that makes us feel that way, less so the style of the composition itself. Almost nobody cries in front of a Jackson Pollock, but many, many people might for Mozart or Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky, even though it is just music with no story or words at all.
Why does music affect us so much? It feels like we’re born able to appreciate music to some degree. And, in fact, we are. We have a lot to learn about the evolution of the brain, but one thing that is sure is that something as ingrained in us as music was the result of evolutionary adaptation at some point in our species history.
Without a time machine we will never know for sure, but the smart money says there was a long period in our history when we were a musical species that had not yet mastered language. Further, many great minds agree, from Noam Chomsky to Darwin, that language evolved directly from our musical ability. Yet it still seems so strange. What is the point of music without language?
There are two major advantages to having music appreciation as a species that I can name off the top of my head, the first of which is that music is a form of emotional communication. Even though music is a rough communication tool compared to language, it is good at expressing emotions And this is more valuable than no communication at all. For a social species like ours, communicating our limbic emotional responses (ie ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘angry’, etc…) to our fellow caveman probably allowed for a lot more trust and cohesion in the tribe. Knowing the emotional state of other people means you can predict what they’ll do more easily, which in turn makes your neighbors less dangerous.
The other advantage of music is as a social glue. Humans evolved to love listening to music, and study after study proves that when we sing and/or dance together with a crowd of people, our brains change slightly and we become much more group-minded creatures. Groups of people having their own song is a form of cohesion, whether the group is an Amazonian tribe or the Minnesota Vikings. For our ancestors, knowing a song can be the easiest form of identifying members of your tribe, as only people from the tribe were taught it in the first place. Music likewise acted as our main bonding activity, a recreational activity that could be done whenever humans got together.
How did we get to language from music? No one really knows, but as we got more musical our vocal cords and lungs would’ve improved, gaining more fine-tuned control, and the audio-processing centers of our brains would’ve grown bigger, all of which would get us closer to being the linguistic creatures we are today. Maybe one of our ancestors created “words” by pointing to things and making sounds in one of their songs, and language just took off from there. But, it does seem like that our musical abilities set the stage for this transformation to a linguistic species to happen.
- Jack Connor