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Timeline: Babytalk

U.S. Public Domain
Which came first, music or spoken language?

We start with a recording I made over 18 years ago of my oldest son, Jeremiah. He’s an adult now, writes music, plays the cello and sings much lower than his dad. Like most parents, I remember spending hours holding Jeremiah as an infant; marveling at his little hands and feet and watching him begin to take in the world around him. I laughed as he discovered his own fingers, smiled as he began to recognize faces and listened intently as he began to make and mimic sound. I listened to his coos and cries, his moans and gurgles, waiting to hear his first words. There was a sense of pride that I felt when he said, “Dada” in the tiny, thin baby voice.

I’ve watched two infants learn to talk and though it’s an admittedly small sample, it seems common sense to me that language acquisition begins with sounds and mimicry, long before the sounds become words with meanings. So you start to wonder, which came first, language or music?

This might seem like a bit of a “chicken or the egg” type of question. But it’s one that linguists and theorists have debated for a long time. The accepted norm states that music appears “to be derived from language.” That music is a subset of auditory communication. In fact, one theorist famously joked that music is “auditory cheesecake”, unimportant, fluff.

In September of 2012, theorists at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and the University of Maryland, College Park published an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology entitled “Music and early language acquisition”. This article challenges this seemingly accepted norm that music is “derived from language”. Anthony Brandt, one of the authors, posits that it is actually the opposite. “Spoken language is a special type of music,” the articles states. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence… but from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”

In order to truly accept this hypothesis one must first accept the article’s definition of music itself as “creative play with sound”. Brandt and his fellow authors write that defining music this way can include works from all cultures and time periods. What they are saying is that music doesn’t have to align with any particular idea of beauty, form or expression. The ethnomusicologist D. P. McAllester put it this way, “Any student of man must know that somewhere, someone is doing something that he calls music but nobody else would give it that name.” So it’s arrogance to assume that music must fit into one person’s or even one culture’s view of beauty or art. The true universal aspect of human musicality is play, creative play. And the article say it beautifully, “Music is the natural outcome of a species that takes every aspect of its behavior and explores, amplifies and extends it… We move – so we run, jump and dance. We grasp – so we paint, hammer and slice. We breathe – into flutes, molten glass and balloons.”

And we’re born this way. As infants we first heard language as purposeful repetition, a type of vocal performance. Babies aren’t tuned into the emotion, subtext, or meaning of words, they are listening to the patterns, tones and rhythm of speech. Therefore, they are responding to the music of the spoken word. When a mother holds her new born and sings a lullaby we cannot expect the infant to understand the words of the song, but the child does respond to its mother’s voice and melody and they slowly fall asleep.

So sure, for adults music and language might be two separate things, cognitively speaking, but for children and especially infants, they learn to express themselves through “creative play with sound”. Music is imperative in human development. But it doesn’t stop there. Other researchers have taken this idea and projected it not just to the cognitive ability of infants, but to the development of the human brain itself. The modern human brain, as we know it, is thought to have developed between 50 to 100 thousand years ago. The earliest cave drawings and evidence of creative art date back 70,000 years. We discovered musical instruments that are over 40,000 years old. It doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to assume that humans were singing and making melody long before that. Many researchers now think that music and language were at least developed in tandem or even that music (creative play with sound) came first.

The research on this is new and there is much more that needs to be discovered, but I feel it is safe to say that making music had been a part of humanity from the very beginning.

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James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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