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Timeline: Which Came First, Language Or Music?

Did humans learn to sing before they learned to speak? It's not just a "chicken or the egg" type of question.
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Did humans learn to sing before they learned to speak? It's not just a "chicken or the egg" type of question.

Which came first, language or music? It’s not just a “chicken or the egg” type of question. Many linguists and theorists have debated this subject. For a long time the accepted norm stated that music appears “to be derived from language,” meaning that music is a subset of verbal communication. Howver, modern research is painting a different picture. There’s an earlier episode of Timeline called “Baby Talk” that dives into that research regarding the development of human communication.


I’m still stuck on the question, language or music? It just seems to spark a thousand more questions. When did we, as humans, first start creating music? Can we define what we even mean by the word “music”? When did the grunts and growls of humanity become tones and pitch? Could there songs that predate language? Has a mother always sung minor thirds over her child as she cradles them? Have lovers always cooed to each other to express their affection?

BERNSTEIN: But where do these notes come from? Why do our ears select certain notes and not others?

JAMES: In 1973, Leonard Bernstein gave a set of six lectures at Harvard called “The Unanswered Question” in which he attempts to answer “wither music?” Where does music come from?  Throughout the course of his lectures he lays out evidence of music’s source in linguistics, aesthetics and philosophy. He speaks to music as a natural expression of humanity.

BERNSTEIN: Again, we must ask why just those notes in that particular order?

JAMES: In the first of these lectures, Bernstein draws a connection between linguistic phonemes, the vocal sounds that make up words, and the motives of music, the germs of musical ideas. The building blocks of language are the vocal sounds that come naturally to the human species. A good example is the sound made as you hum and then open your mouth. In most languages, in fact almost all, the syllable “ma” means mother, the source of life for every infant. Babies soon learn to call for “ma” when they’re in need.

Let’s take a moment to analyze that little word, “Ma.” It begins with an attack, the letter M, and then a vowel sound. The vowel can be short or it can be sustained.

BERNSTEIN: MA! And low and behold, we are singing. Music is born. The syllable has become a note.

JAMES: Bernstein’s point is that even this simple word is musical and relies on musical sensibilities to convey meaning. There is rhythm and pitch involved in simply stating the word in context. The “Ah” of “Ma” can go down, like you are calling your mother, or it can go up as if you are asking her a question. The emotion you feel as you say the word will dictate the volume, pitch and duration of how you say it. This is a musical way of looking at all spoken language.

As we stated in the previous episode “Baby Talk,” the latest research is pointing to the idea that music and language were developed in tandem, evolving together as humans evolved. Our words convey meaning based on the musicality of our speech.

Find out how and when music changed the world and follow the Timeline.

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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