I feel the need to write this down before I forget it:
In “Chapter 3: Language, Truth and Music” of his book “The Master and his Emissary,” McGilchrist explains how, by examining fossils of earlier humans we can decide more or less when humans started to speak:
“In order to reach the tongue, the nerve which supplies it, the hypoglossal nerve, has to pass though an opening in the base of the skull, called the anterior condylar canal. The amount of work an nerve has to do is reflected in its size of the canal in the base of the skull, we can get a very good idea of how much articulatory work the tongue of the owner had to do. Similar considerations applies the thoracic vertebral canal in supplying the nerves that control respiration to the muscles of the chest wall. And what we find, as we might expect, is that apes and monkeys have much smaller canals, in relation to the nerves both of articulation and respiration, than modern humans.
What is strange is that, when examining the fossils of the earliest human skeletons, from long before we believe language arose, it reveals canal sizes almost indistinguishable from those of modern humans. The most likely explanation is that there existed some kind of “non-verbal language, one in which there was intonation and phrasing, but no actual words: And what is that, if not music?”
“There are significant similarities between music and language, suggesting at least a common origin. For example, many subtle aspects of language are mediated by regions of the right hemisphere, which also mediate the performance and experience of music. Furthermore these right hemisphere regions are the homologues of areas in the left hemisphere that are involved with language production and comprehension – they are in the ‘same’ position on the other side of the brain. Music and language have a shared architecture, built out of intonational phrases related by a kind of ‘syntax’, although the syntax of music has more to do with the overall shape of the whole piece of over many minutes (or, in the case of Wagner, many hours), than with the specific relationship between of rapidly successive elements in a linear function, and both speech phrases and musical phrases have melody and rhythm which play a crucial role in their expressiveness. There is even a close semantic relationship between music and language: musical phrases convey specific meanings that, if required, we will intuitively associate with specific words.
“When it comes to understand the origins of language, however, there is less agreement, and speculations have followed three paths.” I will make a short list of the three:
- Music is a useless spinoff, or epiphenomenon, of the development of language
- Language itself developed out of musical communication (a kind of singing)
- Music and language developed independently, but alongside one another, out of a common language called ‘musilanguage’
He continues to discuss what most likely came first, music or language. I’ll stop there, before this becomes too long, but several things fascinates me:
Music is something ancient, something human kind have practiced for ten thousands of years, since we became thinking and communicating homo sapiens, yet today it is reduced to a “skill”, a “peasure” and last, but not the least, an “industry”.
Music is a basal need of any human being. It should not be treated as something that belongs to the professionals and the institutions. Music should be around us in our daily life as a natural life companion. I’m worried that if we forget the origins of music, and how it is linked to language and communication, we forget who we are as a species.
Iain McGilchrists book is incredible, you should try and read it.