* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
LINGUIST List logo Eastern Michigan University Wayne State University *
* People & Organizations * Jobs * Calls & Conferences * Publications * Language Resources * Text & Computer Tools * Teaching & Learning * Mailing Lists * Search *
* *

LINGUIST List 24.2600

Wed Jun 26 2013

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Bannan (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 03-May-2013
From: Jody Barnes <jodyleebarnesgmail.com>
Subject: Music, Language, and Human Evolution
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-5013.html

EDITOR: Nicholas Bannan
TITLE: Music, Language, and Human Evolution
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jody L Barnes, (personal interest - not currently working at a university)

“Music, Language, and Human” Evolution, edited by Nicholas Bannan, is a
collection devoted to the role evolution has played in the development of the
two faculties of language and music. The book grew from a conference held at
the University of Reading in 2004. Each chapter has its own references, and in
one case, a discography of examples. Also included are a key to abbreviations,
a glossary, and index, as well as a DVD of supplemental video material.

Part I is an introduction, Bannan’s own “Music, Language, and Human
Evolution.” Bannan gives a brief history of the literature on music’s
relationship with language, from Rousseau through Darwin to more recent
scholars like John Blacking. He explains the need for a new investigation into
these abilities following the rise of such fields as biolinguistics and

Following the introduction, the articles are grouped into sections according
to the academic disciplines on which the authors focus their research. Part
II: “Perspectives from Anthropology and Archaeology,” begins with Chapter 2,
“Music and Mosaics: The Evolution of Human Abilities” by Robert Foley. This
chapter concerns the biological history of humanity’s predecessors,
concentrating on those evolutionary developments which allowed for the
emergence of language and music. The developments of an upright stance, as
well as greater breath control are the most important of these. He then
investigates the standard hypotheses explaining the evolution of music,
including sexual selection, group cohesion, or as a means of information
transfer (like language).

Chapter 3, “The Evolution of the Human Vocal Tract: Specialized for Speech?”
by Margaret Clegg, traces the evolution of the vocal tract from our earliest
ancestors through modern homo sapiens. Clegg challenges the traditional belief
that because Neanderthals had a higher laryngeal position, they had lacked the
capacity for speech. She notes that up to the 19th century, researchers had
trouble determining why chimpanzees couldn’t speak, noting that their vocal
tracts were extremely similar to those of modern humans. The majority of the
chapter is taken up with critiquing traditional assumptions on pre-human
linguistic ability based upon the available evidence, finally determining that
the descent of the larynx was not due to the requirements of speech
production, but rather due to other factors, such as “bipedalism, brain
expansion, and facial reduction,” (73). Chapter 4, “When the Words Dry Up:
Music and Material Metaphors Half a Million Years ago” by Clive Gamble, closes
Part II by discussing performance spaces as being of primary importance for
musical activities. Focusing his attention on locations of musical ritual in
villages in northern Namibia and West Sussex, England, he concludes that
“music has always been a part of hominin social life, but . . . during
evolution it was co-opted to enhance positive emotions at hominin gatherings”

Part III, entitled “Perspectives on the evolutionary prerequisites for musical
behaviour” leads off with Iain Morley’s “Hominin Physiological Evolution and
the Emergence of Musical Capacities,” an attempt to determine the evolutionary
functions behind man’s musical abilities. Morley focuses on the lowering of
the human larynx, larger cervical vertebrae (allowing increased control over
sound production), and an enlarged Broca’s area.

This is followed by Chapter 6, “Vocal Traditions of the World: Towards an
Evolutionary Account of Voice Production in Music” by Tran Quang Hai and
Bannan. It begins with a brief survey of various theories on the evolution of
human voice, from Darwin to the present. The meat of the chapter, however, is
made up of a survey of different types of vocal production found in musics
throughout the world. This follows from Lomax’s earlier taxonomy, which he
termed cantometrics (1968, 1982), as well as Von Horbostel and Sachs’s
taxonomy of musical instruments (1914). The authors propose ten separate
categories based upon “the specific ways in which the phonatory/articulatory
apparatus is employed” (153), with descriptions, examples, and references to a
discography for each. Chapter 7, “Found Objects in the Musical Practices of
Hunter-Gatherers: Implications for the Evolution of Instrumental Music,” is
listed as co-authored by Pedro Espi-Sanchis and Bannan but was written solely
by Bannan, based upon Espi-Sanchis’s presentation at the aforementioned
University of Reading conference. The text discusses the relatively recently
emerging fields of biomusicology and archaeomusicology, and their respective
attempts to explain the origins of music, followed by discussion of the role
of human kinetic movement in the development of musical rhythm. Finally,
Espi-Sanchis discusses a simple flute which can play the overtone series, and
explains a group musical performance found on the accompanying DVD (see

Part IV , “Perspectives from Social and Cognitive Psychology,” begins with
Chapter 8, Robin Dunbar’s essay “On the Evolutionary Function of Song and
Dance,” which seeks to answer the question of what advantages these two
cultural universals (201) may have had for human survival. Miller’s sexual
selection hypothesis (1999, 2000) is considered, as Dunbar notes that males
are generally more musical than females. Also investigated is “Multilevel
Selection Theory,” which focuses on the difference between group selection
(which is focused on an individual’s genes) as opposed to social selection
(which focuses on the group as a whole.) Ultimately, Dunbar concludes that
music predated the emergence of language, allowing humans to become more
group-oriented, facilitating living and surviving in groups.

Chapter 9, by Björn Merker, is entitled “The Vocal Learning Constellation:
Imitation, Ritual Culture, Encephalization.” It focuses on humans’ ability to
reproduce sounds by ear using their voice -- a feat rare among mammals and
found in no other primates. Merker examines the concept of “vocal
emancipation”, “the full range of devices by which vocal production is
released from its inner constraints” to form wholly new patterns (222), by
comparing human vocal ability with birdsong, noting the relation between brain
size and vocal ability. This is followed by an examination of the vocal
learning mechanism, the most common method of learning songs in both humans
and birds. He finds, interestingly, that the biomechanics of song are more
demanding than those of speech, adding weight to the theory that singing
developed in humans before language -- also noting that while many primates
can be said to have the ability to sing, humans are the only primates with the
capacity for language. Merker concludes that while the ability for learned
song appeared with human ancestors’ “first major advance in brain size,” the
capacity for language emerged with the second such leap and the emergence of
Homo sapiens.

The final section, Part V, “Perspectives from Musicology” begins with Chapter
10, “Music as an Emergent Exaptation” by Ian Cross. This chapter examines why
music has developed if it confers no immediate evolutionary advantage. He
views it as an “exaptation,” an evolutionary advance that has been repurposed.
Cross investigates the similarities between music and language -- specifically
the view of music as expressing meaning in the form of emotion. He also
discusses competing theories of meaning in general, particularly information
theory as opposed to ostensive-inferential theory. Cross concludes that the
“floating intentionality” of music. That is, “its potential for its meaning .
. . to be transposed from one situation to another” (270) suggests music was
an adaptation allowing humans to integrate information across different
domains, though he also voices support for the theory that music was a means
of strengthening social bonds.

Chapter 11, “Musicians’ Performance Prosody” by Johan Sundberg, investigates
prosody in both music and language. Sundberg theorizes that there are three
types of performance rules in music, grouping, differentiation, and emphasis,
which are also found in language. While he finds parallels between these rules
in music and speech, the rules themselves aren’t necessary for language, as
borne out by experiments. He determines that music performance is similar in
many ways to other forms of human communication.

Chapter 12, by Nicholas Bannan, is “Harmony and its Role in Human Evolution”,
an investigation into the ways in which harmony may have developed in music.
Noting that monophony, two identical notes played in unison, is the only
musical universal related to harmony, he proposes that the intonation of a
singer in a large room or other enclosed space with a long reverb time may
have led to experiments with self-harmony,, a singer basically harmonizing
with him or herself. He then discusses the ways in which harmony emphasizes
vowel formants. He concludes by noting three areas in which song production
could “confer survival advantages”: the ability of singing to comfort, the
flexibility of the voice in response to “social and environmental stimuli,”
and simultaneous vocalization eliciting emotions in a group setting (327).

Included with the book is a DVD of supplemental material, organized in eight
sections. The first, “Vocal Production,” is an extensive presentation by Tran
on the taxonomy of vocal production, featuring spectrographic analysis of each
form discussed. This allows the viewer to see the frequencies highlighted by
each form. Following this is “Nogoqokos Singing,” a short clip of Nogcinile
Yekani, a female Ngoqoko singer, as an example of singing harmonics over a
drone. “Instrumental Production'' is next, with Pedro Espi-Sanchez creating a
flute out of a piece of kale found on the beach at Cape Town. Following this
is a clip from the aforementioned conference in which each participant is
given one note to play as they perform a collective improvisation. Finally,
there are clips of various pipe ensembles from Botswana and South Africa. The
fourth clip is again Nogcinile Yekani, this time performing a song on a bow,
blowing through a hole in the tip like a flute, while accompanying herself by
bowing the bowstring. The fifth clip is Espi-Sanchez performing on the kale
flute fashioned in clip three. This is followed by a clip of Bannan and his
students performing various vocal techniques which emphasize vocal harmonics,
followed by another clip of a vuvuzela orchestra, and a cantor singing in a
hall which emphasizes vowel overtones. The final clip is simply the same clip
of the cantor again, (presumably a production error.)

While this collection covers a wide variety of approaches to understanding
music and language in terms of human evolution, this detracts from its value
as a whole.. That is, avenues that one may expect the authors to explore tend
to fall by the wayside if they’re not part of the background of the author of
a given article. A clear example is that throughout the collection of pieces
on music and language, there’s very little discussion of semantics or syntax
in music, with the vast majority of the text being concerned instead with the
fields of anatomy and anthropology. As language isn’t language if it conveys
no information, one would expect more attention to this essential aspect of
its evolution, and the parallel problem of meaning in music.

A recurring problem one finds throughout the text is that many of the articles
simply don’t pay off in terms of conclusions. This is most apparent in the
final two chapters of the text. Sundberg’s “Musicians’ Performance Prosody”
discusses computer-generated music and evolutionary linguistics, but while
purporting to answer questions about the relationship between music and
speech, can only go as far as to say that there are “similarities” between
singing and speaking. Interestingly, in one case where the expected
similarities do not appear -- that of humans’ footstep frequency while walking
paralleling note frequency in musical works -- serves as counter-evidence to
Mark Changizi’s hypothesis in “Harnessed”, which avers that musical movement
is explicitly derived from human kinetic movement -- specifically, walking
(see Changizi 2011: chapter 4). Changizi’s text isn’t mentioned in Cross’s
chapter, presumably due to not yet being published when Cross’s paper was
written. The final chapter, “Harmony and its Role in Human Evolution,” doesn’t
really deal with evolution at all, providing more a history of the development
of harmony in general.

Aside from these issues, the book is a well put-together introduction to the
various problems involved with evolutionary linguistics and musicology, as
well as fields concerned with its study. While not every chapter will be of
use to those in every field which may have an interest in language and
evolution, there is still much of value to anyone studying the relationship
between music and language or language and evolution. In short, this is a
useful volume, especially as a starting point for those investigating the
various ways in which evolutionary theory intersects with the disciplines of
linguistics and musicology.

Blacking, John. 1973. How musical is Man? Seattle: University of Washington

Changizi, Mark. 2011. Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and
Transformed Ape into Man. Dallas, TX: Benbella Books.

Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
London: John Murray.

Gould, Stephen Jay, and Elizabeth S. Vrba. 1982. Exaptation -- a Missing Term
in the Science of Form. Paleobiology 8. 4-15.

Hornbostel, E. von and C. Sachs. 1914. Systematik der Musikinstrumente: Ein
Versuch. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 46. 553-590.

Lomax, Alan. 1968. Folk Song Style and Culture. Washington, DC: American
Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lomax, Alan. 1982. Brief Progress Report: Cantometrics-Choreometrics Projects.
Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 4. 142-145.

Miller, Geoffrey. 1999. Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays. In R. Dunbar,
C. Knight, and C. Power, eds., The Evolution of Culture. Edinburgh, Edinburgh
University Press.

Miller, Geoffrey. 2000. The Mating Mind. London: Heinemann.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1781/1817. Essai sur l'origine des langues.
Où il est
parlé de la Mélodie et de l'Imitation musicale. Paris: A. Berlin.

J. L. Barnes is a philosophy and linguistics graduate currently residing in
the Louisville, KY area. Areas of interest include semantics, philosophy of
language, semiotics, and the relationship between music and language.
Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Page Updated: 26-Jun-2013

Supported in part by the National Science Foundation       About LINGUIST    |   Contact Us       ILIT Logo
While the LINGUIST List makes every effort to ensure the linguistic relevance of sites listed on its pages, it cannot vouch for their contents.