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Review of  Music, Language, and Human Evolution

Reviewer: J. L Barnes
Book Title: Music, Language, and Human Evolution
Book Author: Nicholas Bannan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.2600

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“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 zoomusicology.

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” (81).

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 below).

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 Press.

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.

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