The origins of Language and the evolution of Music: A comparative perspective

According to Darwin [Darwin, CR. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray; 1871], the human musical faculty ‘must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed’. Music is a human cultural universal that serves no obvious adaptive purpose, making its evolution a puzzle for evolutionary biologists. This review examines Darwin’s hypothesis of similarities between language and music indicating a shared evolutionary history. In particular, the fact that both are human universals, have phrase structure, and entail learning and cultural transmission, suggests that any theory of the evolution of language will have implications for the evolution of music, and vice versa. The argument starts by describing variable predispositional musical capabilities and the ontogeny of prosodic communication in human infants and young children, presenting comparative data regarding communication systems commonly present in living nonhuman primate species. Like language, the human music faculty is based on a suite of abilities, some of which are shared with other primates and some of which appear to be uniquely human. Each of these subcomponents may have a different evolutionary history, and should be discussed separately. After briefly considering possible functions of human music for language acquisition, the review ends by discussing the phylogenetic history of music. It concludes that many strands of evidence support Darwin’s hypothesis of an intermediate stage of human evolutionary history, characterized by a communication system that resembled music more closely than language, but was identical to neither. This pre-linguistic system, which could probably referred to as “prosodic protolanguage”, provided a precursor for both modern language and music.


About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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