How are music andlanguage related?
Music and language havemuch in common. Bothdepend upon the brain’sperception of structuredsound input. Links betweenthe two were noted bythe ancient Greeks, andCharles Darwin speculatedabout how they might berelated. During the 20thcentury, attention focusedmainly on their differences,with the idea that the brainhad speciﬁc ‘modules’ fordecoding music, distinctfrom those that handledlanguage.In reality, the linesbetween language andmusic are not always clearcut. ‘Talking drums’, usedto send messages in partsof Africa, and thewhistling languagesof Africa, Asia andSouth Americaresemble music butconvey informationas ‘normal’languages do. Babytalk (the cooingintonation of‘motherese’or ‘parentese’)also blurs the boundaries.Similarly, the idea thatthere are separate music-processing areas in thebrain has been challenged.Localised brain damagecan affect speciﬁc aspectsof music perception, butoften disrupts both musicand language. An emergingidea is that there are brainnetworks and areas formusic that overlap with, butare not identical to, thoseused in language.So which came ﬁrst? Didearly humans chat or singround the campﬁre? Onepossibility is that rhythmand early motherese-likecommunication provideda common foundationfor both language andmusic. The two divergedas language becamethe principal tool ofcommunication,with well-deﬁnedstructures and rules.Music set off in adifferent direction. Yettheir common ancestrylives on in the sharedprocessing pathwaysin our brains.
Always on my mind
Our brains recognise octaves as special.
‘Happy Birthday’ is a well-known tune, written surprisingly recently (technically,it is still in copyright). As with all songs, if its notes are all raised by an octave(or multiple octaves) it remains instantly recognisable. A much smaller shift infrequency, if it does not match an octave, has a much more dramatic impact onmelody and makes the tune harder to spot.Remarkably, our brains have an innate ability to spot the fact that notes anoctave apart are the same. This capacity is even present in unborn infants, whoseheart rate changes when they experience novel sounds. An octave shift, though,has a relatively small effect on heart rate.Perhaps even more remarkably, other primates share this ability. Rhesusmonkeys trained to distinguish ‘same’ from ‘different’ can spot the similaritybetween different versions of ‘Happy Birthday’ (and other simple songs) but onlywhen they are played an octave apart.Early music was passed on fromperson to person. Oral traditionremains the norm in many regions,including most of Africa. Generally,though, some form of musicalnotation is used. The ancient Greeks wrotemelodies as lines of letters. But itwasn’t until eighth-century Churchmusic that changes in pitcheswere shown: diagonal linesindicated rises or falls in the tune.More precise changes in pitchwere written in the tenth century,when a single line represented aﬁxed tone and pitch varied aboveor below this by set distances.By the 12th century, staves hadfour lines with pitches on alternatespaces and lines. We now haveﬁve.In Japanese music there is noconsensus notation because themusic is so diverse. The notationfor the Shakuhachi bamboo ﬂutesis pictorial: a symbol for each notewith dots and lines for lengths andintonation.
Talking loud and clear
An African‘talking drum’.
PERSONALITY AND PREFERENCE
(goosebumps etc.) AUDITORYPROCESSING
Brain imaging shows that musicperception involves a wide range of brainregions. Many are specialised: music
leads to increased activity in a networkincluding the evolutionarily ancientemotional areas of the brain.
with brain damage, often from
people with damage to a particular regionon the right side of the brain can nolonger tell whether a pitch changes toa higher or lower note. As a result theycannot perceive a tune’s ups and downsover time – its melodic contour.There is overlap between musicperception and other brain functions,particularly music and language. For
events in both music and language aredetected by similar brain regions.
The brain has a complex interconnectedset of pathways for processing music.
Wired for sound
P h o t o d i s c
A Tibetan musical score from a Buddhist monastic ritual,
late 18th–19th century.