Language Before Music – Music Before Language?

So what if…
you saw sound?
you could hear thought?
you could smell the correct path?
What if it were all about spirals…

It’s quite likely human predecessors intuitively appreciated that the world formed around spirals and responded to the perception of sound much more holistically with their body~mind connection.

Recently (early in 2009), little furry mutants in Leipzig started making slightly lower-pitched ultrasonic whistles.

This was the result of an experiment performed at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Scientists ambitiously created a strain of mouse that contains the human variant of a gene, called FOXP2.

It’s a gene associated with several critical tasks, including the human capacity for language.

Not surprisingly a recent comparison of those with the new gene in place showed these mice, in fact communicate differently with each other, by using slightly lower-pitched ultrasonic whistles. What’s even more intriguing: the nerve cells they grow in one region of the brain show a marked level of higher complexity than those in unaltered mice.

These anthropological explorations can help us better understand what constellation of genes and cultural practices actually underpin the capacity for language in humans.

As a rehabilitative counselor – that helps restore neuro-muscular function – related to physical equilibrium, I see a robust connection of music to human movement and communication. I surmise the appreciation of rhythm found in music originated as a survival and training tool to replicate important sounds of everyday life. The role of birds as communicators to aid human and other animal survival is a well documented precedent. Birds alarm about potential threat, sing us to sleep, are linked to cross-cultural spiritual beliefs, and perhaps represent the first earthly rhythmical entertainers.

The thought that manipulation of sound originated to enhance our survival by improving coordinated movement and communication for social interaction, reproduction, teaming and averting danger is very evident in the development of our brains and neural networks.

When we measure the emotional response to music, what is primarily examined is the personification of “meaning” — whether the person understands the “meaning” of various audible sounds. That seems, in part, to be passed on genetically (at least pre-wired), familiarly, and easily learned over the course of life.

Having a coherent, organic system that links our body to a pre-wired process in the brain (that responds to sounds and movement we experience over a lifetime) lends to this survival rationale.

Vibration, music, rhythm and even absorption of echo-location is said to be the first language that arrives in sensate form to the body. The primordial link to a burgeoning social journey that begins in the womb. To appreciate and understand this indivisible truth — at an elemental level — we need only explores the effect of ambient energy (energy being nature’s most basic ordering pattern) in relation to its effect on prenatal infants and its affect on communal gatherings that form the basis for personal identity (in the form of rituals of solidarity).

Let’s use the discovery of the world’s first flute as an example.

Dug from the Hohle Fels cave, about 14 miles southwest of the city of Ulm, by archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard of University of Tubingen in Germany in 2008, the nearly complete flute implies the first humans to occupy Europe had a fairly sophisticated musical culture. The wing bone of a griffon vulture with five precisely drilled holes in it is the oldest known musical instrument (a 35,000-year-old relic of an early human society) that seems to have contributed to improved social cohesion and new forms of individual expression of communication. Most likely, this indirectly contributed to demographic expansion of modern humans to the detriment of the culturally more conservative Neanderthals.

Social cohesion goes hand in glove with the dawn of social grouping. Humans initially gathered and lived together in a size that is based on faith, trust and familiarity that “fits”intuitively with the community of human nature. In earlier times humanity had been, just like the animals, very strongly connected to the group consciousness and acted as a group to survive. This coherence naturally generated a process of what could be termed enhanced, intuitive communication. In nature, hypercommunication has been successfully applied for millions of years to organize dynamic groupings. The organized flow of a school of fish or a flock of birds on the wing proves this dramatically. Modern man knows it only on a much more subtle level as “intuition”.

Yet our primal tribal form–developed based on the sort of mental personal data assistant we carry around in our heads that matches “faces to places” and allows us to name a member of our tribe even in an unfamiliar setting. This isn’t an archaic process of social formation but a primordial one. Until the most recent of human history, people dwelled in groups of “tribe size” and our inclination, even today, consistently reverts us back to that comfort zone. For example, it is no accident of modern literature that the Bard has King Lear retire from the throne but retain 100 knights around him to maintain his sense and ruler of the realm persona of “kingly” community.

While personal identity formation is literally one-half of this social understanding of music and language evolution, a vital element of “comm-unity” formation is found in the group personification of sound. To develop and experience individuality we humans had to mask, or perhaps more accurately ensconce our emerging persona in musical form and expression. It thus became an imperative of social gathering (that wished to elicit and guide emotional response) that acoustics and rhythm play an integrating role. These ambient sound aspects exercise a vicarious social role that resonated a biosphere to enliven an audience and ultimately bolster the sense of community. For cross-cultural emphasis, the Renaissance Indian ritual of Astakaliya Kirtan – in which prolonged singing is accompanied by rhythmic drumming to enchant participants is exemplar.

Smelling Sound

However, movements outside of our audible range are still rhythmic, and serve us much in the same way as audible sound. We sense movement by way of our three body balance centers. These systems all relate fluid to electrical impulse via the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the skeletal structure, and the musculature. It is a complex systems that works as a team to provide the right output for proper body stabilization against gravitational forces. Bodily movements depend on messages to and from the control room of the brain. The brain remembers patterns of movement via rhythm not of individual muscle interactions. So even our sense of smell can tells us direction when it is unclear.

For instance, polyvagal theory, the study of the evolution of the human nervous system and the origins of brain structures, assumes more of our social behaviors and emotional disorders are biological-that is, they are “hard wired” into us-than we usually think.

The term “polyvagal” combines “poly,” meaning “many,” and “vagal,” which refers to the longest cranial nerve set called the vagus (affectionately known as the “wanderer” nerve). To understand the theory, a deeper understanding of the vagus nerve needs to be taken into careful consideration. This nerve is a primary component of the autonomic nervous system. The nervous system that you don’t control. That causes you to do things automatically, like digest your food. The vagus nerve exits the brain stem and has branches that regulate structures in the head and in several organs, including the heart and colon. The theory proposes the vagus nerve’s two different branches are related to the unique ways we react to situations we perceive as safe or unsafe by properly positioning the body for flight or fight. Significantly, this nerve uniquely interacts with the only muscles in the body that are fed by cranial and spinal nerves around the neck and upper back (sterno cleido and upper trapezius). These muscles also interlace with the olfactory aspect of the limbic brain to permit us to turn our heads instinctively to sense the direction of potential danger.

So it’s easily understood how we sense sound vibration and movement with our physical body, and that our body is able to carry out cognitive tasks to support multi-tasking by the brain. Using our body in this way aids a specific type of survival intelligence. Particularly as our bodies are pre-wired to recognize rhythmic patterns, with sensors in each of our joints. This enables us to communicate, think, recall, and execute cognitive tasks in part with our bodies.