The Hypothesis of Vestigiality
Music as a Form of Language
In Music Is A Vestigial Trait, I proposed that:
- Music is a vestigial trait, ie music had a biological function, but now it no longer has that biological function.
- The biological function of music was as a form of language.
- Music was eventually replaced by much more efficient and expressive word-based language, ie spoken language.
For this theory to be plausible, we have to suppose that music in its original form included a mechanism for assigning specific meanings to musical items, and that this mechanism has been completely disabled, with only very vague and partial meanings of music remaining.
Music as a Component of Language
However, we can consider alternative theories of music as a vestigial trait.
Firstly, we can suppose that the representation of meaning by music has not substantially changed from when it was biologically functional.
If this is the case, then the meanings represented by biologically functional music were always incomplete, and something else had to complete those meanings.
Most likely that "something else" was an earlier form of spoken word-based language.
This reasoning suggests the following scenario:
- There existed a pre-musical form of spoken word-based language, which, for some reason, was unable to express certain components of meaning.
- Music evolved as a extension to spoken language, which enabled the addition of those missing components of meaning to the meaning of spoken utterances.
- Once music had enable the expression of these components of meaning, the spoken language was able to evolve to also express the same components of meaning.
- Once spoken language had expanded to include the previously missing components of meaning, music itself became redundant.
- At which point music "devolved" to no longer be an active participant in normal spoken communication.
- But, music continues to exist, because it serves certain secondary functions.
Filling in the Details
With this scenario, there are various details that need to be filled in:
- What components of meaning were there which spoken word-based language could not express?
- Why could spoken word-based language not express those components of meaning?
- Why was music able to express those components of meaning, where spoken language couldn't?
- And after all that, how was spoken language able to expand to include those components of meaning that it could not originally express without the help of music?
One critical feature of spoken word-based language is that it is arbitrary, and not innate.
A form of language is "arbitrary" if the speakers of the language have to acquire the language, ie a priori individuals do not know which words and syntactical structures represent which meanings, and the relationships between the components of language and their meanings have to be learned through some mixture of training and observation.
The opposite of "arbitrary", in this context, is "innate". A form of language or communication is innate if the relationships between meanings and their representations are already known to the speaker.
Innateness can exist in two possible directions:
- Given a meaning, the speaker of the language knows how to express that meaning.
- Given an utterance in the language, the listener knows what the meaning is.
Any particular language might be innate in one or both of these directions.
In the case of music, in as much as music expresses any kind of meaning, it would seem to be the case that comprehension of the meaning of music is innate, whereas the ability to express meaning has to be learned, either by learning particular tunes that express particular meanings, or, with more difficulty, having enough experience and knowledge of music to be able to compose new items of music that express particular meanings.
Arbitrariness and innateness may have been the characteristics of spoken language and music that allowed music to express components of meaning that spoken language could not express.
We can suppose that certain components of meaning were difficult to acquire, to the extent that they could not be incorporated into spoken language. Music then evolved as an innate expression of those components of meaning, and the innateness of music meant that acquisition was not a problem.
The problem of the evolution of the ability to acquire arbitrary language is a well-known "chicken and egg" problem:
- If no one knows how to acquire arbitrary language, there is no selective pressure for individuals to evolve the ability or tendency to invent arbitrary language.
- If no one is inventing arbitrary language, there is no selective pressure for individuals to evolve the ability to acquire language.
Music may have performed a "bootstrapping" function, ie it allowed the ability to express certain particular components of meaning, and once those components of meaning were regularly expressed, this resulted in a selective pressure for the human species to evolve the ability to acquire representations of those same meanings in the spoken language.
Once those components of meaning found their way into spoken language, spoken language was more efficient at representing those meanings (because words are much shorter than tunes).
Also, spoken language was probably much more flexible in how it could use those meanings.
For example, in its modern form, one sung musical item will contain multiple sentences, and whatever meaning the tune represents must apply to all of those sentences as a whole. Whereas, in spoken language, any word or group of words or grammatical structure representing a meaning can be included as part of a larger construct within one sentence.
What Types of Meaning?
Here I am going to put forward a hypothesis, which is partly motivated by subjective observation, and partly motivated by the problem it solves, which is:
- The components of meaning which spoken language could not easily represent were those components of meaning relating to things and situations beyond the "here and now".
Beyond the "here and now" can include situations:
- in the past, in particular the past more distant than what is contained in the short term memory of those speaking or listening,
- in the future, relating to events where there is no immediate expectation that they will occur,
- in the realms of possibility, of things that haven't happened, but which might yet happen,
- of places and sitations which could exist, which we don't yet know about.
What makes it difficult to acquire representations of meaning relating to things beyond the "here and now" is precisely that the things in questions aren't "here and now", so it is difficult for the language learner to know or even guess what the speaker is talking about.
My hypothesis then is that music evolved as an innate representation of those qualities associated with being beyond the here and now, ie the past, the future, and possibilities of things not yet known, and the innate representations of those meanings provided by music enabled speakers and learners of spoken language to overcome the acquisition problem for those meanings.
The Pre-Modernness of Musical Meaning
The incorporation of the "beyond here and now" into language was probably a major step in the evolution of humanity. Quite probably it was the last important change that resulted in fully "modern" humans.
This suggests that the meanings originally represented by music were meanings that made sense to pre-modern humans, for example from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago, and in some cases those meanings may be meanings that don't make complete sense to modern humans.
So when we listen to music, and strongly feel the "meanings" of musical items, we are feeling meanings that belong to a slightly alien species, ie our own ancestors from thousands of generations earlier than the current day.
To fully explore this possibility, we need to engage in a program of "subjective exploration" of the meanings of music items, a subject which I will deal with in a future article.