What Did Protomusic Sound Like?

11 April, 2024
The glial illusion hypothesis can explain the intensity of musical emotion.
But it does not explain the ability of music to express different qualities of emotion.
One possible explanation for the emotional meanings of music is that music was descended from a non-musical (ie non-illusory) protomusical language of emotional communication.
By rendering music and then removing from music those features that contribute to the glial illusion, it should be possible to reconstruct the sounds of that original protomusical language, or some approximation thereof.

Musical Emotion: Intensity and Quality

The hypothesis that music is a super-stimulus for the glial perception of slow speech tempo explains the intensity of musical emotion.

But it does not explain the quality of musical emotion.

For example, why one musical item might be happy, and another musical item might be sad.

So something else must determine the specific quality of musical emotion in any particular musical item.

To get a clearer idea of what that something else might be, we can start by attempting to remove from music those features that contribute to the glial illusion.

We don't necessarily know what the full list of such features actually is, but some that can readily be identified include:

If we remove these qualities of music from music, we will arrive at some kind of deconstructed music which is not musical.

These features all occur in musical items expressing different qualities of emotion. Whatever we do to remove those features from a musical item will necessarily change the musical item. The hope is that we can remove them from a musical item in a way that retains the emotion quality of the musical item.

Tentatively such an unmusical but emotional version of deconstructed music could be identified as an approximation to a prehistorical non-musical protomusical language of emotion.

This is a language that our prehistoric ancestors used to communicate emotionally with each other in practical everyday situations, ie it was for practical communication, and not for performance or for ceremonial purposes.

As modern humans, we never hear this protomusical language, because there no longer exists any motivation for any person to speak (or sing) it.

Any motivation that might once have existed to utter protomusic has been completely superseded by the need to speak word-based spoken language, and by the desire to make music.

But, even though we never produce utterances of protomusic, and therefore we never hear such utterances, the existence of music and its ability to express different qualities of emotion implies that we retain the ability to understand the emotional meaning of this protomusical language.

The Universality Test

Even if you think that you have reconstructed some protomusic, how could we possibly know that that's what it is?

In the first instance, it should have some kind of melody and rhythm, but at the same time not be at all musical.

Secondly, it should have a recognisable emotional meaning.

And thirdly, the emotional meaning should be universal.

In particular, the perceived emotional meaning of your alleged reconstructed protomusic should not depend on the culture or the native spoken language of the people listening to it – it should be truly universal, in much the same way that music is.

Musical taste and interpretation do depend somewhat on prior musical experience, and there may be some variation between speakers of different languages. There is a certain amount of scientific literature describing research into questions about the universality of music and musical emotion:

There is found to be some difference between judgements of musical emotion between different cultures. For the purpose of evaluating potential candidates for reconstructed protomusic, it would be sufficient to find a degree of correlation of judgements across different cultures that is similar to what is found for actual music.

The paper by Comen et al includes a link to an interactive map of musical emotion.

If indeed protomusic is a thing, then it should be possible to find examples of non-musical protomusic which express all the different types of emotion identified in that map.