The Fundamental Question
Singing, in some ways, is a bit like talking.
But, we never sing during a conversation.
If you have a theory about the nature or purpose of music, your theory has to deal with this question.
If music is a form of communication, then how come we never use music as a form of communication within a conversation?
If your theory posits some kind of relationship between spoken language and music, then how come music is never a substitute for speech?
And if your theory assumes that there is no relationship at all between music and spoken language, then how do you explain various similarities between music and speech? And how do you explain that the most popular form of music has embedded within it a stylised form of speech, ie song lyrics?
Other Forms of Communication
If something is a form or method of human communication, then that something will, at least sometimes, occur either in a conversation, together with speech, or it may occur in lieu of speech.
Here is a list of non-speech communicative behaviours that could occur as a supplement to speech in a spoken conversation:
- Non-verbal sounds, such as sighing and moaning
- Facial expressions
- Drawing pictures
Some of these behaviours are less voluntary, such as laughing and crying, and others require more conscious deliberation, ie drawing pictures.
But they can all occur naturally, at least occasionally, as part of a spoken conversation.
I give drawing pictures as an example here, not because it is very common as a component of a conversation, but because it is easy to imagine situations where drawing a picture is a natural and efficient way to explain something that you are talking about.
The point I want to make is, that if music is a form of communication, then we should expect it to occur naturally within actual conversations, at least occasionally.
Writing is a form of human communication that typically doesn't occur naturally within a spoken conversation, so it might seem like a major exception to my assertion that all communicative behaviours can occur within or together with speech.
There are a few special situations where writing might naturally occur in a conversation, which usually involve some information where a listener might not reliably remember the exact content of some words or numbers, like a phone number, or an email address, where it matters to get every letter or digit correct.
But normally we wouldn't attempt to supplement a spoken conversation with writing, because writing and reading are much less efficient than speaking and listening – I can say a sentence much quicker than I can write it down with a pen on a sheet of paper. Also you lose all the non-verbal components of communication that are normally part of conversational speech.
However, there are also situations where writing can occur as a full substitute for speech, especially if speech is not available as an option, and writing is available. For example, in an online textual chat, where the participants take turns to say something to each other and respond to each other, just like they would do in a spoken conversation.
So although writing is not very common as a supplement to speech in a spoken conversation, it is something that can occur as a substitute for speech in a form of human communication that can be considered conversational.
If music is actually a form of communication, then we might expect singing to appear at least some of the time in spoken conversations. (Actually we could consider instrumental music – this would require the participants to have instruments to hand.)
But people singing in conversation is not a thing. (And also people playing an instrument in conversation is not a thing.)
The only time that anyone would ever sing as part of a conversation is if the conversation was a conversation about singing. (And the same for playing a musical instrument.) Which for the purposes of this analysis, does not count.
If can be argued that some types of musical performance are "conversational", for example where two instrumentalists take turns improvising music in a manner where each responds musically to what the other one just played – so therefore musical conversation is a thing.
However, although though such "conversational" music is a thing, it is not actually a conversation about anything – it is just a particular type of musical performance, and there is no sense in which such a musical "conversation" is a substitute for any kind of spoken conversation.
Is it just Western Culture?
One possibility is that I never experienced people singing during a conversation, because I belong to a Western culture, and not singing during conversation is a peculiarly Western thing.
As far as I know, singing during conversation is not a thing in any culture. But I wait to be proved wrong on this assertion.
Is it something that we are taught?
There are some things that we know not to do, but this is at least partly the result of our parents and other adults teaching us not to do them.
- "Don't hit your sister."
- "Don't run across the road."
- "Don't throw your food on the floor."
- "Don't kiss the dog."
- "Don't make rude comments about your Grandma's appearance."
However, in all my experience with children, and in all my experience as a child, I have never experienced a child attempting to sing during part of a conversation, and the adult telling the child not to sing when they should be talking.
The conclusion is, that in as much as we just know that singing is not something you do as part of a conversation, our knowledge of this fact about singing is instinctive.
Somehow we just know that, whatever might be the purpose that music achieves, that purpose is quite distinct from the purpose of communicating with another person when having a conversation with that person.
I would like to finish this article with a hypothesis, which might be considered somewhat speculative.
It is a hypothesis that directly confronts this issue of the non-appearance of singing in normal conversation.
The hypothesis is that music is anti-conversational.
In particular, music has specific characteristics which actively suppress computational processes in the brain of the listener, where those computational processes are normally active during conversation and they are an essential part of how the listener's brain normally processes the content of what a speaker has said, for the purpose of formulating a suitable reply in order to continue the on-going conversation.
Under this hypothesis, we instinctively know that music is a "conversation killer".
Not necessarily because we have tried singing and it didn't work, but because even a small degree of musicality in our speech has an observable effect on the listener's response to what we say. And, even though we might not be consciously aware of this effect, the effect is strong enough that, over time, it automatically "trains" us to speak as non-musically as possible during conversation.