Music, Language and Group Performance

19 July, 2015
Comparing Music and Language, the musical preference for group performance is something that needs explaining. Firstly, a group of singers sounds more in-tune than any of the individual singers. Secondly, being in a group is physically safer, which may be important if the primary purpose of music is to disconnect from reality.

Relationship of Music to Language

According to my Daydream hypothesis, Music is an evolved signal that puts the mind into an altered state which is partly disconnected from immediate reality, and which allows the emotions of thoughts unrelated to immediate reality to be more fully experienced.

The Language Prototype hypothesis specifies the nature of the signal. It states that Music is defined by a Music Prototype, which consists of a Language Prototype plus one additional constraint. In its simplest form, this hypothesis assumes two fundamental differences between Music and the Language Prototype:

  1. The Music Prototype is defined by an additional constraint which is the occurrence of constant patterns of activity (and inactivity) in cortical maps that are involved in responding to aspects of perception included in the Language Prototype (these maps are mostly auditory, but there are some aspects of visual perception included).
  2. The Language Prototype fades away as the infant starts to learn its first actual language, whereas the Music Prototype does not fade away.

Ideally, this hypothesis can account for all the differences between Language and Music.

In particular, the constraint of constant activity patterns can account for the existence of features of music such as scales and rhythms with nested regular beats. It can also account for the general feature of music that any particular musical item cannot be easily varied without destroying its intrinsic musicality – whereas it is relatively easy to vary valid language utterances to produce new equally valid language utterances.

The Question of Group Performance

One feature of music that may not be fully accounted for by this model is that of group performance.

With Music, group performance is both normal, and to some degree preferred over individual performance. Even if there is only one singer, there will be lots of other stuff happening at the same time, which forms part of the musical item, and which our brains process as such.

With Language, any kind of group performance is abnormal. It is possible for people to speak in unison, but any such speech is almost certainly contrived, and does not constitute spoken language serving its normal communicative function. And if different people are speaking simultaneously, but not coordinated in any way, our brains will not make any attempt to process multiple speakers as one thing – rather we will attempt to focus on one speaker, and treat the others as a distraction to be ignored.

Group Performance Improves Musical Quality

One reason for preferring group performance in music is that the result can better satisfy the constraints of musicality.

For example, harmony of singers or instruments can only be achieved with group performance, and the result is almost always stronger than any performance by a single individual singer or by an instrumentalist playing a single melody line.

If considering the evolutionary history of music, we can in the first instance ignore the question of harmony, because modern-style harmonic music apparently did not exist until the 9th century (AD), so we can discount the possibility that this type of music has played any role in the evolution of human musical tendencies.

The second and more primitive mode of group performance to consider is that of singing in unison. This is a feature of performance that does exist more universally in musical cultures, and probably has a much older history.

There is one technical reason for preferring unison singing to individual singing, which is that a song sung by a group of performers in unison will usually be more precisely in-tune, if we average over the pitch values of the all the singers, than for an individual singer.

Because of this averaging effect, it is much easier for not-so professional singers to sing a song that sounds in-tune if they do it as a group.

The question still remains, however, if we discount the benefits of this averaging effect, of a residual preference for group singing. For example, given two singers who can sing in-tune well enough to produce commercial quality music, do we prefer to hear just one sing, or do we prefer to hear two of them in unison?

I believe that, even where ability to sing in-tune is not an issue, there is still a slight preference for unison singing over individual singing. Certainly there is no strong preference the other way – we do not dislike unison singing.

Group Performance and the Language Prototype

Because the Language Prototype only exists in the infant mind, no one reading this article can have any direct subjective experience or memory of what this prototype "feels like".

We can speculate about what features the Language Prototype probably has which are in-line with its function of pre-classifying auditory and visual percepts into probable language and probable non-language.

(And if some particular speculation seems significant, we can go further and formulate actual experiments on actual infants that might help to prove or disprove it.)

If we consider group performance of language, and its relevance to pre-classification of percepts into language and non-language, there is one simple observation: if two or more people are making a sound in unison, that sound is almost certainly not normal spoken communication, even if the performers are giving a performance which consists of valid language utterances.

So if the Language Prototype has any a priori opinion about the relevance of group performance, logically it should discount the relevance of any sounds produced in unison by two or more people.

Similarly, if two or more people are producing sounds which are not in unison, it would be logical for the Language Prototype not to treat those sounds as a single percept, but rather to treat them as distinct percepts, each of which should be separately evaluated by the prototype for the purpose of classication into language or non-language.

Group Performance, and Language versus Music

Given a likely preference in the Language Prototype for individual performance over group performance, and given an apparent preference in the Music Prototype in the other direction, we are left to explain the difference.

Given the hypothesis that the Music Prototype is a mutated version of the Language Prototype, the simplest explanation is to assume that a preference for group performance is yet another difference between the two prototypes.

Such a preference would not have needed to exist when the Music Prototype first evolved, because even without such a preference, Music could still fulfill a role as a signal for an altered state of mind; a signal similar to language, but which is not actually language.

But, even assuming that a preference for group preformance did not initially exist as part of the Music Prototype, it is still necessary to explain why such a preference has evolved.

Physical Safety

One candidate explanation is that of physical safety.

If music serves as a signal for experiencing emotions of thoughts unrelated to immediate reality, while in a state of mind partially disconnected from immediate reality, then it follows that listening to music potentially compromises the physical safety of the person listening to it.

If music happens better when it's performed by a group, then people will prefer to listen to it as part of a group, and that will be a safer environment in which to enter a partially disconnected state of mind.

It might have happened that people learned to sing in unison, which sounds better because its more in-tune, and then, because listening to music with a group of other people is physically safer than listening to music by yourself (which you are presumably singing to yourself if you are in a human culture that precedes modern technology with its ipods etc), people evolved a preference to listen to music in those situations.

A secondary benefit of a preference for group performance is that it makes music, on average, more different from speech. So, for example, when an infant hears its tribe singing in a group, its language prototype will be discriminating enough to know that it is not listening to normal spoken language.

Other Explanations of Musical Group Performance

There have been attempts to explain music as being about group performance.

With these explanations, music is good for us because it's a group activity – people sing together so that they can better connect with each other.

The explanation I have given here is slightly different – people prefer to perform music in groups, and listen to those group performances, because it is a safer environment in which to connect to the music and to partially dis-connect from the immediate physical environment. In my explanation, the basic function of music remains entirely private, and intrinsically anti-social: to better experience the emotions of one's own daydreams.

One obvious advantage of my explanation is that it does not require group performance. If the sole purpose of music was to encourage group connection, then people would presumably not want to listen to music when they are by themselves, and it would also be hard to explain why people sometimes sing or perform to themselves. But people quite happily do both these things. If the hypothesis is that music exists to encourage group connection, then individual listening and individual performance have to be explained away as non-functional side-effects of its primary purpose.