Which came first: language or music? Traditionally, music has been considered an evolutionary by-product of language. Language, after all, is one of the few skills we have that makes us uniquely human. Thus it has the more important evolutionary role. Music is just "auditory cheesecake." Unimportant. Pretty little fluff. A misunderstood by-product.
But this tradition is changing. Researchers and authors like Daniel Levitin, Michael Thaut, Ian Cross, Silvia Bencivello, and David Huron are challenging our views of music's role as an evolutionary adaptation. They have suggested—and provided preliminary evidence for—the theory that music is not an unnecessary by-product, but is instead a critical and core function of our brain. Consider the following:
These are some of the ideas, evidence, and theories being considered to help explain the evolutionary purpose of music. There may now be another piece to the puzzle—a theoretical piece, anyway. Researchers at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) are theorizing that, when it comes to music, language, and evolution, we've got it all backwards.
Music did not emerge as a result of the emergence and development of language. Music came FIRST. The language part came later.
Pulling together evidence from infant development, language acquisition, and music cognition, the authors explored the roles of and interactions between music and language. This led them to hypothesize that language is better thought of as a special type of music. The music developed first and provides the foundation—from an evolutionary and a developmental standpoint—for language acquisition.
When it comes to the adaptive role and purpose of music, there is still a lot to learn. The evidence is not yet strong. But clues continue to emerge that each contribute to our understanding of the adaptive role this "auditory cheesecake" called music has in our lives.
If you are interested in reading more about the connection between music and evolution, I recommend the following books:
Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.