Music and the Brain - The Neurology of Music and the Rise of Speech

By JiaJia Fu

Music - a collection of meaningless sounds that can somehow provoke profound emotional connections and physiological responses in human listeners. An abstract, even nonsensical phenomenon when described that way, yet music is central to collective human identity and nature. With seemingly innate “musical” abilities from birth and every culture on Earth producing some unique form of its own, music very much satisfies its reputation as the “universal language of mankind” (1).

Speech is another sound-based medium through which humans communicate emotions and convey meaning. Far more central to daily life and function, verbal language is one of the distinguishing factors between humans and animals - a quintessentially human characteristic. The striking similarities between music and speech are undeniable, so could there be a correlation between the biological processes behind music and speech? Could music and verbal communication evolve simultaneously? Did music predate speech? (6). The theory that the biological, cognitive human ability to process and synthesize music led to the development of speech-based human communication and interactions is growing ever more popular.

The Origins of Music and Speech

The oldest archaeological musical artifact discovered is a 42,000-year-old flute unearthed in Germany. However, compared to the approximately 150,000 long history of the modern humans, music among humans most likely far predates this relatively contemporary discovery (4). Music certainly predates the existence of humanity - some monkeys can distinguish subtle differences in sound patterns in ways similar to how humans can recognize slight tonality discrepancies between melodies. Nature is filled with music: from humpback whales to primates to thousands of species of songbirds, a variety of creatures rely on music to attract mates and communicate.