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.

Speech, like music, has an equally uncertain time-frame of development. Estimates of when speech evolved range from 50,000 years ago to 2 million years ago, another difficult timeline to predict without tangible archaeological evidence. However, the human larynx and voice box descended, developed, and gained its full vocal range at least 530,000 years ago, suggesting several species of human—including Neanderthals—had the potential to vocalize, or sing.

Ancient music most likely involved singing and rhythmic dancing, which cannot be preserved in a fossil record. However, based on our understanding of modern music, songs and dances could have been used by early humans to communicate where a food source is, to teach children which plants are safe to eat, assist in the establishment of monogamy and family groups, and potentially provide the social bonding and emotional trust necessary for complex societies to emerge. Thereby it passed down and flourished because it benefitted human survival. As human societies developed and grew increasingly complex, music became central fixtures in religious ceremonies, used to arouse a sense of communal bonds, express love and other emotions, and strengthen social/emotional bonds between individuals. Music is a primal, almost instinctive means to communicate intrinsic concepts like emotion. Coupled with the survival benefits associated with this basic form of vocal communication, increasing social complexity and the rise of civilizations may have served as a divergence point from music, or a push factor for development of speech.

Speech isn’t just a monotone sequence of words strung together—tone, pitch, volume, timing, timbre, all musical qualities, are employed to convey emotional meanings. For example, aggression is conveyed with harsh, low-frequency sounds, whereas fear and submission are conveyed with more tone-like, high-frequency sounds in both music and language (2). Theories of a linguistic-musical link have existed since the Renaissance, with philosophers like Condillac and Rousseau conjecturing an evolutionary connection between language and music as clear roots of vocal, emotional expression. This hypothesis continued into the 19th and 20th centuries, with Charles Darwin proposing a singing based “musical protolanguage” from which speech evolved. Although the theory of musical origin of speech is not new, only neurological advances and brain imaging technologies in recent years have produced more quantitative data to support this conclusion (3).

Neurology of Music and Speech

Humans may be innately, cognitively musical as we are linguistic. Any person from infanthood (without a musical condition) can perceive melodies, pitch, differentiate tones, tap out rhythms, and recall and construct music in our minds. These “natural,” almost subconscious abilities to grasp these basic components of music are seemingly embedded into human nature. However, breakthroughs in brain imaging technology like fMRIs and PET scans in recent decades provide proof for the profound neurological impact music has on the brain (6).

Even passively listening to music – processing sounds, isolating individual components like melodies and rhythms, and reintegrating them into a unified musical experience - activates multiple regions of the brain on both hemispheres at the same time. However, playing music engages practically every region of the brain simultaneously, especially in the auditory cortex, visual cortex in reading music, and motor cortex to coordinate fine bodily responses. Musicians also have measured higher grey matter volume in those regions of the brain, as well as in the cerebellum and hippocampus. Extended music exposure additionally increases the volume and activity of the corpus callosum, the connective bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This allows for more efficient and diverse connections between the more analytical and artistic hemispheres of the brain - increasing creative, problem solving capabilities in musical individuals. Musicians also demonstrate higher executive function, a category of mental organization at the intersection of emotional awareness and cognitive analysis to perform planning, problem solving, and attention to detail, as well as advanced memory storage and retrieval (6).


Although the theory of musical development of speech is difficult to definitively prove, there is indeed a biological and neurological link between music and language. Until we can pinpoint exactly how, when, and why music and speech evolved, the debate on the developmental relationship between music and speech may remain as a chicken and egg situation. Because music is such a layered and expansive topic, there may be other facets or musical phenomena that can be neurologically linked to the evolution of language. For example, take muscle memory, where musicians learn and memorize a piece after sufficient repetition until there is no cognitive thought required to remember how to play each note in succession. This phenomenon bears some similarity with the concept of “autopilot,” where a person can function and coherently speak without conscious realization. There are numerous other mechanisms worth researching in music such as musical imagery, and absolute pitch, which may hold significance in understanding the neurological development of speech. We currently do not have not have the data to answer the questions behind music and speech, but exploring the neurology and human interactions behind music and language can help us understand two ancient concepts that make us fundamentally human.


  1. Jay Schulkin and Greta B. Raglan The evolution of music and human social capability Front. Neurosci., 17 September 2014



  4. Steven Brown A Joint Prosodic Origin of Language and Music Front. Psychol., 30 October 2017 |


  6. Fitch, W. Dancing to Darwin's tune. Nature 438, 288 (2005).


  8. Michael Balter Human language may have evolved to help our ancestors make tools Science (2015)


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Image Credit:

Vinyl Turntable Record - Free photo on Pixabay

Microphone Speech Lecture - Free photo on Pixabay

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