By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today I’ll be talking about music and its connections to language and the brain — so I’ve called on my friend Cory from 12Tone to help me. Say hi, Cory!.
Music has always had a close connection to language.The word music, as well as its theoretical study in the Western tradition, goes back to Ancient Greece. It comes to English through French musique and Latin musica, from Greek mousikos “of the Muses”. The Muses (Greek Mousai) are the nine Greek goddesses of inspiration in the arts and sciences, each responsible for a particular endeavour, ranging from lyric poetry to dance to astronomy. The sense shift of the word music was already beginning in Greek, from referring to the Muses, to poetry sung to music, and finally to the music itself. If we go back further music and Muses have been traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *men- “to think”, also the source of the words mind and mental, as well as, through Sanskrit, the word mantra, a word or phrase chanted or sung as part of prayer or meditation, one of the many ways music can influence the mind.
European music theory can be traced back to the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who seems to have been the first person to figure out the mathematics at the heart of musical sound, realizing that the pitch of a note is inversely proportional to the length of the string that produces it and that intervals between harmonious notes form simple ratios of string length, such as 2:1 for an octave, 3:2 for a perfect fifth, and 4:3 for a perfect fourth. And since the motions of the heavenly bodies were also seen to involve numerical ratios, Pythagoras proposed the notion of the Music of the Spheres, later known as musica universalis, in which those ratios implied a kind of heavenly music that surrounded us at all times, even if we couldn’t directly hear it. Another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who advanced the notion of the geocentric model of the universe with the sun, moon and planets circling the earth, though accepting that mathematical ratios were at the heart of both music and the heavens, nevertheless took the idea more metaphorically, with no actual sound produced. These and other Greek music theorists were summarized and transmitted to western Europe by the late Roman writers Boethius and Martianus Capella. Boethius, the early 6th century philosopher most well known for his Consolation of philosophy, wrote De insitutione musica, heavily based on Greek music theory, classified music into several categories, musica mundana, a version of Pythagoras’s music of the spheres, and wrote about the important influence of music on character and morals. As for the 5th century Martianus Capella, he was responsible for the development of the seven liberal arts: the trivium, or verbal arts, of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium, or mathematical arts, of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. He wrote what is essentially a textbook of these liberal arts called De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii or About the marriage of Philology and Mercury, actually a metaphorical work in which the subjects of the seven liberal arts are laid out as speeches made by the bridesmaids at the wedding, with the musical content drawn from a variety of Greek sources. And it’s the work of Martianus Capella and Boethius that lies at the heart of the European medieval educational system.
Another educational word we get from the Mousai, the Muses, is museum. Originally a museum, or mouseion in Greek, was a temple dedicated to the Muses, often filled with offerings relevant to the artistic and scientific domains of the Muses themselves, the most famous of which was the Musaeum of Alexandria. That association lingered in some of the earliest modern museums, such as the famous 18th century Freemasons’ lodge in Paris, Les Neuf Soeurs (“The Nine Sisters” in reference to the Muses) which supported various academic endeavours, as well the American Revolution, making it in a sense a modern iteration of the Musaeum of Alexandria. Les Neuf Soeurs counted among its members such Enlightenment free thinking bigwigs as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and one Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, whose name is most associated with the guillotine. In fact, not only did he not invent the contraption (that was the work of surgeon Antoine Louis), he was against capital punishment, but short of the abolition of the practice he also advocated for a more humane method of execution, and so his name has since been associated with this particular terror of the French Revolution. Another important historical footnote about Guillotin is that he was appointed, along with fellow member of Les Neuf Soeurs Benjamin Franklin, to look into the claims of 18th century German doctor Franz Mesmer about what he called “animal magnetism”, an invisible natural force shared by all living things. Mesmer believed this force could affect people, for instance healing them. This animal magnetism also came to be known as mesmerism, a practice that eventually led to what we know today as hypnotism.
But as we’ll see, hypnotism isn’t the only mind-related thing to grow out of an early pseudoscience—and here’s where we come back to language and, eventually, music. Because one of those early hypnotists who tried to harness hypnotism for legitimate scientific purposes, was French physician Paul Broca. You see Broca experimented with using hypnotism as a form of surgical anaesthesia. But what Broca is most known for is discovering Broca’s area, the region of the brain that is responsible for speech production, and thus pioneering the modern scientific idea of the localization of brain functions. And this is where the pseudoscience comes in, because the first theories about certain parts of the brain having specific functions came from the phrenologists, who measured skulls and attributed characteristics and behaviours to skull shape. The theory was first proposed by Franz Joseph Gall. It was Gall’s follower and sometime research partner (before they had a falling out) Johann Spurtzheim who gave the name phrenology to the study. Gall accused Spurzheim of plagiarizing and perverting his work, but it was through the efforts of Spurtzheim, who travelled and lectured around Europe, that phrenology gained its popularity and notoriety. It was on one such lecture tour in America that Spurtzheim suddenly died. He was given an elaborate funeral by his American followers, and his funeral oration was delivered by German-born pedagogue and unitarian minister Charles Follen. Follen had been something of a German nationalist, which frequently got him into trouble, being accused of revolutionary activities and even assassination. As a result, Follen was often on the move teaching a variety of subjects in a variety of locations before relocating to the United States where he got work as a professor of German at Harvard. One of the ideas he brought with him from Germany to the US was the practice of gymnastics, which he had picked up from Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, often considered the father of modern gymnastics. Gymnastics, of course, can also be traced back to ancient Greece, and the word gymnos “naked” because the Greeks exercised in the nude. It was considered an important part of the ancient Greek educational system, along with poetry and playing the lyre—the word that gives us lyric, originally meaning a poem sung to the music of a lyre. For Jahn, who was also a German nationalist and something of a xenophobe, gymnastics was part of his nationalist programme to prepare the German youth for the troubles that would lie ahead and he would lecture his gymnastics classes about German national heritage. Some have even called Jahn the spiritual founder of Nazism. Well Follen took this interest in gymnastics and founded the first gymnastics club in the US in Boston in 1826 as well as the first college gymnasium at Harvard. But the outcome of the gymnastic craze in the US was rather different, because American branches of the YMCA started to house their own gymnasiums. The YMCA, founded in London in 1844, began as an effort to provide low-cost housing and a safe Christian environment, away from all the evils of the city. But gradually they have evolved into places of education for both the body and mind (you can even take music lessons there), I suppose living up to the old Latin phrase from Juvenal mens sana in corpore sano “a healthy mind in a healthy body” — mens by the way comes from that same root that gives us mind and music.
But getting back to brain regions and Broca, he entered into the debate about phrenology and instead started looking under the skull for evidence of the localization of brain functions. It was Broca’s studies of people suffering from aphasia, impairment of language, that led him to discover that if a patient had damage to a particular region of the brain that we now call Broca’s area, they would have difficulties with speech production. Later on, following in Broca’s footsteps, Carl Wernicke identified a region in the brain we now call Wernicke’s area that was implicated in speech comprehension, and since then neuroscientists have been exploring the various areas of the brain, mapping out their responsibilities. But what goes along with the localization of brain functions, as we’ve been discovering more and more in recent years, is the importance of brain plasticity. Other areas of the brain, with much training, can sometimes pick up the slack from damaged areas. And this lies behind the notion of what’s called Melodic Intonation Therapy which uses music (to finally return to our main topic, the connection between music and language) to help those suffering from Broca’s aphasia, that is, trouble producing speech due to damage to Broca’s area from head trauma or stroke. The idea of music as therapy goes back a long way, and even our old friend Aristotle believed that music could be used to heal the soul and purify the emotions. But Melodic Intonation Therapy (or MIT) is a bit more scientific: it takes advantage of the localization of brain functions and the plasticity of our neurons to help restore speech. Broca’s area is located in the left hemisphere of the brain, but singing seems to be more focused in the right. Practitioners of MIT try to harness the part of the right hemisphere that corresponds to Broca’s area by having their patients sing melodic lines in order to learn to speak again. There have been cases of individuals losing their ability to speak but still being able to sing words which lends credence to this approach, although it should be noted that there's ongoing debate about the efficacy of this form of therapy, and neither Mark nor I are experts in the field. But there might be something even deeper going on in terms of the connection between music and language.
In fact, linguists talk about pitch or tone in language all the time. A great many languages of the world use tone to make grammatical or lexical distinctions, that is to indicate the grammatical function of a word in a sentence or to distinguish between one word and another, and we call these tonal languages. Even English uses tone to a lesser degree to convey meaning, such as when we raise the tone at the end of a question. To be clear, these aren’t absolute pitches that make these sorts of distinction, but relative changes in pitch, higher or lower. But can tone alone convey meaning? In other words, can music be language? The answer to this is a qualified yes. The clearest example is whistle languages, which can be found independently in a number of places around the world. In a whistle language the complete meaning of an utterance is conveyed through whistle alone. Whistle languages don’t exist independently of a regular spoken language, though, but are built on top of the spoken variety of the language. They are particularly common with spoken languages that already use tone to convey meaning, as those tones are readily expressed through the pitches of the whistled form of the language. Whistle languages arise in places where communicating across difficult terrain is advantageous, for instance when hunting. One such group that has a whistle language are the Piraha, located in the Amazon. Not only do they have a whistle language, but also a hummed version of their language, which is used exclusively between mothers and their children. When the boys grow old enough to engage in hunting, they leave behind the hummed version of the Piraha language and instead begin to use the whistled version when hunting in the dense rainforest.
But the links between music and language may go back even further. Both are human universals — all human cultures known today have developed both language and music, and anthropologists have speculated about how far back these two quintessentially human activities go, with musical instruments having been uncovered that are 40,000 years old, and both seem to serve crucial social functions, which is perhaps the most defining feature of the human species, their intense and complex social behaviours. And in fact some researchers think that music may be connected to our ability to use language. Music and language have many similar elements, such as phrasing, the use of acoustic articulation, and tone. Furthermore music is something of a problem for evolutionary scientists, when one considers what actually is the evolutionary benefit of music, and it turns out that this might be connected with language. Charles Darwin held humans’ musical ability to be “amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed” and proposed that music might have served as a kind of protolanguage. Although Steven Pinker has dismissed music as “auditory cheesecake”, an evolutionary byproduct that serves no adaptive function, many evolutionary scientists have picked up on this notion, and come up with their own versions of the musical protolanguage theory. For instance, Steven Brown terms this a musilanguage, an early hominid behaviour which was the common ancestor of both language and music. Similarly it has been suggested that language developed through mimicry of natural sounds, tool-use sounds, and the sound of locomotion, as no doubt bipedalism would have led to rhythms which could be imitated. And from a developmental standpoint, music and language are not nearly so differentiated from one another in early infancy, and it’s been suggested that cooing and other pre-verbal vocal interaction between baby and mother, with mothers engaging in sing-songy motherese and babies particularly paying attention to the melodic and rhythmic aspects of their mothers’ vocalizations, may have developed from early hominid behaviours resulting from the need to put the baby down, an evolutionary necessity caused by bipedalism as human babies, unlike other primates, were unable to cling to their mothers allowing them to have their hands free for foraging.
But before we wrap up, let’s return to where we started, with the Muses. Because the mother of the Muses in Greek mythology was Mnemosyne, Titaness and personification of memory. Her name can also be traced back to that same Proto-Indo-European root *men-, and is thus related to the English word mnemonic, something that “aids the memory”. No doubt all cultures have developed and used mnemonic tools over the millennia, including our old friends Aristotle in Greece and Martianus Capella in Rome.
any college student can tell you the value of good mnemonics, and trust me, musicians are no different. one famous example is the Guidonian Hand, a tool used by medieval musicians where different notes were assigned to different parts of the hand in order to help remember the structures of their scales. another more recent mnemonic is the Circle of Fifths, which is still to this day saving the grades of music majors all around the world. it works by putting all the notes in a circle, with each clockwise step representing the interval of a perfect fifth, and going around the circle tells you how many sharps or flats each key should have which, trust me, is a pretty big deal.
but probably the most important mnemonics of all are ones we mostly take for granted: the note names themselves. calling this specific frequency a G helps me remember its relationship to this one, an E. it helps me identify its similarity to this, which is the same note on a different instrument. it even helps me remember how to sing it, although for that we have an even better system called Solfege. this is that Do-Re-Mi stuff Julie Andrews was singing about, and it assigns each note a single syllable so that they're all easy to sing. there's a couple different kinds of Solfege, depending on where you studied and what you're trying to do, but certain versions even help you identify similar relationships between notes, even in different keys.
And there’s in fact quite a fascinating story behind those note names, and the Solfege system -- which Cory will tell you all about in his video, so click on the card or the link in the description to head on over to 12Tone and hear that!
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