Music – or language in action?



In present-day Western cultures, we tend to underestimate the remarkable overlap between music and language in the functions they fulfil as communicative media. At first glance, music seems to us quite different from language; after all, we clearly cannot exchange information through music as we do through language.

But if we shift our cultural perspective, we find that in many traditional societies music is not just presentational but also participatory. People engage with each other in musical performance, making music together – what has been called ‘musicking’.

Among the research priorities of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Music and Science (CMS), established in 2003 in the Faculty of Music and staffed by Professor Ian Cross and Professor Sarah Hawkins (respectively, specialists in music and speech), is the relationship between music and language as closely interconnected systems of communication. Ongoing research, such as that of graduate student Sarah Knight, is demonstrating how participatory music shares many functional attributes with aspects of speech – language in action.

All in the timing

“Conversation is not just about information exchange, it’s about continually establishing and reaffirming the mutual recognition of each other as social beings,” explained Professor Cross. “This relational dimension in speech involves tone of voice or prosody – not dissimilar from melody in music – as well as timing.”

Music and speech are best conceived of as having co-evolved as components of a generalised human communicative toolkit.

Timing in conversational interactions is extremely important to enable us to produce signals (gestures, interjections) at appropriate points and to take turns to speak. Timing in speech makes it clear that we understand the information that we are receiving, creates and sustains a sense of rapport with other speakers, and directs another’s attention to what is being said.

There’s now a substantial amount of evidence from research at CMS and across the field of psychology that regularity or periodicity of timing – a regular beat – also has these last two functions. If people move together to a beat, then they are more likely to experience each other as sympathetic; if we hear a beat, even subconsciously, it will capture our attention.

Sarah Knight has applied these ideas to understanding aspects of timing in language. Although speech lacks the overt rhythm of music, speakers might modulate how they deliver speech to capture listeners’ attention. To understand how rhythmicity is used in speech, Sarah analysed examples of everyday conversation, university lectures, political speeches and highly rhythmic poetry, measuring how listeners rated the rhythmicity of each.

Everyday conversation, she finds, has no regular pulse; to a lesser extent, didactic lectures also lack rhythm, probably as a result of being constrained by the forms of the specific information that we wish to impart.

In party political oratory, however, she finds the very opposite is likely to hold. Rhythm is used deliberately and consistently, even to the extent that the actual information is often the least significant component of the talk. The implication is that rhythmicity is used in an attempt to manipulate the attentiveness of listeners, and also signals how much speakers ‘want to be liked’. Examples of persuasive oratory used by the researchers can be found here:

Part of the human toolkit

Other research at CMS is also reinforcing the idea that speech and music are closely connected, and may have common evolutionary origins.

The early appearance of music in our archaeological record lends weight to the idea that the capacity for music is an adaptive characteristic of the human species. Music might have played a role in enabling our ancestors to get on with each other – to form, maintain and re-form stable yet flexible groups or cultures – in effect, an evolutionary scenario that would have been important for survival.

“In fact, music and speech are best conceived of as having co-evolved as components of a generalised human communicative toolkit,” said Professor Cross. “Music provides a relational medium similar to the relational dimension of speech, but different enough to be an important component of the human repertoire of communicative interactions in its own right, and far better suited than speech for the management of situations of social uncertainty.”

If this is the case, then music may be – and may have been – as important as language in enabling humans to achieve the unique flexibility in social interaction that characterises the human species.