Proceedings paper


Prosody, meaning and musical behaviour

Nicholas Bannan

(International Centre for Research in Music Education, University of Reading, UK)


Introduction: musical behaviour and the 'continuity paradox'

In the opening chapter of his book Language and Species, the linguistic scientist Derek Bickerton establishes that evolutionary explanation of the origins of human language poses a 'Continuity paradox' :


...language must have evolved out of some prior system, and yet there does not seem to be any such system out of which it could have evolved.

(Bickerton, 1990, p. 8)

Bickerton proceeds to define the properties of human languages and to illuminate the means by which speech is acquired, as well as to examine claims for linguistic abilities in other species such as the chimpanzee.

Like Pinker (1994) and Juscyk (1997), Bickerton focuses especially on the properties of generative grammar which are universal across languages, as formulated in the work of Chomsky (1975). In this linguistic tradition, tools for the analysis of the syntactical, semantic and lexical elements of language have been developed which explore convincingly the cognitive scaffolding through which language is acquired and the structures on which its employment depends. The biological basis of language in adapted respiration (Deacon, 1997, pp. 247-252), and its acoustical components (Laitman, J., et al, 1990) and antecedents in animal communication (Scherer, 1992) have, by comparison, received less attention within this tradition. An outcome of this divergence of methodologies is Pinker's (1997) conclusion that "music...shows the clearest sign of not being (an adaptation)": a hypothesis quite at variance with that supported within the fledgling field of biomusicology (Wallin, 1991; Bannan, 1997; Skoyles & Vaneechoutte, 1998; Cross, 1999; Wallin, Merker & Brown, 2000) that, to quote Tomatis (1991), 'music is the substrate of language'.

Bickerton (990) argues that speech allows humans to exchange representations of the world which language permits us to formulate: the feat of representation is as significant as communication. The latter may be present, even elaborate, in a variety of species of monkey, bird and cetacean; but the former with its empowerment of self-consciousness, is exclusive to our species.

This paper seeks to question assumptions that representation is confined to syntactic components of language, and to assert that, by contrast, meaning can be both represented and communicated by features of language which draw on musical perception and production.


The human being as musical animal

Critical adaptive variations in our forbears have given rise to the phenomenon that each of us is a walking musical instrument. Amongst the most significant are: upright posture, the development of voluntary breathing, the descent of the larynx, the neoteny of the adult skull-shape, 'modern' dentition and the cerebral processing on which musical perception and productivity depend (Bannan, 1997, drawing on Gould, 1977; Mithen, 1996; Jürgens, 1992). The fossil record provides a tantalising outline of this process (Tobias, 1987; Laitman et al, 1990). Comparison of how this capacity for vocalisation is employed by modern humans not just in different languages but also in the song of various cultures (Tumat, 1992; Campbell, 1991; Dargie, 1988; Blacking, 1987) illustrates the extraordinary flexibility and efficiency of the musical design we carry in our genes. It plays a key role in our development of responses to our environment even before birth (Woodward, 1992), to our carers (Locke, 1993), and, in the cultures in which singing still flourishes, to our understanding of who we are and how we should behave. It permits us to 'join in'.


Whilst ritual and co-ordinated behaviour varies enormously between cultures, the capacity for simultaneous action moderated by musical response would seem to be an inseparable aspect of this biological inheritance (Merker, 2000). It has its parallels in the animal kingdom:


There is something utterly awe-inspiring abut large group of animals - especially their apparent unity of purpose. We wonder where it comes from, how the individuals know what the group is supposed to do, and how they play their part in achieving it. It is not just flocks of birds that exhibit striking patterns of collective behaviour. Schools of fish create glittering swirls of movement in tropical oceans, flashing this way and that, but never leaving the group - stopping and starting in an instant.....

What can possibly be responsible for the remarkable behaviour of social animals? What gives the appearance of possessing a group mind, as if some central conductor were orchestrating their behaviour? Catchall terms such as instinct only deepen the puzzle: They surely do not solve it, for what is instinct? How come a humble termite is so massively endowed with instinct that a group of them knows how to install air conditioning in the nest? It's not instinct. It's rules....

There is - I strongly suspect - no genetic instruction "form a flock" in a bird. Instead, there are genetic and behavioural analogues of the rules that produce flocks. Evolution has constrained the repertoire of bird behaviour, both genetically and culturally, to incorporate such rules.

(Stewart, 1998, pp. 196-7)

All the more so, then, with homo sapiens, for which species the project is underway (Merker, in Wallin et al, 2000; Skoyles & Vaneechcoutte, 1999; Bannan, 1997) to investigate the origins of its communicative behaviour in simultaneous action in which the medium of co-ordination is that of sound. Stewart's mathematically-derived principles form a basis for modelling this hypothesis. He insists that 'evolution has favoured the rules themselves and not their consequences'. His analysis provides criteria for rule-based, species-specific behaviour as genetically and culturally evolved which define the properties which need to be tested to illuminate such claims. His reasons are as follows, somewhat adapted to illustrate their applicability to human vocality:

1 efficiency

2 consistency

3 adaptability

4 dependence

efficiency: the rules are simpler than the behaviours they generate

consistency: protection against the consequences of 'rogue' mutation

adaptability: small changes in the rules cause big changes in behaviour

dependence: sensitivity to the group protects the individual


The rules of engagement for musical behaviour

This promises to become an enormous field well beyond the scope of this paper, so representative samples must suffice:

mimicry has a different role in musical interaction from verbal;

verbal aptitude can only develop through mimicry;

control of all the elements of musical production (pitch; duration; volume; tone)

can be achieved both via mimicry and through spontaneous play.

This all seems very general, so let's get down to specifics. In order to be understood in English, one needs command of some 15 different tone colours (vowels).


The Main Vowels in English

illustrated by words and names beginning with the phoneme B and ending with T :


Boot (english) [Boo-wot (geordie)]








Bit [Birt/Burt]


Boot (scottish) [Bute]

Failure to select and perform the correct vowel sound requires the listener to rely more on context to correctly decipher what is being communicated. One can see here a separation of roles between the meaning derived from the sound of words themselves and that derived from context dependent on grammatical relationships.

Experiments with sound and meaning

Bickerton (1990) adopts instances from his studies of pidgin languages to illustrate the limitations of meaning which arise where primitive syntactic structures fail to embed one phrase within another. His purpose in doing so was to test structural assumptions in Premack's (1985) contribution to the 'continuity paradox' debate, arising from his studies of chimpanzee communication, wherein he extrapolated a hypothetical 'inter-language' which might bridge the gap between 'animal' proto-language and (human) 'true language'.

On paper, Bickerton's resolution of ambiguities through the use of conjunctions and reflexives conveys clearly the dependence of meaning on the certainties which are provided by the evolved capacities of advanced grammar, and we can marvel at the engineering achievement this view of language represents. But what of the pidgin user, himself probably illiterate and oblivious of such means of parsing the speech he is uttering?


John tell Bill boil milk

'Without grammatical items, it would be impossible to determine whether (this) meant 'John told Bill to boil the milk' or 'John told Bill the milk was boiling' (Bickerton, 1990, p. 178)

[It could also be taken to mean: 'John - go and tell Bill to boil the milk' or

'John - go and tell Bill that the milk has boiled']


Bickerton lays down a challenge with his statement 'without grammatical items it would be impossible' to determine what is meant. Let's take the alternatives available; the two Bickerton cites plus two other potential 'performances'. Can intonation do the job of 'grammatical items'? If so, how can the phrase

John tell Bill boil milk

be inflected in spoken language to yield these meanings?:

1 John told Bill to boil the milk

2 John told Bill the milk was boiling

3 John - tell Bill to boil the milk

4 John - tell Bill the milk has boiled


Experimentation with a listener illustrates immediately that phrases 1 and 3 could be unambiguously conveyed through intonation. Phrases 2 and 4 are more problematic, until the word order is changed, at which point

John tell Bill milk boil

could be inflected to convey both meanings clearly.

Bickerton anticipated this change of word order, citing it as a property of 'the mechanisms of true language, even without grammatical items'. However, attempts to convey the meanings of phrases 2 and 4 without re-ordering leads to further distinction of meaning, through the emphasis placed on, say, boil (as opposed to roast or whip) and milk (as opposed to oil or whisky). The possibility also exists of forming various questions:

Did John tell Bill to boil the milk? etc.

through the convention of creating a contour for the phrase which rises in pitch.

Further experiments can be designed to yield meaning out of nonsense. In addition to two old favourites of the teacher of English punctuation (and what is punctuation but the notation of characteristics of timing and tone of voice?), it seems appropriate to borrow from Pinker (1994) an example which provides the means to question his own subsequent position regarding the evolutionary relationship of musical behaviour and language.


Intonation vs syntax

an experiment which the reader is invited to replicate


1 Smith where Jones had had had had had had had had had had had his teacher's approval

2 There's too much gap between George and and and and and Dragon

(traditional English punctuation-test examples)


3 Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

'A kind of bison that comes from Buffalo, New York, could be called a Buffalo buffalo. Recall that there is a verb to buffalo that means "to overwhelm, to intimidate". Imagine that New York state bison intimidate one another: (The) Buffalo buffalo (that) Buffalo buffalo (often) buffalo (in turn) buffalo (other) Buffalo buffalo.'

[Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo]

(Pinker, 1994, p. 210)



In Wallin et al (2000), a range of researchers in animal communication, anthropology, linguistics, music theory and neurology considered different aspects of The Origins of Music. Bickerton made his own, cautious contribution, but not before exposure to the influence of others involved:

Until I heard the stunning presentation by François-Bernard Mâche, I would probably have said, by analogy with language, that music was unlikely to be in any sense a continuation of nonhuman song or any other form of behaviour. After I heard Mâche's recordings of a vast range of different traditions in human music, each one accompanied by an eerily similar effect produced by an avian, mammalian, or even amphibian species, I was not so sure. If anyone could produce such a performance with linguistic material, I would be tempted to convert to continuism overnight.

(Bickerton, in Wallin et al, 2000, p. 161)

Can Bickerton himself being moving towards a position in which he embraces evolved, musical

vocalisation as a resolution of the 'continuity paradox' he defined?

Bibliography and References

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