The Origin of Music

The Origin of Music

Robert C. Ehle (University of Northern Colorado, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5332-8.ch003


This chapter offers the author's theory of the origins of music in ancient primates a million years ago, and how would music have sounded like. Origins of nasal and tone languages and the anatomy of larynx is discussed, and then a hypothesis is presented that these creatures would fashioned a tone language, they had absolute pitch that allowed them to recognize each other voices and to read each other's emotions from the sounds they made with their voices, and to convey specific information about strategies, meeting places, etc. over these distances. Having an acute sense of pitch, they would have sung, essentially using tonal language for aesthetic and subjective purposes. Thus, they would have invented music. Then the physicality of the human (or hominid) voice is discussed and the way an absolute pitch can be acquired, as the musicality still lies in the vocalisms it expresses. The reason for this is that music is actually contained in the way the brain works, and the ear and the voice are parts of this system.
Chapter Preview

Nasal And Tone Languages, And Their Relation To Music

Tone Language and the Origins of Music

Music is the remnant of an ancient nasal, and tone language in which variations in pitch distinguish different words (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, 2017). A tone language is a language in which the pitch of a syllable carries substantial linguistic meaning. The Wikipedia article on tone languages says that there are over 200 tone languages in the world today and that around 70% of the world’s people speak a tone language. Yet tone languages are largely unknown in the United States and Europe. There is still much research to be done in this area.

Tone language was spoken by our hominid ancestors in Africa, who had very high larynxes. A high larynx connects directly to the nose, bypassing the mouth, making it possible for its possessor to drink, breathe, and communicate simultaneously, a very valuable ability when you must drink from crocodile-infested rivers and lakes. A very high larynx makes articulate oral speech and singing impossible, however. They would have had to speak and sing primarily through their noses. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, as we will see.

The tones of the nasal tone language are in three ranges within the harmonic structure of the larynx. Low tones create perfect tones, and major intervals are happy, contented and powerful. Tones of medium pitch height create minor intervals and are sad or melancholy. High pitches create dissonant intervals and represent fear and terror. Within each range, detail is added by pitch inflections (direction and speed). Imagine communicating by humming! Try it! It works.

Absolute pitch (the ability to remember and identify specific pitches) gives the nasal tone language much greater specificity. This is helpful because a nasal language does not have access to the specificity of oral, articulate speech like vowels and consonants.

A universal grammar of nasal speech is genetically transmitted (in the Chomskyian sense) and is available to us today in varying degrees. It is this what makes music the universal language of emotions that is understood by everyone. We acquire the connections between tones and emotions from our mother’s voice in our earliest days, even prenatally.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: