The Origins of Music and of Tonal Languages

The Origins of Music and of Tonal Languages

Robert C. Ehle (University of Northern Colorado, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7371-5.ch011
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This chapter offers the author's theory of the origins of music in ancient primates a million years ago, and what music would 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 other voices, to read each other's emotions from the sounds they made with their voices, and to convey over long distances specific information about strategies, meeting places, etc. 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. The final part discusses the origins of musical emotion as the case for imprinting in the perinatal period.
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Nasal And Tone Languages And Their Relation To Music


The great ice age lasted from about 100 thousand years ago until about 11 thousand years ago, when the ice was gone in North America, Northern Europe, and Northern Asia. This was only the latest of ice ages, of course, and it isn’t the last. The ice will be back and we are actually living in an interglacial era today called by German earth scientists a Würm glaciation (Whittow, 1984). In my backyard in Colorado are millions of rocks, large and small, that are rounded like footballs, making it obvious that they had been rolled and ground down by giant ice sheets.

During the great ice age, there were primates living in Africa. Their bones have been discovered mainly in the sub Saharan part of the African continent. They have been dated to a million years ago and even earlier. These ancient hominids looked like apes but they had bipedal locomotion, meaning that they could walk on the ground and did not live in trees. They might have walked along the southern shores of Asia, too, but did not travel north because the ice (and the cold) blocked their passage.

The questions I am entertaining are simple ones. How did these ancient beings make sounds? Did they have music? In other words, did they sing, and, if so, what would it have sounded like? I have collected some available evidence from the bones, the rocks, and from modern humans and animals, and have come up with a picture of what might have happened. This evidence comes from anthropology, physiology, psychoacoustics, ethnomusicology, psycholinguistics, and other fields. As we will see, it is just a theory, but there is a lot of evidence supporting the theory of the origins of music in ancient primates about a million years ago.

The Origins of Tone Language and 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 and then try to do 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.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Pitch Class: A set of all pitches that are a whole number of octaves apart.

Tritone: An interval of three whole tones with an augmented fourth. For example, between C and F sharp.

Acoustic Waves: Longitudinal waves with the same direction of vibration as the direction of their traveling in a medium such as air or water. Linear mixing of acoustic waves results in forming periodicity pitches of the resultant tones.

Sonority: A chord where sonority of a sound defines its loudness in comparison to other sounds.

Semitone: Also called a half tone is the smallest musical interval usually existing in Western tonal music.

Harmonic Series: A set of pure tones (sinusoidal waves) comprising a fundamental lowest frequency and its exact multiples.

Chord: A harmonic set of several pitches heard as simultaneously sounding notes.

Interval: A musical interval is the difference between two pitches.

Interval Cycle: A collection of pitch classes created from a sequence of the same interval class.

Tessitura: The range within which most notes of a vocal part fall.

Interval Class: Also known as interval distance is the shortest distance in a pitch class space between two unordered pitch classes.

Pitch: A sound quality describing the highness or lowness of a tone, defined by the rate of vibration that produces it (e.g., of a string or human voice). The musical pitch of a note is the lowest component of a musical sound, a frequency created by vibration the string or the air column.

Tonotopic Organization: The arrangement of spaces in auditory cortex where sounds of different frequency are processed in the brain. Tones close to each other frequency are represented in topologically near regions in the brain.

Fifth Interval: An ordered pair of notes that have an interval of 6 to 8 semitones.

Sound Waves: Sinusoidal waves characterized by their frequency, amplitude, intensity (sound pressure), speed, and direction. Pairs of sound waves may reveal additive and subtractive interference.

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