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Is Music the Basis of Language?

The prevailing theory is that music and language are either separate from each other or that music is a byproduct of language.  But some theorists propose that music underlies the ability to acquire a language, not just a form of communicating emotions.

“Spoken language is a special type of music,” said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory published online. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language”.

In other words: “from a developmental argument, music came first, and language arises from music – not the other way around.

The argument is: “Infants listen first to the sounds of language and only later to do they find its meaning”: It’s why we can learn a song in another language, even though we can’t understand what the words mean.   

Various studies show that a newborn’s brain is capable of distinguishing phonemes: the basic units of the sounds of speech and categorized musically as pitch, rhythm and ‘timbre”.  Music can then be defined as “creative play with sound”.

As adults, we focus primarily on the meaning of speech; but babies begin by hearing language as “an intentional and often repeated vocal performance”. They listen to it for it’s emotional content but also for its rhythmic and phonemic patterns and consistencies: the meaning of words comes later”.

You can’t distinguish between a piano and a trumpet until you can know the difference between “mama” and “papa”!

Brandt states “While music and language may be cognitively distinct in adults, we suggest that language is simply a subset of music from a child’s view.”.