Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Ape That Hummed: In the Beguine

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Ape That Hummed: In the Beguine

Article excerpt

Why do we sing? Is music-making simply "auditory cheesecake," an entertainment invented by humans for no particular evolutionary reason, an offshoot of language that leads nowhere? That was the dismissive view of linguist Steven Pinker in his groundbreaking 1997 book How the Mind Works. But it's a notion that tings hollow for music lovers, not to mention poets. If nothing else, our ancestors must have found music useful to soothe the savage breast.

Steven Mithen, professor of early history at Reading University, England, thinks our ancestors used music for far more than that. Music, he argues in The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (Harvard Univ. Press), is no offshoot of language; it's tight there at the root. Music and language show such deep similarities, along with such significant differences, he reasons, that they must have evolved from a common ancestor. We can hear vestiges of it in chanted mantras, or in the way people coo and chatter to very new babies.

Mithen dubs this prelinguistic, premusical form of communication "Hmmmm" (for "Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and mimetic" communication), and he thinks early hominids used it for hundreds of millennia to convey emotions and to create rituals, teamwork, and companionship. …

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