Music Really Is the World's Universal Language — Here's the Science Behind It


Artists and scholars have touted music as the world's "universal language" for so long it's become cliché. But the truth of this statement runs deep — deeper than most might assume, down to the very beginnings of human consciousness.

The reason why music might be so universally beloved and evocative across cultures may be because it was actually our earliest form of communication. This idea, first proposed by Charles Darwin, is called proto-music theory. It suggests that music is actually older and more instinctual to us as a species than human speech.

Chicken and egg: Darwin first proposed proto-music theory in his second book on evolution, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. He believed that "before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, [men and women] endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm." Darwin drew attention to humans' instinctive ability to respond to music; we don't need to be trained to do so, as we do with language. Semantic language gradually developed out of this proto-musical system as our brains grew and developed.

Not everyone has held music in such esteem, though. In 1997, evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker argued that just because music is instinctive doesn't mean it takes evolutionary precedent.

"As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless," he argued in his book How the Mind Works. "Compared with language ... music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged."

Pinker believes music simply makes use of existing neurological pathways that evolved to process speech, which has a clearer evolutionary purpose. Music stimulates our emotions only incidentally, as if it were "auditory cheesecake." With this amusing metaphor, he unwittingly turned himself into the go-to straw man for anyone addressing the myriad cognitive benefits of playing or enjoying music.

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Musical language: Whether or not music predated language, it's clear that music does function like language in some ways. 

In a 2008 study, Dr. Charles Limb, a head and neck surgeon at Johns Hopkins, had jazz musicians improvise musical pieces while hooked up to fMRI machines. Surprisingly, he found that as musicians improvised, their brains showed activity in places that normally light up with spoken language and syntax. However, he found no activity in the areas associated with ascertaining semantic meaning.

These results surprised Limb. "If the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it's odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech," he told the Atlantic. "So a brain that evolved to handle musical communication — there has to be a relationship between the two. I have reason to suspect that the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music and speech is a happy byproduct."

Syntactic, but not semantic. Other discussions of music functioning as a syntactic but not semantic language exist throughout scientific literature. Semantic refers to the meaning of words, whereas syntactic is more about the structure. Variants of "motherese," the sing-song language used by mothers to communicate with their infants, relies on a variety of musical features to communicate basic emotional information. Using exaggerated melodies and rhythmic repetitions, mothers can attempt to communicate positive and negative feelings to their infants, and appraise infants' internal states by the way they respond. Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake posited in 2009 that mothers and infants communicate through a sort of proto-musical language like motherese. Music-making can be thought of as extending motherese's emotional binding function to create this same communion among larger groups of adults.

Numerous scholars such as neuroscientists Steven BrownAniruddh D. Patel and Oliver Sacks have all pushed the idea that music played a vitally important evolutionary role in bonding together social groups for a common purpose. The way music's rhythms can physically and emotionally "move" people may have played a "crucial cultural and economic function in human evolution, bringing people together, producing a sense of collectivity and community," Sacks writes in Musicophilia. It allowed our ancestors to share feelings and synchronize their minds and bodies without having to rely on specific semantic references.


We'll never be able to prove  without a shadow of a doubt that music came before semantic language. But music has functioned very much like a language throughout human history, and it's clear that music communicates in powerful ways that language just can't. Music is no neurological accident, or "cheesecake." It's an essential part of being human — part of what all people share.