Origins of mother music

Volume 7 Number 4 April 11 - May 8 2011

From ‘babytalk’ to Beethoven? It’s possible that musicality in humans developed from the first form of ‘motherese’, according to Professor Richard Parncutt. Katherine Smith reports on his lecture.

Ancient humans may have developed a capacity for music appreciation and a sense of spirituality linked to music because of the foetal/infant-maternal bond, according to international authority on the origins of music, Professor Richard Parncutt.

Originally from Melbourne, Professor Parncutt presented a public lecture, “The origins of music: Grooming, flirting, playing, or babbling?” for the Centre for Music, Mind and Wellbeing at the University of Melbourne earlier this year.

During the lecture Professor Parncutt said while definitions of music depend on historic and cultural context, we know that music’s main function is social, in that it can co-ordinate group behaviours; that it is emotional, and is particularly good at evoking pleasure and spirituality; and that aspects of musical melody, rhythm and structure linked to the physicality of the human body are almost universal.

But he said one of the big questions still puzzling musicologists is to understand how music began.

“We have some pretty clear ideas about how and why language began, but the origin of music is still something of a mystery,” he says.

Language, he explained, evolved so that our earliest ancestors could communicate with more complexity than was available through physical and acoustic gesture alone, which would have been the earliest form of expression, and is still visible in our primate relations.

One of the most well-known approaches to explaining the development of language suggests that it helped us keep track of who was good and who was bad in society – who helped us and who didn’t. In short, it allowed us to gossip.

So where does music come in? There are distinct differences between language and music. For example, only language can communicate lexical meaning. As Professor Parncutt says, “you can’t order a pizza with a violin”.

But music has its own power. Music can promote social cohesion, conformity and the ritualisation of knowledge and behaviour. It allows us to deliberately manipulate the emotions of others, and allow our own emotions to be deliberately manipulated, in a way that language alone cannot.

“Some researchers think music began because it promoted group survival, mate selection, or cognitive skill acquisition in ancient humans or primates. But to be honest we just don’t know enough about ancient environments and behaviours to evaluate such theories satisfactorily,” he says.

“I find it more helpful to look at current theories of the origins of music and evaluate them on how well they predict music’s apparently universal social functions, emotional qualities, and structural features.

“The central mystery of music in humans is that it evokes strong emotions, without being clearly adaptive, or useful. We can survive and reproduce without music, but not without food and sex, for instance.

“Another mystery is the universal association of music with spirituality,” he says.

“The ability to be reflective emerged around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and enabled early humans to wonder about their ultimate origins. But why do gods and spirits have personal qualities in most cultures, and why are they associated with music?”

Professor Parncutt says one of the most compelling arguments, though not generally accepted as the definitive explanation of the origin of music, is that music is based on ‘motherese’.

He described motherese as a universal form of sonic and gestural communication between mothers and infants, which probably emerged between one and two million years ago as human brain size increased. The size of babies’ heads became larger, which in turn caused the gestation period of humans to shorten to allow for successful birth.

But as infants became more fragile, mother-infant communication became increasingly important for survival.

“Because babies were so much more fragile, the mother and baby needed a more sophisticated form of communication, and in particular it was important for the baby to have some information about the mother’s emotional state, for safety and survival reasons.

“A newborn baby communicates with its mother almost immediately after its birth, which makes sense evolutionarily, as this is the most dangerous time in terms of its survival. It needs to engage its mother to make sure it will be looked after.

“So motherese evolved as a shared behaviour between mothers and babies. Pitches (in motherese) go up and down, rhythm varies, and emotion is expressed in what we would now call a musical way.

“What is fascinating also is that the sonic-gestural vocabulary of this coded communication appears to be universal. Perhaps the answer is that babies learn these codes in the womb before birth.”

Professor Parncutt says babies can hear quite well for four months before birth, with a range of noises audible, including the mother’s heartbeat, respiration, her footsteps, voice, and sounds produced by her stomach. Because all these sound patterns depend on the mother’s emotional state, they become emotionally charged for the foetus. They could then become the basis for the sound structure of music.

The origin of the music and spirituality link could simply be the pre-linguistic child’s unconscious perception of the mother.

Professor Parncutt agrees with cultural anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake, who has claimed that: “All over the world ceremony and rituals do for communities what mothers do for their babies: engage their interest, instil feelings of closeness and community, and create emotional bonds.”

Professor Richard Parncutt is Head of the Centre for Systematic Musicology at the University of Graz, Austria.

Listen to the lecture at: