Egyptians express their joy at Mubarak's departure by mixing music with words. What words? I dunnot, but they sound cheerful.
Friday, Victory Day, people around the world watched Egyptians dancing in the street. The next day the Metropolitan Opera in New York broadcast live around the world a performance of an opera, Nixon in China. These incidents following so hard on each other's heels remind me of a great mystery. Music is found in all cultures, suggesting that it fulfills some basic function, and yet nobody can quite figure out what that function might be. In this regard, music is the opposite of language. Language is so universally useful that a thousand good reasons for its evolution present themselves . Leonid Perlovsky of Harvard has just published a paper--"Music. Cognitive Function, Origin and Evolution of Musical Emotions"—that proposes that music and language co-evolved in order to maintain a stability that language by itself undermines.
Thus, human vocalization evolved in two directions simultaneously. One way was linguistically, "enhancing conceptual differentiation," while the other was musical and "more emotional." Perlovsky writes:
musical emotions have evolved for synthesis of differentiated consciousness, for reconciling contradictions that every step toward differentiation entails, for reconciling cognitive dissonances, for creating a unity of differentiated Self."
It is important to remind ourselves that language is not an unequivocal good. It brings a price and some balancing force would be welcome. I am very sympathetic to Perlovsky's idea, but I wish he had more going in this paper than an interesting hypothesis. It needs to address a few inevitable questions.
First, there is the issue of rhetoric. Language can unify people. Americans just has a sample of that capacity a month ago when President Obama spoke in Tucson "as an American … like all Americans." The speech was judged as successful in making its audience feel they were a united group of citizens. This speech was typical of many political speeches which makes the audience feel they are one with the speaker. Thus, it is easy to imagine a rhetorical synthesis evolving right along with a semantic differentiation, maintaining a balance by speech alone, without a balancing set of musical emotions.
Second, there is the a unity of music and language. Music without song seems to be a relatively modern invention. Mostly music is accompanied by voices singing words. A classic piece of music is the fifteen hundred year old Te deum chant which combines a solemn religious emotion with solemn words. A more modern song/chant is sung to similar effect at the Harlem Church of Christ. The music promotes a sense of unity, but so do the words. Similarly, at demonstrations these days people often sing "Give Peace a Chance," and the words work with, not against, the emotion of the music.
It might be rebutted that the words could just as well be tra la la and the effect would be the same. Indeed, something like this happened to the Te deum when the chant outlasted the Latin that provided the words. Eventually much of the audience had only a vague idea what the words were all about, yet they were moved. The point, however, is that the words don't have to be tra-la-la. They can be meaningful and still have a synthetic effect.
A further matter. All my life, adolescents have used music to separate themselves from their elders. In these instances music serves a double function. It unites the adolescents who love the music, and sharpens the division with adults who dislike it. Actually, that same role is apparent in the give-peace-a-chance link above. The people singing are aware of a unity, but the song also separates the singers from the police about to lay down tear gas.
Music can sew division as well as unity, and words can unite as well as divide.
Even so, I'm interested in Perlovsky's hypothesis. It looks like it will require some caveats to make it work, but I feel he is onto something. Language and music support one another and perhaps they suffer when they go so far astray that they cannot work together. I have to be careful with that last thought. After all, I'm delighted to listed to "A Night in Tunisia," which never had a lyric, and Perlovsky's interesting paper is not set to music. But watching the Met's performance of Nixon in China and the celebrations of Victory Days reminds me of what a joyless place the world would be if we had evolved language and had no music to give life to our joy.