Musicality and language

Steven Mithen

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

Musicality and language


This article provides an overview on two human universal features, music and language, which can be vocal, gestural, and written down. Both are hierarchically structured, being constituted by acoustic elements (words or tones) that are combined into phrases (utterances or melodies), which can be further combined to make language or musical events. The languages and musical styles can be described as forming families within which patterns of descent, blending, and development can be reconstructed. Communication with babies and infants has a particularly high degree of musicality. This is known as infant-directed speech (IDS) or “motherese”. The key characteristics of IDS are the extended articulation of vowels, heightened pitch, and exaggerated pitch contours. Several researches has shown that these are not simply used to facilitate the acquisition of language by infants but the musicality of speech has its own function in terms of its emotional impact on the infant. The infantile musical capacities could be a spin-off from language acquisition and the musicality of IDS is considered to be critical to the acquisition of language. The studies of those suffering from brain damage or congenital conditions show that music and language have significant degrees of independence in the brain, even a double dissociation.

Keywords: music; language; infant-directed speech; brain; musicality

Article.  1140 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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