Music, language and the signalling of cognitive ability: an empirical investigation
Murray, Keelin Margaret
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First systematically discussed by Darwin (1871), theories of a musical precursor to language have seen a revival in recent years, with researchers such as Tecumseh Fitch, Stephen Brown, and Stephen Mithen invigorating the field. The view that language and music have an evolutionary relationship has been discussed in light of recent comparative, musicological, and biological findings. However, little empirical data have been presented to support such theories. This thesis aims to address this oversight, by presenting a novel experimental paradigm, which tests the prediction of a novel hypothesis for the evolution of language from a musical precursor. The aim of this thesis is to encourage discussion and provide a framework for the empirical investigation of music’s role in the evolution of language. As a first step to addressing this relative dearth of empirical research, a hypothesis is outlined which describes a stable system of signalling cognitive ability through the transmission of culturally-learned, complex, music-like sequences. This is not hypothesised to have been semantically meaningful, rather a system which supported the honest transmission of information about the abilities of potential allies. Such a learned sequential precursor (LSP) to language would require both increased cognitive capacity and an investment of time and energy in learning. These requirements ensured the honesty of signalling, and so perceivers of the LSP could use it as a reliable indicator of the cognitive ability of producers. This was a necessary stage in evolution, prior to protolanguage, in which individuals exhibited a complex learned, culturally-transmitted, music-like signalling system. Such a learned sequential precursor may have arisen through a pressure for the reliable indication of cognitive ability, brought about by environmental and social changes with the advent of Homo erectus. These social changes included a new urge to cooperate, and so this precursor is proposed to have emerged and developed through collaborative partner choice. Perceivers of the system used cues within the musical sequences in order to determine the quality of a producer as a collaborative partner. Empirical tests are presented, which support the hypothesised LSP. The first study tested the complexity aspect of the hypothesis, asking participants to rate complex and non-complex pieces of music according to how much they liked the piece, how familiar it sounded, how attractive and intelligent they found the person who created it, and how likely they were to choose to collaborate with this individual. It was found that complexity was preferred under all measures but one, that of familiarity. The second, main, study predicted that a correlation should be found between measures of cognitive ability that are relevant to musical learning (processing speed and intelligence) and measures of musical learning (ability to replicate and recall target pieces, and make creative pieces). This prediction was upheld, supporting the hypothesis that a learned sequential precursor could have acted as an honest signal of cognitive ability. No correlations were found between these abilities and a measure of physical quality, supporting the hypothesis that this system may have undergone social selection. The third study further tested the question of selection and choice, predicting that collaborative partner choice was key to the selection of this learned sequential precursor. Raters were asked to rate the sexual or collaborative ability of performers of pieces of music, based solely on their musical output. This study has yielded interesting tendencies, but no statistical support of the hypothesis that collaborative partner choice was more important than mate choice in this system. Taken together, these empirical studies support the hypothesis of a musical, learned sequential system of signalling cognitive ability. At the moment, the question of the selection of this precursor remains open, with hopes that further studies can address this question. The methodology used here draws together approaches from birdsong research, evolutionary psychology, and musicological research, in an attempt to prompt further interdisciplinary investigation into the role of music in the evolution of language.