The evolutionary nature of musical meaning


The paper will draw on ethnomusicological, cognitive and neuroscientific evidence in suggesting that music and language constitute complementary components of the human communicative toolkit. It will start by outlining an operational definition of music as a mode of social interaction in terms of its generic, cross-cultural properties that facilitates comparison with language as a universal human faculty. It will argue that, despite the fact that music appears much more heterogeneous and differentiated in function from culture to culture than does language, music possesses common attributes across cultures: it exploits the human capacity to entrain to external (particularly social) stimuli, and presents a rich set of semantic fields while under-determining meaning. While language is held to possess both combinatoriality and semanticity, music is often claimed to be combinatorial but to lack semanticity. This paper will argue that music has semanticity, but that this semanticity is adapted for a different function from that of language. Music exploits the human capacity for entrapment, increasing the likelihood that participants will experience a sense of 'shared intentionality'. It presents the characteristics of an 'honest signal' while under- specifying goals in ways that permit individuals to interact even while holding to personal interpretations of goals and meanings that may actually be in conflict. Music allows participants to explore the prospective consequences of their actions and attitudes towards others within a temporal framework that promotes the alignment of participants' sense of goals. As a generic human faculty music thus provides a medium that is adapted to situations of social uncertainty, a medium by means of which a capacity for flexible social interaction can be explored and reinforced. It will be argued that a faculty for music is likely to have been exaptive in the evolution of the human capacity for complex social interaction. © 2009 by ESCOM European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music.