Beyond Words


Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory at Reading University in England, begins his preface by writing that “the propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful and neglected feature of humankind.” Since, until the advent of recordings, most music-making and all singing left no tangible trace behind, that neglect is not really surprising. How can anyone know, or plausibly surmise, what our human and pre-human ancestors did in the way of music-making?

Undaunted, Mithen explains:

I began writing this book to describe my theory as to why we should be so compelled to make and listen to music. I wished to draw together and explain the connections between the evidence that has recently emerged from a variety of disciplines including archaeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience and, of course, musicology. It was only after I had begun that I came to appreciate that it was not only music I was addressing but also language: it is impossible to explain one without the other…. And so the result is necessarily an ambitious work, but one that I hope will be of interest to academics in a wide range of fields and accessible to general readers—indeed, to anyone who has an interest in the human condition, of which music is an indelible part.

His book fulfills that high ambition, drawing on impressive research (his endnotes total eighty-one pages) in both recent archaeology and neuroscience. He presents a series of plausible inferences about the making of music among our remote ancestors, as well as among evolutionary dead ends like the Neanderthals of his oddly (I’d even say ill) chosen title.

In his opening chapter Mithen addresses resemblances and differences between language and music. Both, he points out,

are universal features of human society. They can be manifest vocally, physically and in writing; they are hierarchical, combinatorial systems which involve expressive phrasing and are reliant on rules…. Both communication systems involve gesture and body movement….

Yet the differences are profound. Spoken language transmits information because it is constituted by symbols, which are given their full meaning by grammatical rules; notwithstanding formulaic phrases, linguistic utterances are compositional. On the other hand, musical phrases, gestures and body language are holistic: their “meaning” derives from the whole phrase as a single entity. Spoken language is both referential and manipulative…. Music, on the other hand, is principally manipulative because it induces emotional states and physical movement by entrainment [i.e., by carrying the listener along].

Mithen goes on to summarize individual cases of brain damage or congenital abnormality that resulted in partial or complete loss of linguistic or musical capacities. Clinical testing of both disabled and normal persons showed that music and language arouse activity in different parts of the brain with some overlapping. The details of brain function he describes are complex and sometimes confusing, but Mithen concludes:

The case histories described in the two previous chapters indicate that the neural networks that process language and music have some degree of independence…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.