Or: Are humans hard-wired to a musical “universal grammar”?
In the early 1970s American linguist Noam Chomsky shook the world with his reasoning about the existence of a “universal grammar” which supposedly is innate in every human being – no matter of what origin he or she is. According to Chomsky, this “universal grammar” allows humans to acquire language based on certain universal rules and the presence of a human-specific ‘language acquisition device’ also called LAD. He argued that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, and that the differences among the world’s languages could be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain – this approach being labeled his “Principles and Parameters”-theory. He concluded that every language is based on a collection of parameters and switches, which in every modern language is actively or passively present and which conclusively allows the researcher to differentiate types of languages based on these parameters.
Since that time, many linguists have followed in Chomsky’s footsteps and tried and still try to prove this universal generative grammar. During the last decades a whole school of thought – either called Generativists or Chomskyites – emerged. It is a heatedly discussed topic in the realms of linguistics (in theory as well as in fields such as Applied Linguistics or its German equivalent, the field of ‘Sprachlehrforschung’) – but a different form of this universal grammar has been claimed to exist in a quite different field of research since the 1970s.
As has been presented by music theorists Lerdahl & Jackendorff in their 1983 work on a generative theory of music, apparently the human brain is hard-wired to being able to perceive and connect music in scales. The interesting thing seems to be that every human being seems to automatically link single notes to a system of music called the pentatonic scale (which is represented i.e. on the piano by black keys). This scale divides the existing range between a base note and its consecutive octave by five evenly distributed in-between pitches. The presence of pentatonic scales in almost every cultural space is one of the most striking facts because one can argue that this universal presence can be linked to an innate need of musical expression in exactly this form.
American musician Bobby McFerrin makes practical use of this phenomenon. Since the 1980s he uses interaction with the audience as an active element of his stage performances. Within such an element, he succeeds in surprising people of every origin when he confronts them with their innate musical capabilities. For example, McFerrin sings one note to the audience and simultaneously connects this note with a little on-stage jump and then invites the audience to sing this note whenever he does the jump. Subsequently he adds two other notes/jumps in different places next to the one original note/jump. And then, without any further advice on how to proceed with and adapt additional notes to differing jump locations, the audience will end up singing along with McFerrin in this pentatonic scale. The artist, after having presented this phenomenon at the World Science Festival in 2009, concludes that “regardless of where I am, anywhere, every audience takes that”, indicating a universal existence of pentatonic understanding of music. So does that mean that we all do follow the same in-built musical compass?
Critics argue that the recognition of these patterns do not necessarily mean that all people are hard-wired to the pentatonic concept. They rather see the explanation in group dynamics which they describe as the group following a small number of people who, by training, are prone to adapt this tonal scale to the variants given (e.g. by McFerrin). In broad terms that means that a small percentage of the audience really do connect the given tones to the pentatonic system because they are used to it, but the vast majority unconsciously only follows those “lead singers” in the audience. I personally do not know of any scientific research substantiating this argument, but even if so – this does not extenuate the fascination the pentatonic phenomenon has on me.
In addition to that, we can argue that one tends to categorize such questions into all-or-nothing patterns such as the “universal grammar” or the “same musical compass”. But life itself, in the form of evolution, has shown that things hardly can be put in binaries, in simple black-and-white schemes. On the contrary: through myriads of evolutionary processes (which can be adapted not only to biology, but also to linguistics as well as music theory), language as well as music evolved into a manifold universe of variations. I personally believe that in relation to music, Chomsky’s “Patterns and Parameters”-approach is a valid theory because of the universality of presence in all corners of the globe. Out of this core concept, many variations such as our Western-standard Dur- and Moll-scales based on a diatonic/heptatonic/chromatic system evolved. And this development can consistently be adapted to languages as well, although the underlying system is a more complex one.
World Science Festival 2009. <http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/video/notes-neurons-full>.
Bobby McFerrin, and pentatonic scale interaction. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne6tB2KiZuk>.