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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Its kind of silly debate that boils down to which is more evolutionarily useful (and therefore likely to have been the relevant evolutionary pressure).

But both are assuming a far more interesting conclusion: that the principles required for producing music are the same required for producing speech. If true, what does that tell us about the nature of language? the mind? There's a book I'd read.


I've got the Levitin book and am reading it now, and recommend it - haven't got up to the last chapter though! In any case, Pinker's wrong. He talks about music in How The Mind Works, and I get the impression the reason he's so down on music is that he's trying to use music as an example - he's trying to make a point that cognition isn't entirely genetic and evolved, despite the rest of the contents of that book. Though, it's interesting that he's done so much work with Ray Jackendoff, who has a recent paper in Cognition about the evolution of music..

TLTB - there's an article by Eric Clarke in Contemporary Music Review from 1989 which goes into similarities and differences in music and language, and concludes that the comparison of the two from their surface features is a little misleading. There are many similarities but also many differences. Namely, in language there is a neat separation between syntax and semantics, whereas, in music, syntax is more or less semantics.

In terms of the data from cognitive neuroscience, it seems like if you scan a brain, music and language seem like they're done by , but if you look at lesions in neuropsychological patients, music can survive where language has disappeared, and vice versa (e.g., the work of Isabelle Peretz).

(disclaimer: music cognition is the topic of my PhD)


Philip Dorrell

You might be interested in an alternative view of the historical relationship between music and speech as described in my article "Melodic Language" at

My theory states that music had the same relationship to speech when it evolved as it does now (i.e. music is and was a super-stimulus for the perception of "musicality", but speech was never "musical"), but that the aspects of music which correlate with speech are a subset of the aspects of modern speech, because originally speech did not have the additional aspects.

In other words, music shows us some type of "fossil" of speech. For example, given the unimportance of vowel distinctions in music, this implies that vowel distinctions were not important in speech at the time when music evolved. Similarly, the difference between fricative and plosive consonants may have mattered (because each has analogues in percussion), but more subtle distinctions within those two groups appear to be musically unimportant. So the original language may have had one vowel and two consonants, as well as prosodic "melody" and "rhythm".


In his comment, Bill Benzon said, "We just spin the best tales we can." Got a defense against that?

Bill Benzon

When I originally proposed Beethoven's Anvil I hadn't intended to discuss musical origins. While the topic certainly interested me, I find thinking about biological adaptation to be very difficult. In this case the difficulty is compounded by the fact that we have no direct evidence of how those proto-humans behaved. We've got bones and pot shards and stone weapon points and campsites and a little of this and that, and no more. It's all guess work. And such guess work is inevitably guided by one's own bias in such things, and my bias was that music came before language. This bias has a respectable pedigree, but it's not the mainstream bias, which is reflected in Pinker's cheesecake witicism.

Well, my editor insisted that I write about origins, so I did. I like that chapter, think my argument is a good one -- good enough, for example, that Mithen picked it up in his book -- but it's a matter of skillfully rationalized bias, not objective thought. No one know how to frame an objective argument in this arena. Obtaining objectivity in such matters requires more than a good heart and a clean and inquistive mind. It requires specific methods. And we don't have them yet, not for drawing strong conclusions from the bits and pieces of evidence we have about early man.

So we just spin the best tales we can. I've written an essay review of Mithin's book in which I include my latest thinking on music origins:



“Obtaining objectivity in such matters requires more than a good heart and a clean and inquistive mind. It requires specific methods.” Now that’s a fine, pithy phrase, and I recommend it to all visitors who keep their own little quotation databases or, if they are really old fashioned, in their commonplace books.

Yet philosophers before the rise of scientific methods were not always wasting their time. They sometimes found good questions that kicked people off their complacent duffs. Socrates knew nothing, but in asking questions he roiled society and his questions lived on. I don’t expect this blog to ever tell the story of how language arose, but I do hope that it can ask questions that make visitors uncomfortable with the intellectual status quo. In particular I think that questions about the origin of speech can force a spotlight on what a mystery humanity is. Science has cleared up so many ancient mysteries that we might think by now the basics of pretty much everything is understood. The rise of speech, however, required so many transformations that just listing them can inspire wonder.

Children Anxiety Disorder

hey not just the cheesecake tickles the palate, This is your brain on music too!!! great recommendation... you got a lot of concern about that and a lot of taste too...

Affiliate Promotion

“I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex”

great phrase...


music in speech?
how could that happen.
let's see.


I'd like to see the speech because music is the best thing in the world.

Miroslav Miskovic

Scientific-technological revolution and the historical consciousness.The way how the mankind developed through last 40 000 years,expressed in terms of semiotics.

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