Servitor discusses the fundamental role of singing

Music is one thing that unites all people and all cultures everywhere and—so far as we can tell—has done so across the span of human history. Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory at Reading University, and a Fellow of the British Academy. In his books Prehistory of the Mind (1996) and The Singing Neanderthals (2005), he has argued that acquiring the ability to speak may have stimulated unprecedented powers of imagination, curiosity and invention in our human ancestors. Our distinctively human form of language is one of the most important features marking us out among all other species. But while scientists have continued to argue furiously about the origins of language in hominins and early humans, they have neglected the origins of music-making and its possible evolutionary significance.

Mithen offers inviting evidence that our long-distant ancestors could sing before they learned to speak. He has drawn together strands from archaeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and musicology to explain why we are so compelled to make and hear music. But music could not be explained without addressing language and could not be accounted for without understanding the evolution of the human body and mind. Hence the wildly ambitious project that unfolds in The Singing Neanderthals: an exploration of music as a fundamental aspect of the human condition, encoded into the human genome during the evolutionary history of our species. Mithen’s argument is that, in the course of the evolution of human language, tonality preceded syntax. We sing to babies from the outset; in many world traditions ululation is a means of expressing strong emotion, and it is found in certain Jewish traditions (the Misrahi in particular), among certain Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, and in a wider context in eastern and southern Africa and south and east Asia.

In the western Christian tradition divine worship may be said, intoned or sung, and sung worship is generally regarded as lending an enhanced solemnity. In the eastern and oriental traditions sung/intoned worship is the norm, and for the most part instrumentation is forbidden in worship—as it was in the west in much early Catholicism and again at the Reformation, and as it still is in Jewish orthodoxy and Islam—whereas singing or intonation would seem to be integral to almost every religious tradition. And the music is no mere ornamentation: it is (or should be) a driver that helps to energize worship. That would chime with the saying attributed (wrongly, apparently) to St Augustine: ‘Whoever sings, prays twice over.’ But for all that, prayer is valid whether said or sung out loud or breathed silently from the mind and heart, in the tongue of angels or of humankind.