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The Evolution of Music

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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00075

Commentary: "The ‘Musilanguage’ Model of Language Evolution”

  • 1Braavo Enterprises, United States

The model of musilanguage (Brown 2000, 2017) requires a new musicological term to refer to its texture. Like choral singing, and unlike speech, musilanguage is based on simultaneous vocalization of multiple participants who reproduce the same signal (call) at random time intervals and pitch levels, akin to a wolf “chorus.” Voiced utterances produce multiple pitches, generating a “jumbled” texture, similar to polyphony and heterophony, but not fully qualifying as such.
The term “heterophony” was introduced by Stumpf (1897) to refer to the fusion of sounds whose components retained their singular identity. Stumpf discovered this word in Plato’s Laws (Plato 2013, 203), where it referred to pitch and rhythm discrepancy between the vocals and the lyre performing the same tune. Four years later, Stumpf (1901) reused this term to describe Thai music. He characterized heterophony as the looping of simultaneous melodic paraphrases [Umspielen], where parts generally followed the same melodic contour while differing in detail, so that minute discrepancies would meet again in unison.
Adler (1908) conceptualized heterophony as a style alternative to homophony and polyphony, applicable across Siamese, Japanese, Javanese, and Russian musics. He specifically found Russian heterophony to present a paradigm of heterophonic arrangement, designed to make melodic repetition less monotonous and more idiosyncratic for each singer’s voice.
The Russian Musical Encyclopedia defines heterophony as a multi-part music generated by the collective performance of the same melody, where parts contain deviations from the principal melodic formula (Mueller 1973). Such organization is regarded as a general textural type of ornamental, harmonic, and/or polyphonic variation that can complicate classification. Indeed, already in 1911, Stumpf criticized Adler for misapplication of the term (Stumpf 2012). The keynote of heterophony is an ongoing melodic repetition with numerous intermittent variations, which seems to apply to musilanguage chorusing (Brown 2007). However, such chorusing contains no synchronization, whereas heterophony implies prevalent synchronization of parts.
Swan (1943) defined heterophony as “a principal melody improvised simultaneously by several singers, retaining its main outline in each voice, yet showing enough independence to result in places in 2- and 3- and even 4-part harmony.” The Grove Dictionary (Cooke 2001), following Swan’s definition, emphasizes a collective synchronized execution. Although the notation example provided in the Grove article shows a consistent misalignment of 5 parts (Knudsen 1968), such heterophony is rare and does not sound “jumbled”. Its asynchronicities remain minimal (< half-a-beat). Longer asynchronies (³ beat) generate polyphonic imitations, where the same melody becomes deliberately distributed between multiple parts to produce juxtapositions at certain temporal intervals.
Polyphony is “a style of simultaneously combining number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other” (Oxford Dictionary). Despite its association with Western art-music, polyphony penetrated Western popular (Bukofzer 1940) and traditional music (Ahmedaja 2011), prompting research of non-European polyphony (Arom 2004; Jordania 2006). Many ethnomusicologists prefer alternative terms (diaphony, disphony), while others treat “polyphony” as an umbrella term for any multi-part music, setting terminological confusion (Cooke 2001). Current consensus defines polyphony as “a mode of expression based on simultaneous combination of separate parts, perceived and produced intentionally in their mutual differentiation, in a given formal order” (Agamennone 1996).
Polyphonic and heterophonic textures differ in orderliness: heterophonic parts are inadvertent, unlike polyphonic parts (Tallmadge 1984). Polyphony induces individualization of parts by means of sharpening their functional contrast in texture. Hence, synchronization is even more important for polyphony – parts must align in pitch and time throughout the entirety of music. This makes polyphonic performance metrically stricter than heterophonic performance.
Even stricter is synchronization in another “classic” texture – homophony – “music in which all melodic parts move together at more or less the same pace” (Hyer 2001). Contrary to common belief, homophony is not bound to European music alone (Nikolsky 2016). Its reliance on chords and harmonic intervals demands high concision in tones’ onsets.
All “classic” textures rely on harmonic, metric, and thematic integrity of parts. Performers attune their performance to the pitch of their partners, the manifestation of beat in their rhythms, and the distribution of musical material across parts – what musicologists call “thematic material” and consider an expressive point of a musical work by which it can be remembered (Drabkin 2001). In this semiotic sense (Réti 1951), the notion of thematicity is applicable to folk and non-Western music (Mazel 1960). However, harmonicity, metricity, and thematicity are inadmissible for musilanguage. Even modifying “classic” terms (e.g., “jumbled heterophony”) would constitute a misnomer: musilanguage inherently lacks any form of arrangement of parts.
Since musilanguage occupies an evolutionary position between the “natural” animal vocalizations and the simplest human oral communication, it predates mode, scale, meter – and therefore, heterophony and polyphony. This situation calls for a new term – isophony: texture that uses brief calls, continuously reproduced by multiple performers with irrational deviations in timing and pitch, where each participant retains idiosyncrasy of the rhythmic, timbral, and directional attributes of the pitch contour – altogether producing a “jumbled” effect (Nikolsky 2016, Appendix-5). Vocalization can be considered “isophonic” if it maintains a single call as a unit of texture, scalable shorter/longer and higher/lower through the continuum of duration and frequency for every participating part – consistently reproducing that call out-of-sync in relation to the moment of its onset or termination.
Isophony contrasts “classic” textures by its tendency to expose each participant’s identity without enmeshing into the ensemble. Isophony involves the assembly of individuals, rather than a single entity (“choir”). Isophonic tones never meet in unison or in beat, and are devoid of any form of harmonization. Isophony’s only feature of tonal organization is the uniformity of the melodic and timbral characteristics of a call. The function of isophonic texture is to attract attention to each participant’s expression of the same state of mind. The important features that distinguish isophony from heterophony, polyphony, and homophony are summarized in the table below.
Conceptualization of isophony as a primordial texture that predated music, establishes the lineage in the morphological evolution of music, allowing comparative cross-examination of musical structures in multi-part music.

Keywords: Musical texture, heterophony, Polyphony, Homophony, Musilanguage, asynchrony, thematic relations, variations, Isophony

Received: 09 Nov 2017; Accepted: 18 Jan 2018.

Edited by:

Timothy L. Hubbard, Arizona State University, United States

Reviewed by:

Steven Brown, McMaster University, Canada  

Copyright: © 2018 Nikolsky. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Aleksey Nikolsky, NIKOLSKY., Braavo Enterprises, Los Angeles, United States,