Singing is under-rated in surprising ways. It was almost certainly established before humans learned to speak around 100,000 years ago and likely was a necessary pre-condition that enabled its development.
Singing trained the vocal muscles and simultaneously developed the neuro-muscular connections and skills for speech and language. There was nothing else that could do this.
Indeed singing uses the same muscles as speech – both have much in common, are intricately connected and may be as important as laughing and crying for our emotional health.
Perspective (1) humans weren’t the first to sing. Birds have been singing for around 120 million years.
Perspective (2) if not for the miraculous skill of speech, humans would likely be either extinct or still living in the jungles of Africa.
Perspective (3) singing may have been the first stage of the birth of language and was among the most important tools in the primal human survival kit.
Africa is the birthplace of human culture, singing, language, and complex communication; all were made possible by the development of speech. But as fundamental as speech is to the human story, the dominant narrative prefers to give undue credit to language.
Singing and speech most likely existed for thousands of years before spreading beyond the African continent approximately 70,000 years ago. It is uncertain whether it was confined to East Africa or ubiquitous throughout Sub-Saharan Africa at this time.
The first Great Human Migrations began when a small band of pioneers with speech skills embarked on pivotal journeys out of East Africa. Those of us without immediate African heritage have ancestors among them. As time progressed humans sang, talked and walked their way to all parts of the world and circa 2013, the total number of speakers passed seven billion. There is no greater human success story.
Speech has been the dominant mode of human communication for an estimated 100,000 years; writing began only within the last 5,500 years. This means that every language and culture (except sign language) evolved via the medium of speech. Yet despite its longevity and ubiquity there is still much to be discovered and accepted about speech.
The development of speech was made possible by the establishment of complex neurological circuits. It required intellect and the development of a nuanced ability to coordinate vocal projection with intricate control and minute movements of the tongue, lips and voice box. It also required an extra circuit of listening. Without all these components, there would have been no language, complex communication, nor diverse human culture. Perhaps humans would have died out without speech.
In perspective, few miracles compare in magnitude. Speech blessed humans with an exclusive springboard that permanently gifted survival advantages over other species. It established platforms to communicate, cooperate, proliferate, migrate and occupy new lands. It revolutionized quality of life and enabled simple ideas to manifest into complex realities. Speech tapped into our intelligence and helped to multiply it.
The ubiquitous skill of speech are curiously under-valued and misunderstood. Along with bi-pedality (walking on two legs), it represents one of the two greatest leaps of human advancement. Yet it may be speech rather than language that truly distinguishes us from all other species. It remains at the pinnacle of our gifts.
WRITTEN BY DEAN FRENKEL
You can contact Dean directly by visiting his profile on our Teacher page.