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4 | 2008-2009
The Letter
Academic year 2008-2009
Selected papers
Collège de France autumn symposium 2008

At the Origins of Human Dialogue: Speech and Music

Collège de France autumn symposium, 16 and 17 October 2008
Stanislas Dehaene et Christine Petit
p. 33-35
Cet article est une traduction de :
Aux origines du dialogue humain : Parole et musique

Texte intégral

Introductory talk by Professor Stanislas Dehaene

1A single figure will suffice to introduce my subject: 40 billion dollars. That is the size of the world’s music market. Everyone is prepared to spend large sums of money on hi-fi systems, portable devices and discs whose only function is to dispense sound waves – but sound waves capable of moving us to the depths of our soul. The mythical pianist Glenn Gould explained that he could never have imagined his life without total immersion in music, and that he would have been profoundly unhappy in the 19th century when musical moments were rare and often reserved for the elite. Today everyone creates and transports their own digital library, and every hour spent travelling thus becomes an hour of music.

2The powerful attractive force that music exerts on us remains unexplained to this day, and the question of the origins and role of music in human communication is at the centre of this symposium. Where does the sense of harmony come from? Why do we perceive certain chords as consonant and others as dissonant? Why do major scales sound lively and joyful to us, while minor scales seem subdued and introspective? Do these musical messages vary depending on the culture and age, or are they linked to a small number of constant and universal elements such as the octave or the fifth? Are these elements peculiar to the human species or are they present, at least in embryonic form, in the communicative behaviours of other animal species, such as birdsong or the high-pitched cries of mice? Have our brains evolved for music and, if so, what is the main purpose: communication without language, delimitation of the social group, strengthening of emotional bonds? Or else is music, as cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggests, simply a recent cultural human construction, a sort of “auditory cheesecake”, an artifice whose only aim is to tease the most sensitive spots of our mental faculties?

3An appealing assumption is that musical competence stems from the faculty for language peculiar to the human species. Speech and music share many common features, the most obvious being a hierarchical organization through which simple elements – notes or phonemes – combine to form structures of words, phrases and sentences, at several successive levels. The origin of language is actually no less controversial than that of music – to the extent that this question has officially been banned from debate at the Société de Linguistique in Paris. However, new tools spawned by cerebral imagery and molecular genetics enable us to analyse it in a new light, and above all to compare the evolution of music with that of spoken language. Can one really talk of a musical language? Is there a connection between sounds emitted and processed by one or the other system, or can we on the contrary agree with Richard Wagner that music starts where the power of words has ended? After the first steps of acoustic processing, linguistic and musical messages follow partially different paths in our brain. Yet poetry, song and especially opera combine language and music in the same work. Does this mean that a single universal grammar governs the organization of both spoken language and music?

4While I hope that the talks proposed here will shed new light on these questions, I know for sure that they will not solve them. Neither musical emotion nor the difficult question of the origins of human communication are easily put into equations. That is why Christine Petit and I wanted this symposium also to be an opportunity simply to hear music and to feel it vibrating within us. Naturally we have chosen song, for that is where speech and music meet, and I wish to thank soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac for having agreed to en-chant us with the strange musical declamations of Hector Parra and Georges Aperghis. I also wish to thank the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) for installing some of its famous computerized musical equipment at the Collège de France, so that we may have a glimpse of what speech and music might be when machines become involved.

Closing talk by Professor Christine Petit

5Because the various speakers have endeavoured to treat the theme of the symposium – “At the origins of human dialogue: speech and music” – with rigour, what might have been no more than an assemblage of scattered touches has been naturally organized by the play of interesting encounters between different disciplinary fields: science, literature, philosophy and artistic creation, and music and poetry in particular.

6In addition to the physiological and molecular bases of hearing and spoken language (“Hearing: the physiological bases of the auditory system“, Christine Petit; and “Mice, chimpanzees and the molecular basis of language”, Wolfgang Enard), we have noted the continuity of our questions and reflection compared to those of our predecessors. In 1862, in his book Théorie physiologique de la musique fondée sur l’étude des sensations auditive, Hermann von Helmholtz examined the necessity attached to music, and its corollary, the persistent need for a physiological theory of music (“Helmholtz et la théorie physiologique de la musique”, Jacques Bouveresse). This theme currently inspires highly fertile research.

7The permanence of the question of the relationship between “sung” and “spoken” in opera (“Speech-song: the opera”, Claude Hagège), as in popular song (“Speech, Speech, Speech”, Peter Szendy), was illustrated in the evening in Hector Parra’s Strette and Georges Aperghis’ Recitations, performed by soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac. We listened to the audible thoughts of the poet (“Poetry and music”, Michael Edwards) and the respiration of texts (“Capturing speech live: notation of the music of speech”, Roger Chartier). We followed the alliance of language and music through the drummed music of Central African tribes (“Between speech and music: the drummed languages of Africa“, Simha Arom) and the comparison of the physical characteristics of the sounds of speech and music and of their modes and sites of treatment in the cortex (“Synthesis of the spoken and sung voice”, Xavier Rodet). In so far as the two are set in different hemispheres – music on the right, language on the left – how does joint perception of the sung-spoken or drummed-spoken operate? We have seen emerging the premises of a scientific understanding of the learning of acoustic communication, the learning of vocalization by songbirds for example, with the importance of environmental conditions for their development (“The learning of song by birds: the importance of social influences”, Martine Hausberger), and the learning of spoken language by babies (“How do children learn their mother tongue?”, Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz). These recent developments are based on multidisciplinary approaches: behavioural studies, cerebral imagery and genetics. For instance, can genetics, by revealing the molecular bases of the elective achievement of the recognition of pitch (“Amusia and cerebral mechanisms of musical perception”, Isabelle Peretz), of the production of language or of psychiatric diseases affecting communication (“The reasons for autism”, Monica Zilbovicius), make it possible to illuminate the following: the passage from emotional phonology to voluntary phonology (“Emotion in musical language”, Emmanuel Bigand); the mechanisms of recognition of others through the perception of their voice; the links that exist between the treatment of speech sounds or musical sounds; and the way in which the genome and the social environment interact in the ontogenesis of the production and perception of music and language. Digital synthesis offers a wide sound spectrum, so that a huge variety of sounds can be created and altered at will (“Music and speech, from acoustic to digital”, Jean-Claude Risset), and is a powerful tool in the exploration of their psycho-acoustic dimension. Computer modelling of the establishment of language, based on the principle of auto-organization of life forms was proposed (“Auto-organization in the evolution of speech”, Pierre-Yves Oudeyer). The threats to human dialogue caused by impaired hearing in the ageing subject were pointed out, as was the fact that the problem is first manifested in noise and gradually constrains the person to social isolation (“On speech and noise: the organization of oral comprehension”, Christian Lorenzi). How did language develop during evolution within the constraints of a noisy environment? How does music participate in the creation of the social link? These subjects warranted lengthy discussions. The neuro-physiological bases of musical emotion were nevertheless discussed, and the contribution of music to the development of young children’s capacities for attention were emphasized (“Variability in brain plasticity: how can musical training improve cognition?”, Helen Neville). Moreover, a new approach in linguistics was presented (“How to formalize the diversity of languages?”, Luigi Rizzi). Thus, the mistakes that young children make when learning a language can illuminate the steps of syntactic ontogenesis. Finally, in Darwin Year, the symposium was naturally concluded with some questions. With what sounds, perhaps what cacophony, was the living world buzzing when it was teeming with a proliferating biological diversity? Where can the line between dialogue and cacophony be drawn? On what dialogue can humans base their future?


  • Christine Petit (Collège de France)
    Hearing: the physiological bases of the auditory system

  • Jacques Bouveresse (Collège de France)
    Helmholtz and the physiological theory of music

  • Wolfgang Enard (Max-Planck-Institute of evolutionary Anthropology, Germany).
    Mice, chimpanzees and the molecular basis of language

  • Pierre-Yves Oudeyer (INRIA)
    Auto-organization in the evolution of speech

  • Luigi Rizzi (University of Sienna, Italy)
    How to formalize the diversity of languages?

  • Simha Arom (CNRS)
    Between speech and music: the drummed languages of Africa

  • Roger Chartier (Collège de France)
    Capturing speech live: notation of the music of speech

  • Michael Edwards (Collège de France)
    Poetry and music

  • Xavier Rodet (IRCAM)
    Synthesis of the spoken and sung voice

  • Concert by Donatienne Michel-Dansac

  • Martine Hausberger (University of Rennes)
    The learning of song by birds: the importance of social influences

  • Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz (CNRS, NeuroSpin Centre)
    How do children learn their mother tongue?

  • Helen Neville (University of Oregon, USA)
    Variability in brain plasticity: how can musical training improve cognition?

  • Isabelle Peretz (University of Montreal, Canada)
    The failure of dialogue between speech and music in song

  • Monica Zilbovicius (INSERM, CEA)
    The reasons for autism

  • Christian Lorenzi (ENS, CNRS, University Paris Descartes)
    On speech and noise: the organization of oral comprehension

  • Claude Hagège (Collège de France)
    Speech-song: the opera

  • Jean-Claude Risset (CNRS LMA)
    Music and speech, from acoustic to digital

  • Peter Szendy (University Paris X Nanterre)
    Speech, speech, speech

  • Emmanuel Bigand (CNRS, University of Burgundy
    Emotion in musical language

8The talks delivered at the symposium will be available on video at: (tab audio/video)

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The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 33-35. ISSN 1958-1408

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Stanislas Dehaene et Christine Petit, « At the Origins of Human Dialogue: Speech and Music », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL :

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