There are very few "universals" across cultures, but wherever people are—no matter how urban or rural, what kind of climate or housing or way of life—there will always be language and there will always be music!

Since cultures everywhere have both language and music, it could be that these systems are built right into our DNA—that we're designed to be musical, just as we're designed to be linguistic!

Language and music are built into our brains

There are some amazing facts about music that suggest our brains really are programmed to understand (and enjoy!) music. I don't mean being good at a particular instrument, or liking a specific genre—instead, I mean we have built-in intuitions about music and how music works… just like how we have instincts about language!

When it comes to language, babies just figure it out: They play, interact, listen, babble, and repeat until they become chatty preschoolers with a lot of opinions. But no one teaches them—grown-ups don't need to move their little lips into the right shape or deliberately practice complex movements of their vocal folds.

It turns out that musicality works the same way! You can walk into a room of people, play a song they've never heard before… and they'll be able to clap along. They're also able to double the beat, speed up if the music gets faster, and slow back down if the music slows—all without being directly taught. 

That doesn't mean we're born knowing how to play the piano, just as we're not born knowing English. But our brain is prepared to learn and engage with music in a way that's similar to how we implicitly learn languages.

Music may have been the foundation for making language sounds

The fact that we have this musicality ingrained in us suggests that it must have given us an evolutionary advantage at some point. But what would be the advantage to being musical?

Music could have been an advantage to proto-humans looking for a mate—with vocal skills contributing to the overall "fitness" of a potential partner. That could explain why we can control our voices in nuanced ways, like to make the tiny difference between a "z" and a "d" or raise our voice to make a question, but our closest primate relatives can't produce those kinds of differences, despite people trying (very hard!) to teach them to do so. There are other species that have complex vocal control, similar to us, like birds, dolphins, and whales, so song-like communication could have been an advantage in any species!

But music could have served another purpose, too: It might have been the predecessor of language. This hypothesis goes back at least to Darwin, who called it the "musical protolanguage hypothesis." Basically, our ability to control our voices in complex ways allowed us not just to create music with them, but to send very particular messages—like a very early version of words. While we still don't know for sure, it seems that once we—and our brains—had linked vocal patterns with meanings, we had the scaffolding upon which to build full languages.

Language really is music to our ears!

Music and language are powerful tools that allow us to connect with each other and share our thoughts and emotions about the world around us.