What in the world is this?

If you have recognized that this might be a word written in a foreign language, you have made a huge cognitive leap; recognizing that bizarre shapes can stand for letters that, in turn, stand for sounds that, when combined, can create the sound of a word that, when spoken, has a shared meaning with others.1 We forget just how strange, magical, and shocking written language is. Or how difficult to learn.

Literacy is not natural, does not come unbidden like spoken language; it is a cultural invention, not a biological imperative. It is a tool, not unlike the wheel, that aids mental rather than manual labor. Like all tools, it extends human action in ways that take us beyond our biological capacities. It becomes an extension of ourselves, deeply altering ourselves and our community.

Literacy is the key for entry into the hallways of our highly complex, highly technological culture. It requires many, many years of hard labor, sitting in a chair, stationary, in deep concentration for hours at a time—another unnatural imposition on a body that is biologically primed for movement, action, and activity, especially so during the critical years for gaining the foundations of literacy; from 4 to 10 years of age. We frequently overlook this topsy-turvy upending of biology, as school has replaced the natural world as the environment requiring adaptive responses; survival in today’s world means survival in an environment scribed in print.

The reach of literacy in our lives is so pervasive and profound that to be illiterate is to be bereft of significance; to be consigned to a life of ridicule, hardship, and a dead-end future. Publish or perish describes life in academia, where failure to have an authorial presence in the scholarly community is to cease to exist as a meaningful entity within that community. This phrase can be altered to Read or die, to encompass the significance of literacy in the broader culture.

Oral and Literate Cultures

One of the consequences of literacy, and the intense, prolonged training it requires, is that music and dance have been relegated to extracurricular, after school activities. The placement of these activities embodies the transformation from oral to literate cultures. The segment occupied by literacy in the long arc of human history is quite brief. The first written language appeared only 5500 years ago, and of the 3000 languages that have been identified, 78 have had writing.2

Unlike literate cultures, music and dance are the foundational axis of life in oral cultures—the predominate form of culture for most of human history. Lacking writing, these cultures use song and dance to remember, recount, recreate history, and preserve tradition; to celebrate important ceremonial events, evoke the presence of gods and spirits, conduct rites of passage, and enact rituals of religious significance. Music and dance are the repository of culture, which is inscribed, not in a book, but in the body.

The environment of literate culture overlooks the primal power of music and dance in human life, and can lead to the conclusion that these are “after school” activities; auxiliary endeavors with little importance or evolutionary significance. Indeed, this is the conclusion of some noted cognitive neuroscientists.3 But music and dance make their appearance, developmentally, long before school starts, providing essential scaffolding for the emergence of speech, language, and the attainment of literacy.

Songs From the Crib

Music and dance begin in the crib. Human neonates are the most helpless beings born into this world and, from the first moments of life, are beholden to others for the most basic needs; to be fed, clothed, moved, sheltered, protected, and soothed. These urgent needs, requiring immediate care and attention, are expressed in urgent ways that are clear and unambiguous; through vocalizations, bodily movements, and gestures.

Neonates are exquisitely perceptually attuned to the presence and response of others. They make remarkable discriminations in human speech sounds (e.g., distinguishing “p” from “b”), orient toward the human voice (especially female voices), and can identify the voice of their mothers. Neonates are primed to orient toward the human face, can discriminate and imitate facial features of another, and are capable of expressing recognizable emotions through vocalizations, most notably crying, and through facial and bodily gestures. These abilities are quickly elaborated as infants become capable of nuanced, complex, extended communications.

Attunement is mutual. It should not be surprising that adults of a species are especially sensitive and responsive to the signals and cries of their newborns. Adults, without training or experience, understand the meaning of infant cries, distinguishing hunger cries form cries of pain, and also discriminating cries of healthy infants from those at risk for various developmental difficulties.

Not only are adults attuned to infants expressions, they also sensitively adjust their communications in ways that maximize infants attention and involvement. Adults exaggerate and pace their vocalizations creating rhythmic, periodic, tonally heightened expressions. These exaggerated expressions, called motherese, are non-conscious engagements automatically used by adults and children across cultures. Similarly, exaggerated facial and body expressions serve to heighten the salience of communicated meaning.

The resulting communicative exchanges are ballets of sound, movement, gesture, and posture. Infants’ communications, such as a cry or smile, possess their own unique body/sound signature that are distinctive, obvious, and unmistakable. And powerful. They compel a response—a response that is distinctive, obvious, and unmistakable.4

Music and dance, grounded in our bodies from birth, possess the power to sway, to enchant, to entrance, to overwhelm.5 Oral cultures are the natural outgrowths of these biologically given forms of human communication. Although literate cultures relegate music and dance to “after school” status, we are, to the core, creatures of song and dance.

If you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it…6 7



  1. It is the Russian word for ‘dolphin’.
  2. What constitutes human history depends upon how “human” is defined. But no matter how one might choose to define it (6 million years or 40,000 years) literacy still occupies a brief, recent segment.
  3. Such as Steven Pinker; How the Mind Works.
  4. The failure to establish consistent, meaningful, and supportive “ballets” can lead to subsequent developmental difficulties.
  5. Recent research reveals the galvanizing effects of music on the brain and body and its evolutionary significance. See This is your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin.
  6. Unknown source.
  7. Igor Stravinsky has noted that “My music is best understood by children and animals.” This is because children still live “close to the ground” of song and dance; not fully initiated into the complexities and abstractions of language, and less habituated to the unspoken rhythms of regularity that govern established cultural expectations about music. Music speaks to non-human animals as well, as a primal grammar of sound and movement is shared across species; it is why cross-species communication is possible.