When Music Began

BLOG Where Music Began

ancient harpThere is no known human culture on the planet, current or past, that has not had music as a staple element of its culture. Like art, it clearly predates the development of human language by at least three times. But very little has been written, or even theorized, about when, where, how and why human-made music began.

The use of the modern diatonic scale, which consists of 12 notes (each with a frequency of 2^(1/12) as great as the one below it), and which emphasizes 7 of these notes that produce the most natural harmonics (their frequency ratios relative to the starting note being very nearly 1:1, 9:8, 5:4, 4:3, 3:2, 5:3 and 15:8), is evident in hieroglyphic transcriptions dating back 4,000 years of harmonic music, and in excavated flute-like instruments dating back 45,000 years. Other scales that break the octave into 19, 24 (Arabic scale) and 31 have also been used in different times and places, with the objective being to allow music to be played or sung in different key signatures without having to use different instruments (some instruments such as those with unfretted strings can play any note or interval and are not subject to this limitation). Instruments that use such flexible scales are called ‘well-tempered’. Written notation of the melodies appears to have been independently and variously invented and forgotten in many times and places in different cultures.

Chinese legend has it that music was invented by a maker of pan pipes that mimicked bird songs. Early chinese stringed instruments had scale markings over a 7-octave range at 1:1, 4:3, 8:5, 2:1, 8:3, 16:5, 4:1, 24:5, 16:3, 6:1, 32:5, 20:3 and 7:1, and its seven strings were tuned to pentatonic scale intervals: 1:1, 9:8, 4:3, 3:2, 5:3, 2:1, 9:4. Other Asian stringed instruments are often tuned a fifth apart (1:1, 3:2). Although different human cultures prefer certain intervals and scales, all human cultures seem to prefer intervals that resonate naturally (‘consonant’ sounds) — the overtones naturally produced by the lower notes (‘pure’ tones do not occur in nature) ‘match’ the higher notes and their overtones. Dissonant sounds (whose overtones and sound waves interfere with rather than reinforcing each other) provide tension (like the crises in a drama) and we naturally look for them to be ‘resolved’ through a subsequent consonant sound.

There is little doubt that musical rhythms are at least as ancient as melody and harmony, although some European music (e.g. plainsong) had no time signature and no harmony (except perhaps that which resonated naturally from the cathedral in which it was sung!), and the tablature notation of some Asian music (e.g. that played on the ancient 7-string qin instrument) seems to have only occasionally included timing notations. By contrast, some African rhythms and musical constructions are staggeringly complex, and appear to have evolved over centuries and even millennia, an intricate language all their own.

There are depictions of dance in ancient African paintings dating back 8,000 years, and depictions of instruments that date back almost that far. It’s quite possible that Australian aboriginal music predates that of all other continents, but, like everything else about these peoples, little has been studied, much has been lost, and most of what is known is very recent.

All four major classes of non-electronic musical instruments date from prehistoric times: the self-vibrating percussion instruments (e.g. xylophone, rattle), membrane-vibrating instruments (e.g. drums, kazoos), string-vibrating instruments (e.g. piano, violin, guitar), and air-vibrating instruments (e.g. flute, trumpet, accordion, pipe organ). The human voice is a kind of string-vibrating instrument as well.

Perhaps because of the fragility of most instruments, the lack of pictures of their early use, and the lack of any initial written notation, it’s anyone’s guess what the earliest forms of musical expression were. What seems clear is that singing, playing musical instruments, and dance are inseparable forms of expression and integral parts of culture; that music is astonishingly viral, crossing the planet and infiltrating and integrating far more effectively than language or other elements of culture (and its power and transmissability is hence readily exploitable by propagandists); and that, like art and written and spoken language it is a form of self-expression and collective expression. In some sense, as expression of oral culture, it is indistinguishable from language. Indeed, a recently-discovered Amazon tribe has a language whose structures are fundamentally musical, not linguistic.

Music affects us more profoundly and extensively than language, because it is experienced bodily and emotionally and immediately — it does not need ‘translation’ by the brain to give it meaning. I wrote five years ago that I found the lack of appreciation by other animals for human music disturbing, because I don’t believe we are nearly as intellectually superior to other creatures as we might think. At that time I asserted a belief that our discovery of melody came from birds, and our discovery of the pleasing nature of harmony came from trial and error, ‘accidentally’. I also said I believed that the prohibition of certain forms of music by some cultures was driven by fear of its somatic and visceral power, since music affects us much like a drug — in uncontrollable ways.

I have a profound and instinctive love of nature and wilderness, an unshakable belief that it cannot be ‘improved’ by a single disconnected species (humans) acting upon it in its selfish self-interest. Yet when I am in natural places I love to hear human music playing, mingled with (but not overpowering) the sounds of wind and water and wild creatures, just as I love to see subtle human lights illuminating the natural darkness. What is it about music and light that add so much more to our experiences of the moment than any other human artifacts?

One research study claims:

…our emotional responses to music are controlled by the amygdala (which has close connections with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain which instigates emotional behaviour and ensures that we can react quickly when our life is at risk). The amygdala evaluates sensory input for its emotional meaning, receiving sensory information directly and quickly from the thalamus, a relay station for incoming information, before it has been processed by the conscious thinking part of the brain, the cortexmusic seems to encourage the release of endorphins [natural hormones that suppress feelings of pain and produce feelings of elation, social attachment, relaxation and well-being]

So music is more than a form of personal and cultural expression, it is a stimulant for endorphin production (certain wavelengths of light apparently produce the same effect). And a recent clinical study suggests humans’ production of, and receptors for, endorphins are much more pronounced than those of other mammals, which might account for why we love and respond to music more than other creatures — it’s subconscious programming, not intellectual processing capacity at all. And guess which creatures do appear to share our high endorphin production and response mechanisms? None other than nature’s musical masters, the birds. Corvids, according to the work of renowned ornithologist Bernd Heinrich, have been known to sing to themselves as a means of self-comfort!

If that’s the case, it just might be that we discovered music initially as a form of well-being enhancement, like chilis and chocolate, back when we were gatherer-hunters in the forest, before language, before civilization. We sang, and drummed, and danced, and played with reeds, because it made us feel better. It was, perhaps, only millennia later, as this positive stimulus-response mechanism was increasingly selected for, that we also discovered it was a mechanism for personal and cultural expression.

That’s my theory, anyway, for when, where, how and why music began.

Category: Being Human

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3 Responses to When Music Began

  1. vera says:

    Nice. :-) Looks like the neanderthals had bone flutes some 60 thousands of years ago!

  2. Dave says:

    Don’t forget about whales.

  3. Miranda Weingartner says:

    “Early chinese stringed instruments had scale markings over a 7-octave range at 1:1, 4:3, 8:5, 2:1, 8:3, 16:5, 4:1, 24:5, 16:3, 6:1, 32:5, 20:3 and 7:1, and its seven strings were tuned to pentatonic scale intervals: 1:1, 9:8, 4:3, 3:2, 5:3, 2:1, 9:4.” Is this html for Mandarin? ;) Does anyone (other than Dave) actually know what that means??Dave, I LOVE how you put music and chocolate in the same sentence! Kiss on the cheek for that.Oh, and whales, whales… there was a dude who played cello with a whale for hours on end…Speaking of musical beasts: my dad played blues harp with my shepherd-wolf. Beau would sit by his knees for HOURS to sing with him. Not just howl, but sing! Match the mood and pitch of his playing. An incredible cross-species communion.

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