A Love Of Music

Searching For Origins

Paul Szabady

27 March 2003

Of all the Arts, music has for me always been the most powerful, the most deeply affecting, and the most inexplicable. It doesn’t seem too difficult to imagine a naturalistic explanation for the development of story telling, drama, sculpture or painting in our ancient past, but the discovery of music seems somehow ineffable. Once human beings developed language, concentrating speech into compelling forms of narration, drama, and poetry seems a logical enough progression. But the discovery that a specific series of sounds can induce a deep emotional, physical, and spiritual response strikes me as uniquely mysterious. The fact that anthropologists have yet to find a single culture that does not possess music makes music as inherent and universal a human attribute as speech, walking upright, and the capacity for abstract symbolic thought. We are human because we make music.

It is common enough to use language metaphors when thinking about music and to understand music as a language of tone and rhythm, but if we are to believe contemporary brain research, the parts of the brain activated during speech are not the same as those activated by music. It is entirely possible then that the capacity to create and respond to music was independent of language development in our ancient history. The notion that our capacity for music might even have been a precondition for the development of speech is somehow deeply satisfying.

Reaction to sound, based on an interpretation of the sound’s meaning, is common to both music and language. As such, the reaction is not unique to humans. The animal world certainly treats certain sounds as meaning something; animals produce specific sounds to communicate with each other and as our own pets show, can even develop the ability to at least partially understand our human language. Furthermore, the animal world creates its own music: bird song and the songs of the humpback whale being two of the most obvious. More intriguing is the fact that nature responds to human music; life forms as diverse as plants and elephants show this response. It is a significant indicator of preferred meaning in our culture that “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” has been malaprop-ed into “Music tames the savage beast” in common usage and understanding.

The boundary between sound and language, as the one between sound and music, becomes very porous when viewed closely. At heart, defining when sounds become music is a cultural determination and thus relative, arbitrary and fluid. We in the West have made a very sharp distinction between sound and music, holding that intent and plan are essential to call a series of sounds music. Yet I recall distinctly a profound experience after listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen: for about twenty minutes after the record ended, all the sounds of my environment became music. Each sound became part of a larger music meaning and structure. It was hard not to think that I had returned to some primeval, inherent and original experience of sound; that physical reality was somehow musical in its fundamental nature. This is a very old idea in Western culture; the Pythagorean/Ptolemaic cosmology held that the very motion of the cosmos produced music - The Music of the Spheres. And it seems to me that contemporary String Theory in Physics is proceeding on music metaphor and principle.

It is increasingly difficult for contemporary humans, surrounded as we are by the constant din of our technological civilization, to imagine what the sonic landscape was like for early humans. Above all else it was quiet, so quiet that we have today to struggle, at times futilely, to find equivalent experiences. If we consider that the loudest sounds heard on a daily basis by our remote ancestors were likely to be the wind, the call of birds, the sound of the campfire, and the voices of other humans, the contrast of any sound to the overall silence was more vivid and powerful. It has often been stated that early humans could hear the grass grow. Ask any Iowa corn farmer standing in his fields in the mid-July heat if this is exaggeration.

The human species has been a gatherer, scavenger, and hunter for most of its time on Earth and one can argue that humans completed their biological evolution in adaptation to that kind of life experience. Conceived in Africa and honed in the Ice Ages that paralleled the human migration across the Earth, humans are best at walking, talking and thinking. And probably in that order.

The archaeological record is somewhat scanty in the discovery of very ancient human musical instruments, largely because their construction materials are not likely to withstand the test of time. It’s more than probable that the first human musical instrument was the voice, along with a variety of percussion rhythm instruments, starting perhaps with the elemental simplicity of two objects struck together, likely parts of the human body. Early percussion instruments and early wind instruments were constructed of organic materials – wood, bone, animal hides and reeds - and thus readily subject to decay; the nomadic nature of life precluded the acquisition of large amounts of material goods, especially heavy ones. The Australian Aborigine’s didgeridoo is often touted as one of the oldest surviving human musical instruments. Though we have no concrete knowledge of what the music was like, the didgeridoo’s sound and potential at least gives insight into what ancient music might have sounded like. We don’t know when the first bowed or plucked string instrument was created, whether the strings were formed of animal sinew or from vines, or whether they were the inspiration for the bow and arrow and various spear-chuckers, or vice versa.

While we might also never know if early human speech was more musical than, say, contemporary Midwestern-American English, more varied in rhythm and pitch, more ‘poetic’ if you like, the transition from simple declarative speech to a speech partaking of rudimentary musical qualities is clearly observable today. Calling Johnny from the next room is a simple “Johnny” with perhaps a slight raising of the voice. But when Johnny is further away, playing down the street or in the yard, the call becomes a louder, verging-on-song “JOHN-nee!! Come HO-OME!” to which the reply is an equally proto-musical “COM-ing!” This call and response is not far from the similar musical structure and permeates music even today, from the Blues to the String Quartet.

Calling from greater distances quickly exceeds the carrying power of the human voice and the development of low-pitched ancient instruments like the Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo, bullroarers, proto-Alpine horns, and, of course, the drum, likely had longer distance calling ability in addition to their use in making music. It is a commonly held contemporary notion that the human voice is the most perfect instrument, yet the development of the various melodic instruments, either strung or blown, strike me as expansions of the limited capabilities of the voice into new forms of expression.

Contemporary trans-cultural studies show that baby talk, the cooing and singsong patterns that mothers use with their babies, is remarkably similar in musical pattern throughout the world. Thus our experience of rudimentary song is allied with our earliest experience of language. Significantly, the increased female hearing sensitivity in the upper midrange and high frequencies compared to males is precisely in the range where babies do their most potent crying, screaming and squawking. That one sex of our species was acutely sensitive to the sounds of distress from infants and young children had enormous positive results in survival of the young, but it also accounts partly for the contemporary lack of female audiophiles. Male-created and tuned systems strike most women as too bright, too harsh, and too loud.

That babies can be put to sleep by lullabies and by rhythmic rocking seems so common and mundane that we overlook the fact that it is a response to music. Moreover, babies often squawk and cry for no reason, they seem to occasionally ‘lose the beat’ and either rocking or bodily swaying to a repetitive rhythm seems to somehow re-connect them to some basic natural rhythm. They get back into the groove and become content. My own daughter responded particularly well to Bob Marley and Joe Cocker as a baby.

The usual explanation is that babies develop in the womb accompanied by the constant transmission of the mother’s heartbeat. Separation from that soothing rhythm after birth can be disorienting and frightening to the infant. Applying a regular rhythm thus re-connects the newborn to that source of comfort until the infant develops the ability to walk to its own drum. Interestingly most of our popular music is based on the same simple rhythms.

Contemporary Plains Indians are explicit about the rhythm of the drums in their ceremonies and dances. Symbolically, the drum rhythms reunite them to the heartbeat of The Great Mother Earth and thus into a harmony with the natural world. The power of a repetitive rhythm to alter consciousness and to induce trance has a long history among humans. Perhaps the oldest religious form of which we have contemporary survival is that of Shamanism, which the great historian of religion Mircea Eliade defined as a technique of ecstasy. The Shaman, through a combination of temperamental proclivity, augmented perhaps with the use of psychotropic drugs, uses the rhythmic pulse of the shamanic drum and rattle to induce an ecstatic state of consciousness where the shaman can journey to the spirit world. As tribal healer (thus the ‘Medicine Man’), he grapples for the spirits of ill patients to restore their health, and as the primary religious functionary for these types of societies, enters into direct communication with a higher reality and power that underlies the world.

Nor need rhythm be solely for contemplative and calming effect; the rhythms of walking, the primary physical action of these gathering and hunting cultures, offers another rhythmic pulse and variations upon it, as does running, not to mention all the rhythmic aspects possible to the human body, including those of sexual intercourse. All these rhythmic activities have been codified into the various forms of the dance, an equally universal human phenomenon.

Anthropologists and Sociologists have consistently noted the social effects and functions of music, ranging from the transferring of deep and significant cultural knowledge, forms, and norms, to the less permanent social effect of integrating and solidifying individuals into a group. Humans have used music to aid in coordinating group work for ages, particularly if the work is repetitive and demands synchronized physical activity. Performance of music in traditional societies seems to be universally communal, festive, ritualistic and religious. It is still that way today. The 60’s Counterculture was created and informed by music. But the communal emphasis on music and its social functions emphasized by these disciplines fails to touch on the individual response to music and its individual creation and somehow trivializes its ultimate power. Music can break one’s heart and heal it; it can raise the fire of rage and excitement and also quench and calm it it; it takes us to the heart of physicality and simultaneously launches us to the highest realms of the spirit. I find it nothing short of magical.

These thoughts and speculations do not, however, get to the heart of music. Something about music transcends our ability to talk and write about it. Indeed, if we could express in words what music expresses in sounds, we would have no need of it. If I were forever denied access to painting, poetry, literature and all the other arts, life would be severely impoverished but tolerable. The loss of music I would consider unbearable. It would be to lose life itself.