Scientists speculate that music preceded language in our early human ancestors, and that singing together in groups may have spawned the development of the earliest human language. I say “speculate” because very little of those ancient human cultures has survived the ravages of time, so we paint the portraits of these ancestors from the pile of stone tools we’ve recovered, some skeletons, and a few carvings, sculptures and cave paintings. Among those very early artifacts, however, archeologists in Europe have unearthed several bone flutes that they estimate to be about 40,000 years old, give or take a millennium or two.
Here we see the earliest incontrovertible evidence of music in humans, and it predates the earliest evidence of language by many thousands of years. We will probably never know whether these flutes were played as solo instruments, or what other instruments may have accompanied them, because instruments made of wood, skin or plant material would not have survived the eons, but we can tell what key they played in, and what their scale sounded like. Today, we can, pretty accurately, recreate the sounds of those early instruments because we understand the physics of sound and have made careful replicas of these early instruments.
In those days, however, people made music with whatever sounds they could make, and they must have thought about music differently that we do today. Anthropologists have not found any indigenous cultures which do not incorporate music. However, they have found that the music of indigenous people around the world varies widely, and that different cultures use music in very different ways and for different purposes. For tens of thousands of years, thousands of distinctly different ancestral cultures each developed their own musical tradition, along with their own instruments and scales, for their own purposes.
For indigenous people, and for our ancient ancestors, music was simply the audible portion of their culture. The song and the dance were not different things. Music entwined itself into these cultures in many different ways. Many cultures, including ours, use music for war. Nobody makes war quite like we do, but lots of cultures make music for it. Many cultures use music for healing and for medicine. Many cultures use music for ribald celebrations, but also for sacred rituals and magic.
In Australia, some cultures use music to connect their cultural history to the geography of the land in a way that allows them to navigate long distances, by song. We have plenty of evidence that indigenous people incorporate music into their culture in ways that civilized people simply do not understand. I think that this is an important point to make here. As I describe what happens to music as it becomes more “civilized,” please understand that I do not believe that modern civilization constitutes an “advance” in human culture in any way, over any other way of life.
While music probably had a lot to do with the development of language in humans, I see no evidence that music gave us the idea to start farming. Adopting the farming lifestyle, was undoubtedly the stupidest decision in the history of civilization, and I believe that it was something our ancestors did when they were drunk. That’s not to say that they didn’t sing, and make music about that too, but in the cultural transformation that lead to modern civilization, we lost a lot of the world’s musical diversity, as well as cultural diversity, not to mention biological diversity.
As early farmers burned the forests and exhausted the soil beneath them to grow grain crops to make beer, they displaced, and assimilated what was left of those indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures. Farmers destroyed the habitat that hunter-gatherer tribes needed to survive. When those indigenous tribes could no longer find enough game to hunt, they either starved to death, or went to work for the farmers and started drinking beer. That is the story of civilization. Ancient language scholars tell us that civilized farming people in the Nile River Valley, developed the first written language, primarily to keep track of people’s bar tabs, establishing a tradition for civilized people that continues to this day. No longer do we hunt and gather. Civilized people build pyramids and drink beer.
Civilization became a melting pot where all of these, once functional, self-sustaining cultural entities, became assimilated by this new way of life. Through this assimilation, functional cultures get reduced to ethnicities. Through assimilation, a way of seeing the world, and all of the subtle knowledge about how to live in it, gets reduced to a recognizable costume, some quaint customs and a few catchy tunes or favorite recipes. This happened to thousands of distinct and unique human cultures as civilization continued to expand around the world.
Fast forward to about 2,500 years ago, in Greece, where Pythagoras has just discovered the Golden Mean by mapping the harmonic overtone series on his monochord. Ancient Athens must have been a pretty quiet place back then because a monochord, a simple, one-string, musical instrument/physics experiment, is not very loud.
Pythagoras would have had to listen very closely to hear the upper harmonics he mapped out on that string. By now, too many of us live in environments so loud that we probably would have never heard those upper overtones, had not Jimi Hendrix introduced us to them at earsplitting sound levels with his electric guitar.
But Pythagoras listened closely to his very quiet instrument, and by mapping the harmonic overtone series, he unlocked the key to understanding all of the different scales he heard in the folk songs sung by his slaves, or by the nomadic people who sometimes came through town, or of the songs he learned to sing as a child. These idiosyncratic musical idioms being all that was left many, once thriving hunter-gatherer cultures, that got subsumed by this new way of doing things.
The Greeks figured out that if they added five half-steps into their seven-note harmonically derived scale, they could recreate all of the folk scales they heard around them. In so doing, the Greeks gave us modes and keys and music theory and harmony, but the problem was, music theory was still mostly theoretical. You could dream of an instrument that would allow you to play music in any key, but in reality, you didn’t have many options, except singing.
You can play a string instrument in any key, and you can tune a string to any pitch, but string instruments of the day were not very loud. A flute can make a louder noise than a string, but no flautist has enough fingers to cover twelve holes, as is necessary to play in this new, “chromatic,” 12 tone scale, so Greek discoveries about music theory mostly presented technological challenges to future instrument makers and musicians.
I’m sure singers took it all in stride, and percussionists just ignored it, but besides changing the way we thought about music, the Greeks also gave us another way of looking at the world, and at music. Before Pythagoras and the Greeks, people happily played the traditional music of their ancestor’s culture with traditional instruments, because that culture nourished them and kept them alive. After Pythagoras, however, the Greeks saw music in an entirely new way. People still played and sang old folk songs, but they began to think about music as something new and hi-tech, with serious potential for development. Music’s appeal had transcended it’s tribal cultural roots, captured the imagination of civilized people, and began to shape our vision of the future.
The Greeks ushered in the age of classical thinking, which eventually brought us the age of classical music. Since then, music has continued on two tracks. On one hand, we have folk music, what’s left of our traditional indigenous music, as interpreted and expressed by their assimilated descendants, and passed on, generation to generation. On the other hand, the Greeks adopted this new approach to music, and taught it, along with geometry and philosophy as part of a classical education.
The Greeks taught music as a strict discipline, not unlike geometry or logic, but with an added emotional dimension, and they understood that learning to sing and/or play a musical instrument was prerequisite to understanding the important knowledge to be uncovered through the study of music. Thus, the classical approach to music education was born. Soon, little kids started carrying violins to school and quickly learned to hate practicing.
Over the following centuries luthiers rose to the challenge of developing louder string instruments that project a clear tone, and wind instrument makers developed mechanical contraptions to enable wind instruments to play the chromatic scale. Flutes and reed instruments sprouted a system of finely crafted keys that allowed players to cover several tone holes with one finger.
Most brass instruments added a few valves that lengthened the air column when depressed.
One notable exception, the trombone, evolved a continuous fast-action slide, allowing it to change pitch fluidly, despite inhabiting an increasingly fixed-pitch musical world.
The physics of sound are unforgiving, and the demands of music, uncompromising. Together, they motivated instrument makers to create some of the first precision crafted machines the world has ever seen. At the same time, musical scholars developed a way of writing music that all classically trained musicians learned to read, called “Standard Notation.”
With these new precision instruments, Standard Notation, and a pool of classically trained musicians, creative composers could show off, not only their own creativity, but also the discipline of the musicians as well as the precision craftsmanship of the instruments, with a brand new form of musical expression that must have blown people’s minds.
Classical music demonstrated the potential of this rigidly structured, strictly disciplined and precision crafted approach to making music, first in chamber music, then in larger ensembles, and eventually in huge symphony orchestras with more than 100 musicians. Classical music so wowed audiences with the seemingly magical potential of this classical approach to music, that it inspired the development of a whole wave of precision machines for every possible application, as well as the disciplined workforce that worked a highly structured schedule to create them. In this way, classical music inspired the Industrial Revolution, leading to the next major transformation in civilized society, away from the farm, and towards an urban manufacturing and service oriented economy.
As civilized humans, inspired by classical music, continued to produce ever more precise machines for more and more purposes, they eventually developed a machine that could faithfully reproduce, mechanically, a live musical performance. Suddenly, an event in time could instantly be transformed into an object in space. Eventually, we had machines that could reproduce music faithfully, and allow it to be edited after the fact, and we developed the means to amplify even the smallest sound to room-filling volume.
Having met the technological challenges that classical music demanded of early instrument makers, and having fulfilled the promise of classical music, by impressing audiences everywhere with tight harmonies, clear intonation and rhythmic precision, classical music then inspired a whole culture to go absolutely apeshit in developing new precision machinery for every imaginable purpose, including, eventually, the tape recorder, microphone, amplifier and speaker, which would eventually push classical music itself to the sidelines of cultural relevance.
That’s enough for this week. Next week, I’ll explain why classical music no longer inspires us as much as it once did, and why fewer of us know how to read music anymore. I’ll also talk about how technology has changed the way we experience music and perceive the world, and finally, I’ll talk about how music continues to shape our future, and why it continues to inspire me.