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.
Have you ever wondered about that yourself? I mean, we all know someone, if it hasn’t happened to us personally. How many of us have struggled with alcoholism, or even more commonly, just learned to live with it? A lot of our parents drank, and if not our parents, our grandparents, uncles, aunts, family friends etc. We learned more about alcoholism from watching our family than we did about sex, and most of what we learned about alcoholism mirrored what we learned about sex. That is: kids don’t understand the appeal of it, and shouldn’t do it, but adults seem unable to resist its temptations, and it frequently ruins their lives.
History tells us that, here in the US, the further back you go, the more we drank. In the 1850s, Americans consumed, on average, more than a pint of whiskey every day for every man, woman and child, in the US, including newborns. Did newborn babies drink whiskey in the 1850s? I don’t know, but everyone else sure did. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin famously said: “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Of course, alcoholism goes back much further than that. The Romans drank. The Greeks drank. Jesus turned water into wine. Only an alcoholic would see that as a miracle. I don’t know if Moses drank, but he hung with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh definitely drank beer. I don’t think Adam and Eve drank, but I’ll bet that Cain and Able both did.
Think about that. Alcoholism was already well established, common, and endemic to society, well before the earliest written language, and even before the oldest stories recorded in them. For all of that time, alcoholism has remained a fixture in society, and society has dealt with the consequences of alcoholism. Our society does not remember a time before alcoholism, or where alcoholism came from. We know when temperance movements began, and who founded them, but who was the first drunk? Nobody knows. Why don’t we have a story about how or why or when we started drinking so much?
Our society does not remember a time before alcoholism for the same reason that I don’t remember a time before mom. We don’t remember our origins. We have to put our origin story together from what we can glean second hand, and we may learn that the story our mother tells, may not be the whole story. For instance, here’s one of those persistent questions regarding the origin of our culture, that mom really doesn’t have a good explanation for: Why did some people stop living a hunting and gathering lifestyle, and instead, devoted their time and energy to burning the forests that provided them with wild game, so that they could farm, however inefficiently, barley and wheat.
I’ve read a few books on the topic, and they usually offer a few theories, with no definitive answer. They may suggest that people living in the Levant 10,000 years ago decided they needed more food to feed a growing population, but evidence shows that the population only grew after the adoption of an agricultural lifestyle. They may postulate that farming was a technological breakthrough that allowed more leisure time, even though the evidence shows that hunting and gathering cultures enjoy far more leisure time than do their farming counterparts. Some books even suggest that farming provided more nutrition than a hunting and gathering lifestyle, making early agriculturalists stronger than their neighbors. Again, the evidence points in another direction. Human skeletons show that early agriculturalists were on average six inches shorter than their hunting and gathering neighbors, and showed many signs of malnutrition completely absent in their hunting and gathering contemporaries.
So, we don’t know why some humans quit the hunting and gathering lifestyle and started farming, but we assume they had a good reason, because it led to the birth of civilization, and eventually, us. We assume this was a good thing, because it culminates in us, but we should consider the possibility that the switch from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to an agricultural one, may not have been such a great choice, and alcohol may have been involved.
Clearly alcoholism and agriculture began at about the same time, in roughly the same place, and their histories have been intimately intertwined ever since. Doesn’t it make sense that the two things could be related? You know, the major expansion in the production of barley and wheat, the primary ingredients of beer, might have had something to do with this persistent, pathological thirst for alcohol, that has caused so much suffering for so many people for so many generations that we eventually recognized it as a debilitating disease and called it alcoholism.
What else do you think they did with all of that grain? The invention of bread was still centuries away, and bread began as a kind of beer-making kit in loaf form. Do you think people would burn down a productive forest and toil in the hot sun scratching the bare earth with a rock tied to a stick for tabbouleh? Hell no! Now ask yourself, “Would men do that for beer?” You know they would, and all of the evidence supports the claim that they did. Civilization is our mother, but alcoholism is our father.
Let that sink in. In school they teach us that the “agricultural revolution” gave birth to civilization like it was a good thing. They never mention the booze, do they? How do you suppose they could have overlooked that? Damn near every shard of ancient pottery archaeologists unearth shows evidence that it once held beer. These people drank, and they drank habitually. They loved beer. They couldn’t get enough of it, and they sacrificed a lot to satisfy that craving.
We’ve all seen what alcoholism can do to a person, and we’ve seen how far people have to go before they hit rock bottom and admit that they have a problem. We’ve all seen how alcoholism destroys families and ruins lives. Now imagine an entire culture based entirely on the endless pathological thirst for alcohol. Surprise! You don’t have to imagine it. Just look around and appreciate it.
Look at the toll chronic alcoholism has taken on planet Earth. A third of the Earth’s land mass has been converted to agriculture, not to feed people, but to make booze. The people come along later. Drunk people make poor family planning choices, which leads to overpopulation. Overpopulation leads to a plethora of other problems, which encourages ingenuity. However, ingenuity only mitigates problems, and never solves them because no amount of ingenuity can undo the fundamental imbalance caused by the pathological craving for alcohol.
We sure are proud of our ingenuity though. Aren’t we? We think farming was an ingenious innovation over hunting and gathering, and we’ve just been amazingly ingenious ever since. We think that we are smarter, more advanced and have evolved to a higher form of intelligence, because we’ve shown such amazing problem solving skills. We’ve gotten good at solving problems because we’re even better at creating them.
If you ask most people why they think civilized human beings dominate the planet, they will tell you it is because of our high intelligence and advanced technology. They won’t say, “Because alcohol makes us feel good, and we don’t care about anything but feeling good and we will do anything to anybody who stands between us and feeling good.” but that’s where our ingenuity comes from.
Today, through sheer ingenuity and hard work, we’ve engineered an environmental crisis for the ages, and a society of unimaginable cruelty and inequality. Ingenuity and hard work are strategies we employ as a culture, to compensate for the negative effects of our cultural alcoholism. Basically, you can think of all of the time you spend at work, and the time you spend trying to come up with a new business idea, as part of the price you personally pay to participate in an alcoholic culture. I know this sounds weird, but you knew our society was sick, didn’t you? Doesn’t the diagnosis help? Alcoholism is a disease we understand. We can beat alcoholism. We can beat alcoholism, but first we have to admit that we have a problem.
I realize that I’ve covered this material here before, but it bears repeating, and is worth considering from a variety of perspectives. It’s a big idea, so I don’t mind slicing it a little finer.