Michael Spitzer

Where does music come from?

Where does music come from?
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When did music start? It’s an idle question, and in 1866 the Société de linguistique de Paris got so fed up with empty speculations about the origin of language and music that they banned the subject. There are a series of exhibits, though, which can help us answer the question. The first is the ‘Seikolos song’, the world’s oldest surviving piece of music, discovered inscribed on a second-century grave stele in present-day Turkey. The second is ‘Hurrian Hymn No. 6’, written on clay tablets, excavated from the Royal Palace of Ugarit, and dated 1400 BC. It is our oldest notated scrap of music, although oceans of ink have been spilt trying to decipher it (performing versions are as far apart as, say, Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ is from Beethoven’s Fifth).

Then there are the Vedic hymns of the Rigveda, around 1700 BC, although some would argue that vocal recitation, wobbling around three notes, isn’t really music. Another obvious point of origin is the earliest bone flutes discovered in the Swabian caves in South Germany, dated 40,000 years BC, when sapiens are thought to have evolved symbolic language and conceptual reason. Low-hanging fruit, that one, but flutes were carved in Europe because there were no suitable birds in Africa at that time. Indeed, with the single exception of eagles in Libya, there was a dearth of hollow-boned birds in prehistoric Africa.

But these examples merely answer the question of how old human music is. For when it comes the natural world, we have the birds in the trees, the whales in the sea, or the pulse-based chorusing of crickets. Bush crickets chirp in regular rhythms, and scientists reconstructed the exact pitch produced by the wings of a fossilized katydid from the Jurassic period. So rhythm evolved 165 million years ago.

Next came the melody of birdsong, 66 million years ago. The oldest known fossil of a syrinx (the bird’s vocal organ) was discovered in Antarctica in the remains of a Cretaceous duck-shaped bird. Unlike insects, birds have no sense of rhythm, with the exception of a sulphur-crested cockatoo called Snowball, who dances to the Backstreet Boys. Apes have neither rhythm nor melody, and are profoundly unmusical, which is remarkable, given that we evolved along the ape-line. But what apes do have is a rich vocabulary of gesture, bespeaking a theory of mind. So sapiens, the ‘musical human’, was the great synthesizer, bringing together the rhythm of insects, the melody of birds, and the gestural communication of apes.

That human music evolved from non-musical apes is a cosmic joke. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, made the blunt assertion that mammals in general don’t sing. Basically, human music has always been faking it.

A kinder view is that the artifice of our music explains why it is so haunted by loss, by nostalgia. Because humans are primarily a visual species, like apes, music has always been and always will be a marginal Cinderella of the arts. This is why our music is stamped so deeply with an abstract air of imagination, spirituality and inwardness. There is a reason why music is a window to the soul.

Written byMichael Spitzer

Michael Spitzer is Professor of Music at the University of Liverpool and the author of The Musical Human (Bloomsbury)

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