Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Origin of Music

Have you ever wondered where music comes from? I don’t mean this in the “iTunes is killing local record stores” sense, or even in the more philosophical “what factors underscore the creative output of a musician?” sense; I mean, have you ever really wondered why humans first began to manipulate their acoustical environment? If you are a composer, musician or musicologist of any stripe, I am willing to bet that you have. Luckily for you, the following is an ultra-concise, pocket-edition summation of some of the more interesting theories on the origins of music as formulated by the leading minds of the musicological, philosophical and otherwise-academic worlds. I will, however, offer the caveat that some of these theories are a bit nutty and most are not—and never were—accepted by mainstream academia. It is also important to remember that, short of a flux capacitor and a modified DeLorean, there is no way to prove—or disprove—any of this. Nonetheless, they are fun to consider, even if only briefly.

At this point, I am also realizing that it is probably beneficial to provide a definition of “music” that can be used as even footing for all who are about to consider the following. In doing so, I acknowledge that trying to define music is just as problematic as trying to determine the origins of music. However, if we can all approach this from the same vantage point (even if the view is only shared within the context of this post), then we can hope to avoid some of the more troublesome pitfalls that often plague discussions similar to this one. That said, for our present purposes, let’s look at “music” as: humanly produced and/or organized sound that is presented within some sort of frame. For those of you keeping score, this means the hum of the florescent lights above your head and the murmuring of the folks around you do not qualify as music. Cage’s infamous 4’33” does, however, meet the necessary qualifications. In a similar fashion, the chirping of birds is not music, though all prerequisites are satisfied when found in the context of a composition by R. Murray Schafer or when rendered by Messiaen.

Now let’s move on to the theories which are supplemented by occasional color commentary.

-Charles Darwin suggested that music evolved out of the mimicry of animal mating calls (I bet he would have loved Teddy Pendergrass).

-Herbert Spencer felt that music came out of heightened or emotional speech (Emo fans, pay attention).

-Carl Stumpf says the idea of fixed pitch or tonal language developed as a means to communicate over a long distance (This one goes to 11).

-Curt Sachs builds off of the ideas of Stumpf in suggesting that there were two paths to music: 1) logogenic (out of speech) and 2) pathogenic (out of emotion).

-Bruno Nettl, working of off Stumpf and Sachs, believes language and music developed simultaneously. Thus, one would be the logical and equal partner to the other. As such, this theory, like many earlier theories, also suggests that speech and song were more closely related at some point in our collective past than they are now. (Can you picture Neanderthals communicating in Sprechtstimme?)

-S.F. Nadel suggested that music arose out of myth. All cultures have myths on the origins of music, and thus Nadel figured that music is intrinsically connected to ritual and religion (Much of Christian rock has done little to improve this relationship).

-RenĂ© Girard, like Nadel, taught that music arose out of ritual, but more specifically out of the first ritualistic murder. According to Girard, this ur-murder was a direct result of the scapegoat mechanism. In a nutshell, Girard is saying that people, in mimesis of one another, desired what they did not possess, and in the process of searching for someone to blame for their shortcomings, isolated one person as the cause. This newly identified “problem” was then, let’s say “solved,” thus giving rise to celebration.

Personally, I find Girard’s origin theory to be the most plausible as well as the most interesting. Thoughts?