We probably all agree that music can impact the way we feel and sometimes seem to provide the perfect soundtracks for certain times in our lives or even to become an anthem for whole generations. But why? What is it about music that speaks to people on a universal level? Is our interpretation cultural or is there a deeper meaning that humans are able to interpret?
Lights & the first sound.
The light came first, a finite source of power travelling out into an unknowable and infinite void of non existence, pushing out and making space, quite literally, for matter and sound.
The universe started with one sound and all sound for it contained all of matter vibrating and rapidly expanding. It’s impossible to know if that sound was a single note or a chord. If there is a cyclical universe, this was perhaps all matter ever to exist, achieving harmony for a brief moment as one sound. A true chant of ‘OM’ would be heard by no-one and everyone, condensing into a singular note before exploding, expanding and again building up complexity. Each section of a giant cosmic orchestra lighting up again for another rendition of the only track they ever play; a track that will last for billions of years and who’s players will believe it to be the first time they’ve played it, despite its obvious familiarity.
The reason that music is so impactful on us, is perhaps because we are part of the same orchestra. It’s familiarity to our senses a subconscious remainder that we’ve heard this one before.
All things vibrate at a natural frequency, even static, solid objects and air, this creates energy waves, capable of traveling through space time at a variable speed. When these reach our ears, our brain applies meaning to them and creates the concept of ‘sound’. Living organisms might not be able to hear all sounds (if we did our brains wouldn’t be able to function from all the noise!), but they do create their own, both naturally and intentionally. The real curiosity is those intentional sounds formulated into melodies and how conscious we might become of their power and meaning. When we intentionally create music; did we ever create it or do we only repeat an energy that already exists? Is our grasp of what is beautiful music, merely that which reflects or is in tune with music in nature?
For this to sound anything other than a Rogan level mushroom trip, I’m going to have to give you some background. I’ll cover some basic physics and slide you back and forth in time a little bit from the dawn of human music making, to ancient Greece and to the near future. As always it will be an imaginative ride, so buckle up for part 1!
Finding our voice
The human voice took its modern form and had the capacity to sing at least 550,000 years ago. We also had already the area of the brain for understanding rhythm & interpreting complex sounds. Whether early humans used their voice to sing is another question entirely and one we will likely never be able to evidence in either direction. That said, I think it’s likely we have been ‘singing’ at least in some form for a good while.
Most zoologists classify ‘singing' as a sequence of tones that may be repeated over time to form something close to (or actually forming) a melody. Frogs, insects and even one species of mouse meet this criteria, but there is a higher level: that of composition. For composition to be classified, the song must be learnt (not innate) and the species be capable of creating variations on this, examples include whales, of course birds and most interestingly for us: fellow primates.
If gibbons can duet, so can we.. Dad jokes aside, the question is: did we have the reason to do so & when would this come about?
Proto-music may have included ecstatic noise during high moods; attempting to sooth infants; to maximise attention to important story telling; mourning or conflict chanting. A number of palaeontologists believe that boundary disputes or territorial markings in particular are a likely candidate for hominids in the middle Pleistocene and that by 130,000 years b.p Neanderthals could have been singing to mark territories in a similar way we’d expect from canines & lions, who occupied the same place in the food chain.
Hominids, especially our own species, have a high volume of mirror neurones enabling them to rapidly understand the intent of actions and copy them. This applies to signals, language and any communicative sounds, so it’s likely that if ‘singing’ was started as a means of communication or conveying meaning it would have been rapidly dissected, stored and replicated. If ‘singing’ received any kind of positive social response, it would have even more rapidly spread within groups.
We are a species with a high degree of social complexity & have been creatively expressive for at least 45,000 years which we can evidence through the discovery of visual arts in the archeological record as well as ceremonial dress findings. With the arrival of the first expressive art forms appearing across Afro-Eurasia from around 40,000b.c.e we first see the evidence that humans are capable of composing. This might of translated to sound after this, or in all likelihood before.
Perhaps the aboriginal example can be examined for supporting evidence of earlier music. Aboriginal people, who were far away from human contact for 70,000 years, were singing and dancing their stories when they were later contacted by the west. That doesn’t provide evidence of singing 70,000 years ago, but given the lack of innovation stimuli on Australia and lack of substantially developed technologies it might indicate a slightly greater probability of singing being present in humans prior to the first inhabitation of Australia. Even if not, it’s certainly suggestive of singing being a fairly universal phenomenon.
Feeling the rhythm
Human history isn’t human history without the hammering of hand axes; beating their percussion through mines, into wood and into stone. The unmistakeable tempo of a human swing beat out the story of our species from the first hammer stones 3.3-2.6million years ago, predating our genus, to the human hand axes, to the height of the bronze age axe cultures that placed shafted axes in the hands of their highest gods. Even for the protectors of humanity; the sky gods who would eventually be known as Thor in some parts of the world held these tools, symbols of dominion and fertility.
It is interesting to note that even chimpanzees, our closest relatives appear to use percussive rhythm of stone hand tools to show dominance and attract mates. There even appears to be a group in west Africa purposely bouncing stones off of hollow trees to communicate, establish dominant strength of throw or at least entertain themselves.
Somewhere in this beat of everyday life we began to experiment with the first musical instruments. The earliest examples we’ve found show a clear grasp of music was already a present part of life prior to the crafting of the instruments. A mammoth ivory flute at least 35,000 years old was found in Germany, featuring multiple finger holes and playing a 5 note scale. It wasn’t the only one, indeed many were found in Germany and around Europe including some of bird bone too (the birds likely having been a meal!) meaning life in the upper Palaeolithic was musical. Perhaps the sound of these early flutes accompanied the rhythm of the axe?
Despite the existence of instruments in the archeological records, at this stage, we can’t be sure of the level of composition & comprehension around music until written evidence arrives.
We have the first finds of history on Sumerian clay tablets around 2000b.c.e and later, dated 1400b.c.e, a full intact tablet of music including accompanying instructions on how it should be played on a 9 stringed lyre. This piece, known as ‘Hurrian hymn number 6’ is a dedication to the wife of the Moon god, her name ‘Nikkal’.
We’ll jump forward now to the dawn of classical Greece and a time where humanity had certainly been using music to connect with the divine in the form of hymns. The origins of music were attributed to the gods with the auros of Pan and the Lyre of Hermes, later Apollo. Tales of Orpheus tell of man’s mastery of music and its ability to charm the spirits of men, beasts, gods and even elemental forces. Music was a formation of divine order from chaos and provided mastery of oneself and others. Its here that man most clearly achieves a higher level of consciousness in understanding music & sound’s place in the order of the universe.
Arguably the figure who had the most impact or notoriety on this front was Pythagorus. Now, he’s a somewhat disputable fellow with it being difficult to attribute things to him accurately, some of his ideas might have been taught to him and some of the theories attributed to him, may have been the works of students. When I talk about him here, I mean the the Pythagorus to whom these theories are broadly attributed to which may or may not include some works of those in his immediate circle. He wrote about ethics, mathematics, politics, religion and our chief interests: Musical theory & Metaphysics.
Pythagorus was instrumental (pun intended) in music, he is attributed as having worked out, mathematically, that the size of hammers or strings struck or plucked correlated directly to the sound they produced and that the ratios between them required to create perfect accompanying notes was 2:1. This correlated to the circumference of the string, giving evidence to him of a mathematically perfect universe in which the more wholesome the number, the more beautiful the sound created. It would take a few thousand words more to adequately cover musical theory and math is slightly deep waters for me, so let us move on to one of his most relevant theories.
The school associated with Pythagorus believe that mathematics (and therefore music) holds the key to understanding the beauty of the universe. Pythagorus believed that beauty was universally recognisable and was always more beautiful the more mathematically pure it was. He philosophised a music of the heavens in which the stars and planets played out in one giant symphony of perfect music according to their proportions to each other and their orbits. He imagined this to impact life on earth and that we simply couldn’t hear the music because it always played and as such the ear filtered it out. This was a level of new complexity in consciousness whereby man had not only composed music but come to reflect on why certain sounds were more appealing. They believed this effect to be intrinsic and universal to man & beast alike. A natural affinity to be close to music or sounds which are closer to the divine. Pythagorus claimed the highest goal of music is to connect the soul to this divine, mathematically perfect nature.
Plato also turned his attention to the effect of music on the human mind & ‘soul’. In ‘The Republic’ he assumed that music resembled aspects of the inner self and of the higher spiritual realities & virtues: the meta physical. He believed too the effects of music to be innate and that they were not just the expression of the music’s creator, or these higher realities, but that music could effect the habits & behaviours of the listener too. Plato goes as far as to suggest that music can help to bolster propositions of truth and recommended it vigorously as part of education in his ‘Republic’ saying:
“..education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace..”
Plato also believed, equally, that music came with responsibility as music could also be used to cause disruption, over indulgence in pleasures or laziness. He favoured particularly the style of Ionian music, but rejected other, raunchier modes! I think Plato would die on the spot of rage if he saw today’s children imitating ‘slut drops’ to ‘WAP’ and well, perhaps he had a point about the need for responsibility in music.. any way, back to the past!
Aristotle, a student of Plato who diverged in many ways, saw eye to eye with Plato broadly on the topic of music, underpinning how essential it was to teach music of good ‘ethos’ in paideia, the cultural education of society. He did however see a little more room for other pleasures in music and that this may well be virtuous too. He still would still defecate on the spot were he listening to modern German rap music I’m sure, something my neighbours insist on forcing on the block to the disruption of my own musings.. the past!!
Boethius continued this school of thought in the 5-6thCentury AD in his treatise ‘De Institutione Musica’ would pick back up on Greek classical thought, returning to the notion that music corresponded directly to human nature, but not just human nature. He described three types of theoretical music which would be influencial throughout the later middle ages and into the Renaissance:
- Musica instrumentalis, the voice of an instrument, including the human voice as well as any constructed or natural instrument. This is more of a reductive music, it’s physical, audible occurrence.
- Musica Mundana, the all-pervading force in the universe which determined all things and movement of things including the planets and celestial bodies. Almost like a composer/conductor of the divine.
- Musica Humana, which brought harmony to the human body and soul, unifying them with he cosmos.
Boethius would conclude “music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired”.
A long succession of philosophers, mathematicians & physicists would turn their attention to music over the classical era until the illiterate blight of abrahamic religions would rise up and fill the void following the decline of Rome. Europe would experience an intellectual & creative dark age for a few hundred years during which music theory might have taken a back seat.
Despite the later dominion of the church over Western thought for some centuries, thanks to written texts, knowledge survived and was returned to from the 15th century onwards. Boethius’ texts received a latin re-write and circled in popularity again. Musica Mundana was influential throughout the late middle ages and even the Renaissance.
Later, Kepler would muse in the 17thC c.e. that man, in the shape of the creator, made music to mirror the natural order created by God. The notion that like begots like and if we were indeed made in the likeness of God, we would replicate some of Gods behaviours on a human level.
Kepler would outline that harmony was achieved by the tones made by heavenly bodies and furthered the tie between astronomy and music. He wasn’t alone, with the likes of Vincenzo Galilei, an influential figure in the founding of the modern Opera contributing to the field and the education of his son Galileo through the continued union of music & astronomy as fields of mathematics.
It is important to remember that scientists had to relate everything back to God, quite specifically the abrahamic God as viewed by the Church to avoid accusations of heresy for the best part of 1,500 years. Galileo Galilei found when he was placed under house arrest for most of his career following the inquisition for daring to point out the now obvious fact that the Earth orbits around the Sun..
Scientists mostly viewed God to be found in nature and not in scripture which was a tricky path to work and a story for another blog!
Fortunately science and mathematical truth would eventually win out and would go on to help produce fantastic complexity with artists like Beethoven and later Wagner creating incredible, moving pieces and for me, firmly underlining the universal nature of the effect of music on humanity.
Despite a few errors per person, most of the theorists I’ve covered would turn out to be right at least in part, and right more often than not as we enter the modern period. Join me for that next week and we shall see if we can’t predict the future too!
I hope you enjoyed my latest piece! I’m an amateur writer and not a physicist so I hope I did the topic justice and inspired you to take a further look!
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