Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Play it, Sam
Music as time goes by
In his 1871 The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin speculated on the origin of human music. “Primeval man, or rather some early progenitor of man, probably used his voice largely, as does one of the gibbon apes at the present day, in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing,” Darwin wrote. “We may conclude from a widely spread analogy that this power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes, serving to express various emotions, as love, jealousy, triumph, and serving as a challenge to their rivals.”
Darwin wasn’t the first to ask where music came from. Notes and rhythms seem to be universal; no culture has been found without them. Most cultures have had their own origin stories. Moses, the putative author of the Book of Genesis, credited Jubal, a descendant of Cain, saying, “He was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.” The Greeks parceled out priority, with Athena assigned the flute, Pan the pipe and Hermes the lyre.
As these examples indicate, music was linked with religion and myth. Indian music can be traced to the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures. In Chinese mythology, the intrepid Ling Lun charmed the great Fenghuang bird with his bamboo flute. Western classical music grew out of Christian church music.
One train of theory ties music to the origin of language. Darwin thought music came first. Humans heard bird calls and tried to reproduce them, thereby stumbling into language. “The imitation by articulate sounds of musical cries might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions,” he wrote. Other theorists reversed the order, perceiving singing as a fancier and therefore later form of speech. Since singing requires no physiology different from that needed for speech, the fossil record isn’t much help here.
But musical instruments survive. The oldest undeniable instrument found so far is a flute carved from the thigh bone of a bear discovered in Slovenia, dating from 60,000 years ago. Quite possibly earlier musicians beat rhythms with sticks that disintegrated or simply haven’t been recognized as drumsticks.
Odds are that music has been part of the human condition almost since we became humans. This, and its universality, suggest that music is an essential part of what makes us human. Darwin thought music played a role in sexual selection, with the musically gifted more likely to mate and produce offspring. The principle applies to songbirds, those remnant dinosaurs that predate us by fifty million years. And it continues to apply to humans today, if the groupies who chase guitar heroes are any guide. Thus there seems to be something to Darwin’s claim.
But music plays other roles. Music elicits cooperation and fellow-feeling, from work songs sung on plantations and chanteys aboard ships, to religious hymns and Christmas carols, to soldiers’ marching tunes and school fight songs. Even instrumental music summons collective emotions: the sorrow of a dirge, the joy of a jig, the power of an anthem. Music intensifies the effect and memorability of poems.
Music can divide people. Deutschland Uber Alles, especially as sung by the Nazis, oozed disdain for other countries and peoples. La Marseillaise called on the sons of France to water the fields with the blood of their enemies. But take away the lyrics and both are stirring tunes that can move Germans and French alike. When national anthems are played at medal ceremonies at the Olympics, the winners can feel national pride even as others simply enjoy the melodies.
Music has long been the focus of festivals and other special occasions. The big outdoor music festivals of today—Coachella in California, Mawazine in Morocco, Donauinselfest in Vienna—and their many smaller counterparts tap into a tradition that goes back millennia. Music melts inhibitions and fosters a communal sense that, however fleeting, can create a “Woodstock Nation” at the 1969 gathering in upstate New York, and make it seem that “We Are the World,” as the Michael Jackson/Lionel Ritchie song composed for African famine relief in 1985 put it.
Armies march to war singing the likes of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but the slaughter of war produces such compelling antiwar numbers as “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Local and regional tastes in music survive—bluegrass, conjunto, reggae—even as Afropop and K-pop go global.
Music is employed to sell commercial products, as all who can’t get a marketing jingle out their heads know too well. And music sells itself, to the tune of some $25 billion dollars in 2022.
So here’s to you, Jubal or Athena or Ling or whoever was first. You started the world singing and playing, and we’ve never stopped.