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Know About Music

Music must first be defined and distinguished from speech, and from animal and bird cries. We discuss the stages of hominid anatomy that permit music to be perceived and created, with the likelihood of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens both being capable. The earlier hominid ability to emit sounds of variable pitch with some meaning shows that music at its simplest level must have predated speech. The possibilities of anthropoid motor impulse suggest that rhythm may have preceded melody, though full control of rhythm may well not have come any earlier than the perception of music above. There are four evident purposes for music: dance, ritual, entertainment personal, and communal, and above all social cohesion, again on both personal and communal levels. We then proceed to how instruments began, with a brief survey of the surviving examples from the Mousterian period onward, including the possible Neanderthal evidence and the extent to which they showed “artistic” potential in other fields. We warn that our performance on replicas of surviving instruments may bear little or no resemblance to that of the original players. We continue with how later instruments, strings, and skin-drums began and developed into instruments we know in worldwide cultures today. The sound of music is then discussed, scales and intervals, and the lack of any consistency of consonant tonality around the world. This is followed by iconographic evidence of the instruments of later antiquity into the European Middle Ages, and finally, the history of public performance, again from the possibilities of early humanity into more modern times. This paper draws the ethnomusicological perspective on the entire development of music, instruments, and performance, from the times of H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens into those of modern musical history, and it is written with the deliberate intention of informing readers who are without special education in music, and providing necessary information for inquiries into the origin of music by cognitive scientists.

How Did Music Begin? Was it via Vocalization or was it through Motor Impulse?

But even those elementary questions are a step too far, because first we have to ask “What is music?” and this is a question that is almost impossible to answer. Your idea of music may be very different from mine, and our next-door neighbor’s will almost certainly be different again. Each of us can only answer for ourselves.

Mine is that it is “Sound that conveys emotion.”

We can probably most of us agree that it is sound; yes, silence is a part of that sound, but can there be any music without sound of some sort? For me, that sound has to do something—it cannot just be random noises meaning nothing. There must be some purpose to it, so I use the phrase “that conveys emotion.” What that emotion may be is largely irrelevant to the definition; there is an infinite range of possibilities. An obvious one is pleasure. But equally another could be fear or revulsion.

How do we distinguish that sound from speech, for speech can also convey emotion? It would seem that musical sound must have some sort of controlled variation of pitch, controlled because speech can also vary in pitch, especially when under overt emotion. So music should also have some element of rhythm, at least of pattern. But so has the recital of a sonnet, and this is why I said above that the question of “What is music?” is impossible to answer. Perhaps the answer is that each of us in our own way can say “Yes, this is music,” and “No, that is speech.”

Must the sound be organized? I have thought that it must be, and yet an unorganized series of sounds can create a sense of fear or of warning. Here, again, I must insert a personal explanation: I am what is called an ethno-organologist; my work is the study of musical instruments (organology) and worldwide (hence the ethno-, as in ethnomusicology, the study of music worldwide). So to take just one example of an instrument, the ratchet or rattle, a blade, usually of wood, striking against the teeth of a cogwheel as the blade rotates round the handle that holds the cogwheel. This instrument is used by crowds at sporting matches of all sorts; it is used by farmers to scare the birds from the crops; it was and still is used by the Roman Catholic church in Holy Week when the bells “go to Rome to be blessed” (they do not of course actually go but they are silenced for that week); it was scored by Beethoven to represent musketry in his so-called Battle Symphony, a work more formally called Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria, Op.91, that was written originally for Maelzel’s giant musical box, the Panharmonicon. Beethoven also scored it out for live performance by orchestras and it is now often heard in our concert halls “with cannon and mortar effects” to attract people to popular concerts. And it was also, during the Second World War, used in Britain by Air-Raid Precaution wardens to warn of a gas attack, thus producing an emotion of fear. If it was scored by Beethoven, it must be regarded as a musical instrument, and there are many other noise-makers that, like it, which must be regarded as musical instruments.

And so, to return to our definition of music, organization may be regarded as desirable for musical sound, but that it cannot be deemed essential, and thus my definition remains “Sound that conveys emotion.”

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