Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Musical Roots

Unearthing the song hits of the Ice Age ...

One of my all time favorite Star Trek episodes from the Next Generation period is the one in which they encounter an alien space probe that temporarily kidnaps the mind of Captain Picard. In the course of 24 hours he finds himself living an entire lifetime as a member of the alien species that created the probe as its legacy. Their sun is swelling, their planet drying out and burning up, becoming an uninhabitable desert. It is all they can do to create the technology to launch a first probe into space, signalling that they existed. As one of the aliens, Picard marries, raises a family, and lives out his natural life as their world grows steadily hotter and more dead. He even finds time to learn a musical instrument--a small flute like a penny whistle--and to play a favorite tune on it.

Awakening back on the Enterprise, Picard learns that the lifetime he experienced was the message that the doomed alien race had packed into its probe -- the essence of one life out of its billions, designed to be planted in the first receptive mind that came along, a way of saying "this is what our lives were like" long after those lives had ended.

Also packed into the probe was a small flute which Picard puts to his lips, and from which a familiar poignant tune emerges as the Enterprise sails off into the depths of space. Its frail notes are all that remains of the vanished world.

Back in reality, we learn that our own world's oldest musical instruments have been pieced together from bits of ivory and bone found in a cave in Germany. As the legacy of our vanished ancestors, this certainly compares to Picard's discovery.

Dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, these flutes, or at least replicas of them, can actually be played, emitting into the modern air tones that have not been heard since humans hunted mammoths in a glaciated Europe. Fascinatingly, they approximate the same pentatonic scale still used tens of thousands of years later in the Orient, and which can be played using only two fingers of each hand.

What melodies they played and how they were used remains a mystery. We can only speculate that the music may have resembled that of the indigenous peoples of Africa, Australia, or the Americas, and that singing and dancing may have been done to it. How wonderful it is to see those instinctual activities still alive and thriving in human societies today, and to realize how fundamental they are to our humanity.

The discovery shows that music goes back at least as far as language, and may even have preceded it. A recent PBS documentary titled "The Music Instinct" mentions the idea that Neanderthals (who preceded the flute-making modern humans) may have sung to communicate, even though they never developed a true language. I imagine this being comparable to the way we modulate our grunts to say "uh-huh" (yes) or "uh-uh" (no) -- or even "uh-oh" (whoops) or "mm-MM-mm" (I don't know).

Taking this a bit further, some naturalists look at the "musical" activities of creatures like whales and birds to show that the modulation of sound has a history that likely goes back for many millions of years. Used to attract mates, to warn of danger, or just to stay in touch with other members of a flock or family group, the making of sounds has long held a big survival value, which is how such capabilities evolve.

And when it comes to dance, you have probably already seen the video of the dancing cockatoo that has been making the rounds online and on TV. (If not, just look for it on YouTube. I'm not going to post the one millionth link to the thing.) This bird, like others who have been similarly tested, clearly enjoys bobbing and stepping to a rhythmic beat -- even if it has been created by a different species (us) using technical apparatus.

Which brings us to music as technology...

If language made us human, it also enabled us to improve our tool making ability, and ultimately led to the highly sophisticated machinery of modern life. Among those tools were our earliest musical instruments. And just as language existed for a long time before being written, music existed as a purely oral tradition until relatively recent times. The music of India, for example, is still taught that way even though it is highly evolved, with a rich history that spans many centuries.

It is uncertain how far back musical notation goes, but it appears to be more recent than the written word. Some of the earliest examples appear as markings above the words of a song, much as contemporary guitar chords are sometimes shown between the lines of folk music. (See the photo of a Delphic hymn carved in stone from Greece.) Experts have managed to decipher the notes and durations and to reproduce a few poignant scraps of ancient melody -- all that remains of the musical legacy of vanished civilizations.

Our modern notation evolved along with our scales, tonal system, and theories of harmony. It would be hard to see how things could have developed this far without the ability to write it down and pass it along. Just try to imagine getting an orchestra to play Beethoven with words alone.

But our musical technology has gone far beyond that, leading to the creation of new instruments, and to the recording and reproduction of the sounds we make. Now musicians can learn from not only the written notes left behind by those who have gone before, but by listening to all the nuances of their performances. It amounts to a new kind of oral -- or aural -- tradition laid on top of the traditions of the past.

So how far back does our musical heritage go? According to Brian Green, author of The Elegant Universe, if the String Theory of physics is correct, then the most basic particles that compose the universe can all be thought of as vibrating in a cosmic harmony. Perhaps "in the beginning was the Word," but right after that was Music.

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