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How Music and Instruments Began?

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 outdoor musical instrument 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.

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 tubular musical instrument (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.

The possibilities of motor impulse are also complex. Here, again, we need to look at the animal kingdom. Both animals and birds have been observed making movements that, if they were humans, would certainly be described as dance, especially for courtship, but also, with the higher apes in groups. Accompaniment for the latter can include foot-slapping, making more sound than is necessary just for locomotion, and also body-slapping (Williams, 1967). Can we regard such sounds as music? If they were humans, yes without doubt. So how far back in the evolutionary tree can we suggest that motor impulse and its sonorous accompaniment might go? I have already postulated in my Origins and Development of xylophone musical instrument (Montagu, 2007, p. 1) that this could go back as far as the earliest flint tools, that striking two stones together as a rhythmic accompaniment to movement might have produced the first flakes that were used as tools, or alternatively that interaction between two or more flint-knappers may have led to rhythms and counter-rhythms, such as we still hear between smiths and mortar-and-pestle millers of grains and coffee beans. This, of course, was kite-flying rather than a wholly serious suggestion, but the possibilities remain. At what stage did a hominim realize that it could make more sound, or could alleviate painful palms, by striking two sticks or stones together, rather than by simple clapping? Again we turn to Morley and to the capability of the physiological and neurological expression of rhythm.

So how did tembos musical instrument begin? First a warning: with archeological material, we have what has been found; we do not have what has not been found. A site can be found and excavated, but if another site has not been found, then it will not have been excavated. Thus, absence of material does not mean that it did not exist, only that it has not been found yet. Geography is relevant too. Archeology has been a much older science in Europe than elsewhere, so that most of our evidence is European, whereas in Africa, where all species of Homo seem to have originated, site archeology is in its infancy. Also, we have much evidence of bone pipes simply because a piece of bone with a number of holes along its length is fairly obviously a probable musical instrument, whereas how can we tell whether some bone tubes without fingerholes might have been held together as panpipes? Or whether a number of pieces of bone found together might or might not have been struck together as idiophones? We shall find one complex of these later on here which certainly were instruments. And what about bullroarers, those blades of bone, with a hole or a constriction at one end for a cord, which were whirled around the player’s head to create a noise-like thunder or the bellowing of a bull, or if small and whirled faster sounded like the scream of a devil? We have many such bones, but how many were bullroarers, how many were used for some other purpose?

This bone does raise the whole question of whether H. neanderthalensis knew of or practised music in any form. For rhythm, we can only say surely, as above—if earlier hominids could have, so could H. neanderthalensis. Could they have sung? A critical anatomical feature is the position of the larynx (Morley, 2013, 135ff); the lower the larynx in the throat the longer the vocal cords and thus the greater flexibility of pitch variation and of vowel sounds (to put it at its simplest). It would seem to have been that with H. heidelbergensis and its successors that the larynx was lower and thus that singing, as distinct from humming, could have been possible, but “seems to have been” is necessary because, as is so often, this is still the subject of controversy. However, it does seem fairly clear that H. neanderthalensis could indeed have sung. It follows, too, that while the Divje Babe “pipe” may or may not have been an instrument, others may yet be found that were ensemble musical instrument. There is evidence that the Neanderthals had at least artistic sensibilities, for there are bones with scratch marks on them that may have been some form of art, and certainly there is a number of small pierced objects, pieces of shell, animal teeth, and so forth, found in various excavations that can only have served as beads for a necklace or other ornamentation – or just possibly as rattles. There have also been found pieces of pigments of various colors, some of them showing wear marks and thus that they had been used to color something, and at least one that had been shaped into the form of a crayon, indicating that some reasonably delicate pigmentation had been desired. Burials have been found, with some small deposits of grave goods, though whether these reveal sensibilities or forms of ritual or belief, we cannot know (D’Errico et al., 2003, 19ff). There have also been found many bone awls, including some very delicate ones which, we may presume, had been used to pierce skins so that they could be sewn together. All this leads us to the conclusion that the Neanderthals had at least some artistic and other feelings, were capable of some musical practices, even if only vocal, and were clothed, rather than being the grunting, naked savages that have been assumed in the past.

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