Thoughts on Music and Society

There are many theories concerning the origins of music in human culture. A wide range of people from different areas of expertise have tried to understand the importance of music today by examining its roots in our collective past. From ethnomusicologists and philosophers to evolutionary and biological psychologists, the understanding of music provides an insight into the very nature of human experience.

Music is a feature of every human culture, whether it exists in the form of simple chant or more complicated instrumental forms, music has been part of every known social groupi. Darwin believed that musical communication preceded the technical, descriptive language that we use today, proposing that our half human ancestors developed a communication system of pitches and rhythms, particularly in mating ritualsii. Parallels have been examined amongst primates today, in particular the Gelada monkeys, which communicate vocally through a wide range of pitches, rhythms and timbres. Bruce Richmond has studied these primates and discovered similarities between their form of communication and our idea of music. Richmond suggests that communication in humans began much like the musical sounds produced by the Gelada monkeys, its main and most important function being to build social relationships. They are believed to maintain relationships and even resolve differences through synchronised vocalisationiii.

This vital role of musical language in building relationships and group interaction amongst primates may be a reason why music has remained important to us for such a sustained period of time. It is possible that music has been important to the development and even the survival of man, helping to establish communication and intrapersonal skills.

Little is known about prehistoric music as most of our knowledge of musical history relies on the evidence of notation,however music that has been passed down aurally through the generations is an exception to this rule. In Europe, folk music provides an insight into the music of antiquity and although much of this folk music has been recorded through notation and modern recording techniques, it survived over hundreds of years as part of an aural tradition. Bela Bartok was one of the many composers that tapped into this resource by using folk melodies in his compositions and collecting folk melodies. In most cultures, written language predates musical literacy. Even the music of the great ancient civilizations of China and Greece remains largely undeciphered. Although there are written records from each civilization on the theory of music, most notably from Pythagoras, without records of musical notation it is difficult to say what their music was like. Although much is known about the scales, intervals and the instruments preferred by the ancients, the lack of musical notation means that their music cannot be reproduced with any great accuracy. Even in China where musical notation has been discovered that dates from the first century A.D. the exact relationships between symbols is not yet understoodiv. Research by ethnomusicologists like John Blacking and Bruce Chatwin, who studied the music of the aboriginal people of Australia, have found music to have an important role in society, which ultimately offers us us an insight into our own musical past. Whistles made out of bone have been found on the site of some of the earliest examples of cave paintings in France, indicating that instrumental music is as least as old as visual art. From a biological and evolutionary point of view the constant presence of the arts from this distant past indicates their important role in the survival and development of man. The functionality of art is something that is often overlooked in western society but it is the important social and cultural function of art and music that has meant its constant and continued presence in human culture.

It is likely that music and speech share a common past, contributing to a form of communication that combined both. The use of different types of sounds for different social occasions and rituals is something that is a feature of music today, and it often serves the same purpose as it does for the Gelada monkeys. The use of music in rituals and particularly in religious ceremonies is common across all human societies, including our own. Traditional music in Ireland, as in folk traditions in many countries, has a repertoire of songs for each occasion. Whether it was a work song or a caoineadh, (meaning cry), which were traditionally sang at funerals and wakes, music would create a common bond amongst the people present, focusing their emotions or their energy.

Working songs across different cultures are often strongly rhythmical in keeping with the repetitive actions of manual labor. Blacking, in his study of the music and dance of the Venda of South Africa noted the strong physical connection that music has for people. The further we go back into musical history the more practical the role of music seems to be, particularly in relation to social interaction. As it is difficult to know much about prehistoric music it is useful to study isolated pre-literate societies and their music. Cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have carried out much research into the music of these people and much can be learned from their musical customs and songs, about our own musical past.

*Recent studies have found that people from around the world can identify love songs, dance songs and lullabies from cultures that they have no experience of and no prior exposure to their music!

i Storr, Anthony,Music and The Mind,(1992 ),p1.

ii Gurney, Edmond, The Power of Sound(London:Smith,Eldar,1880), p.119.

iii Richman,Bruce, Rhythm and Melody in Gelada Monkey Exchange(Primates,

iv Cole:1974, p 7.

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