Origin Of Music

DARWIN’S theory that music had its -origin “in the sounds made by the half-human progenitors of man during the season of courtship” seems for many reasons to be inadequate and untenable. A much more plausible explanation, it seems to me, is to be found in the theory of Theophrastus, in which the origin of music is attributed to the whole range of human emotion.

When an animal utters a cry of joy or pain it expresses its emotions in more or less definite tones; and at some remote period of the earth’s history all primeval mankind must have expressed its emotions in much the same manner. When this inarticulate speech developed into the use of certain sounds as symbols for emotions – emotions that otherwise would have been expressed by the natural sounds occasioned by them —then we have the beginnings of speech as distinguished from music, which is still the universal language. In other words, intellectual development begins with articulate speech, leaving music for the expression of the emotions.

To symbolize the sounds used to express emotion, if I may so put it, is to weaken that expression, and it would naturally be the strongest emotion that would first feel the inadequacy of the new-found speech. Now what is mankind’s strongest emotion? Even in the nineteenth century Goethe could say, “‘Tis fear that constitutes the god-like in man.” Certainly before the Christian era the soul of mankind had its roots in fear. In our superstition we were like children beneath a great tree of which the upper part was as a vague and fascinating mystery, but the roots holding it firmly to the ground were tangible, palpable facts. We feared we knew not what. Love was human, all the other emotions were human; fear alone was indefinable.

The primeval savage, looking at the world subjectively, was merely part of it. He might love, hate, threaten, kill, if he willed; every other creature could do the same. But the wind was a great spirit to him; lightning and thunder threatened him as they (lid the rest of the world; the flood would destroy him as ruthlessly as it tore the trees asunder. The elements were animate powers that had nothing in common with him; for what the intellect cannot explain the imagination magnifies.

Fear, then, was the strongest emotion. Therefore auxiliary aids to express and cause fear were necessary when the speech symbols for fear, drifting further and further away from expressing the actual thing, became words, and words were inadequate to express and cause fear. In that vague groping for sound symbols which would cause and express fear far better than mere words, we have the beginning of what is gradually to develop into music.

We all know that savage nations accompany their dances by striking one object with another, sometimes by a clanking of stones, the pounding of wood, or perhaps the clashing of stone spearheads against wooden shields (a custom which extended until the time when shields and spears were discarded), meaning thus to express something that words cannot. This meaning changed naturally from its original one of being the simple expression of fear to that of welcoming a chieftain; and, if one wishes to push the theory to excess, we may still see a shadowy reminiscence of it in the manner in which the violinists of an orchestra applaud an honoured guest — perchance some famous virtuoso — at one of our symphony concerts by striking the backs of their violins with their bows.

To go back to the savages. While this clashing of one object against another could not be called the beginning of music, and while it could not be said to originate a musical instrument, it did, nevertheless, bring into existence music’s greatest prop, rhythm, an ally without which music would seem to be impossible. It is hardly necessary to go into this point in detail. Suffice it to say that the sense of rhythm is highly developed even among those savage tribes which stand the lowest in the scale of civilization to-day, for instance, the Andaman Islanders, of whom I shall speak later; the same may be said of the Tierra del Fuegians and the now extinct aborigines of Tasmania; it is the same with the Semangs of the Malay Peninsula, the Ajitas of the Philippines, and the savages inhabiting the interior of Borneo.

As I have said, this more or less rhythmic clanking of stones together, the striking of wooden paddles against the side of a canoe, or the clashing of stone spearheads against wooden shields, could not constitute the first musical instrument. But when some savage first struck a hollow tree and found that it gave forth a sound peculiar to itself, when he found a hollow log and filled up the open ends, first with wood, and then — possibly getting the idea from his hide-covered shield — stretched skins across the two open ends, then he had completed the first musical instrument known to man, namely, the drum. And such as it was then, so is it now, with but few modifications.

Up to this point it is reasonable to assume that primeval man looked upon the world purely subjectively. He considered himself merely a unit in the world, and felt on a plane with the other creatures inhabiting it. But from the moment he had invented the first musical instrument, the drum, he had created something outside of nature, a voice that to himself and to all other living creatures was intangible, an idol that spoke when it was touched, some-thing that he could call into life, something that shared the supernatural in common with the elements. A God had come to live with man, and thus was unfolded the first leaf in that noble tree of life which we call religion. Man now began to feel himself something apart from the world, and to look at it objectively instead of subjectively.

To treat primitive mankind as a type, to put it under one head, to make one theorem cover all mankind, as it were, seems almost an unwarranted boldness. But I think it is warranted when we consider that, aside from language, music is the very first sign of the dawn of civilization. There is even the most convincingly direct testimony in its favour. For instance:

In the Bay of Bengal, about six hundred miles from the Hoogly mouth of the Ganges, lie the Andaman Islands, The savages inhabiting these islands have the unenviable reputation of being, in common with several other tribes, the nearest approach to primeval man in existence. These islands and their inhabitants have been known and feared since time immemorial; our old friend Sinbad the Sailor, of “Arabian Nights” fame, undoubtedly touched there on one of his voyages. These savages have no religion whatever, except the vaguest superstition, in other words, fear, and they have no musical instruments of any kind. They have reached only the rhythm stage, and accompany such dances as they have by clapping their hands or by stamping on the ground. Let us now look to Patagonia, some thousands of miles distant. The Tierra del Fuegians have precisely the same characteristics, no religion, and no musical instruments of any kind. Retracing our steps to the Antipodes we find among the Weddahs or “wild hunters” of Ceylon exactly the same state of things. The same description applies without distinction equally well to the natives in the interior of Borneo, to the Semangs of the Malay Peninsula, and to the now extinct aborigines of Tasmania. According to Virchow their dance is demon worship of a purely anthropomorphic character; no musical instrument of any kind was known to them. Even the simple expression of emotions by the voice, which we have seen is its most primitive medium, has not been replaced to any extent among these races since their discovery of speech, for the Tierra del Fuegians, Andamans, and Weddahs have but one sound to represent emotion, namely, a cry to express joy; having no other means for the expression of sorrow, they paint themselves when mourning.

It is granted that all this, in itself, is not conclusive; but it will be found that no matter in what wilderness one may hear of a savage beating a drum, there also will be a well-defined religion.

Proofs of the theory that the drum antedates all other musical instruments are to be found on every hand. For wherever in the anthropological history of the world we hear of the trumpet, horn, flute, or other instrument of the pipe species, it will be found that the drum and its derivatives were already well known. The same may be said of the lyre species of instrument, the forerunner of our guitar (kithara), tebuni or Egyptian harp, and generally all stringed instruments, with this difference, namely, that wherever the lyre species was known, both pipe and drum had preceded it. We never find the lyre without the drum, or the pipe without the drum; neither do we find the lyre and the drum without the pipe. On the other hand, we often find the drum alone, or the drum and pipe without the lyre. This certainly proves the antiquity of the drum and its derivatives.

I have spoken of the purely rhythmical nature of the pre-drum period, and pointed out, in contrast, the musical quality of the drum. This may seem somewhat strange, accustomed as we are to think of the drum as a purely rhythmical instrument. The sounds given out by it seem at best vague in tone and more or less uniform in quality. We forget that all instruments of percussion, as they are called, are direct descendants of the drum. The bells that hang in our church towers are but modifications of the drum; for what is a bell but a metal drum with one end left open and the drum stick hung inside?

Strange to say, as showing the marvellous potency of primeval instincts, bells placed in church towers were supposed to have much of the supernatural power that the savage in his wilderness ascribed to the drum. We all know something of the bell legends of the Middle Ages, how the tolling of a bell was supposed to clear the air of the plague, to calm the storm, and to shed a blessing on all who heard it. And this superstition was to a certain extent ratified by the religious ceremonies attending the casting of church bells and the inscriptions moulded in them. For instance, the mid-day bell of Strasburg, taken down during the French Revolution, bore the motto

“I am the voice of life.”

Another one in Strasburg:

“I ring out the bad, ring in the good.”

Others read “My voice on high dispels the storm.”

“I am called Ave Maria I drive away storms.”

“I who call to thee am the Rose of the World and am called Ave Maria.”

The Egyptian sistrum, which in Roman times played an important role in the worship of Isis, was shaped some-what like a tennis racquet, with four wire strings on which rattles were strung. The sound of it must have been akin to that of our modern tambourine, and it served much the same purpose as the primitive drum, namely, to drive away Typhon or Set, the god of evil. Dead kings were called “Osiris” when placed in their tombs, and sistri put with them in order to drive away Set.

Beside bells and rattles we must: include all instruments of the tambourine and gong species in the drum category. While there are many different forms of the same instrument, there are evidences of their all having at some time served the same purpose, even down to that strange instrument about which Du Chaillu tells us in his “Equatorial Africa”, a bell of leopard skin, with a clapper of fur, which was rung by the wizard doctor when entering a hut where someone was ill or dying. The leopard skin and fur clapper seem to have been devised to make no noise, so as not to anger the demon that was to be cast out. This reminds us strangely of the custom of ringing a bell as the priest goes to administer the last rites.

It is said that first impressions are the strongest and most lasting; certain it is that humanity, through all its social and racial evolutions, has retained remnants of certain primitive ideas to the present day. The army death reveille, the minute gun, the tolling of bells for the dead, the tocsin, etc., all have their roots in the attributes assigned to the primitive drum; for, as I have already pointed out, the more civilized a people becomes, the more the word-symbols degenerate. It is this continual drifting away of the word-symbols from the natural sounds which are occasioned by emotions that creates the necessity for auxiliary means of expression, and thus gives us instrumental music.

Since the advent of the drum a great stride toward civilization had been made. Mankind no longer lived in caves but built huts and even temples, and the conditions under which he lived must have been similar to those of the natives of Central Africa before travellers opened up the Dark Continent to the caravan of the European trader. If we look up the subject in the narratives of Livingstone or Stanley we find that these people lived in groups of coarsely-thatched huts, the village being almost invariably surrounded by a kind of stockade. Now this manner of living is identically the same as that of all savage tribes which have not passed beyond the drum state of civilization, namely, a few huts huddled together and surrounded by a palisade of bamboo or cane. Since the pith would decompose in a short time, we should probably find that the wind, whirling across such a palisade of pipes — for that is what our bamboos would have turned to — would produce musical sounds, in fact, exactly the sounds that a large set of Pan’s pipes would produce. For after all what we call Pan’s pipes are simply pieces of bamboo or cane of different lengths tied together and made to sound by blowing across the open tops.

The theory may be objected to on the ground that it scarcely proves the antiquity of the pipe to be less than that of the drum; but the objection is hardly of importance when we consider that the drum was known long before mankind had reached the “hut” stage of civilization. Under the head of pipe, the trumpet and all its derivatives must be accepted. On this point there has been much controversy. But it seems reasonable to believe that once it was found that sound could be produced by blowing across the top of a hollow pipe, the most natural thing to do would be to try the same effect on all hollow things differing in shape and material from the original bamboo. This would account for the conch shells of the Amazons which, according to travellers’ tales, were used to proclaim an attack in war; in Africa the tusks of elephants were used; in North America the instrument did not rise above the whistle made from the small bones of a deer or of a turkey’s leg.

That the Pan’s pipes are the originals of all these species seems hardly open to doubt. Even among the Greeks and Romans we see traces of them in the double trumpet and the double pipe. These trumpets became larger and larger in form, and the force required to play them was such that the player had to adopt a kind of leather harness to strengthen his cheeks. Before this development had been reached, however, I have no doubt that all wind instruments were of the Pan’s pipes variety; that is to say, the instruments consisted of a hollow tube shut at one end, the sound being produced by the breath catching on the open edge of the tube.

Direct blowing into the tube doubtless came later. In this case the tube was open at both ends, and the sound was determined by its length and by the force given to the breath in playing. There is good reason for admitting this new instrument to be a descendant of the Pan’s pipes, for it was evidently played by the nose at first. This would preclude its being considered as an originally forcible instrument, such as the trumpet.

Now that we have traced the history of the pipe and considered the different types of the instrument, we can see immediately that it brought no great new truth home to man as did the drum.

The savage who first climbed secretly to the top of the stockade around his village to investigate the cause of the mysterious sounds would naturally say that the Great Spirit had revealed a mystery to him; and he would also claim to be a wonder worker. But while his pipe would be accepted to a certain degree, it was nevertheless second in the field and could hardly replace the drum. Besides, mankind had already commenced to think on a higher plane, and the pipe was reduced to filling what gaps it could in the language of the emotions.

The second strongest emotion of the race is love. All over the world, wherever we find the pipe in its softer, earlier form, we find it connected with love songs. In time it degenerated into a synonym for something contemptibly slothful and worthless, so much so that Plato wished to banish it from his “Republic,” saying that the Lydian pipe should not have a place in a decent community.

On the other hand, the trumpet branch of the family developed into something quite different. At the very beginning it was used for war, and as its object was to frighten, it became larger and larger in form, and more formidable in sound. In this respect it only kept pace with the drum, for we read of Assyrian and Thibetan trumpets two or three yards long, and of the Aztec war drum which reached the enormous height of ten feet, and could be heard for miles.

Now this, the trumpet species of pipe, we find also used as an auxiliary “spiritual” help to the drum. We are told by M. Huc, in his “Travels in Thibet,” that the llamas of Thibet have a custom of assembling on the roofs of Lhassa at a stated period and blowing enormous trumpets, making the most hideous midnight din imaginable. The reason given for this was that in former days the city was terrorized by demons who rose from a deep ravine and crept through all the houses, working evil everywhere. After the priests had exorcised them by blowing these trumpets, the town was troubled no more. In Africa the same demonstration of trumpet blowing occurs at an eclipse of the moon; and, to draw the theory out to a thin thread, anyone who has lived in a small German Protestant town will remember the chorals which are so often played before sunrise by a band of trumpets, horns, and trombones from the belfry of some church tower. Almost up to the end of the last century trombones were intimately connected with the church service; and if we look back to Zoroaster we find the sacerdotal character of this species of instrument very plainly indicated.

Now let us turn back to the Pan’s pipes and its direct descendants, the flute, the clarinet, and the oboe. We shall find that they had no connection whatever with religious observances. Even in the nineteenth century novel we are familiar with the kind of hero who played the flute — a very sentimental gentleman always in love. If he had played the clarinet he would have been very sorrowful and discouraged; and if it had been the oboe (which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been attempted in fiction) he would have needed to be a very ill man indeed.

Now we never hear of these latter kinds of pipes being considered fit for anything but the dance, love songs, or love charms. In the beginning of the seventeenth century Garcilaso de la Vega, the historian of Peru, tells of the astonishing power of a love song played on a flute. We find so-called “courting” flutes in Formosa and Peru, and Catlin tells of the Winnebago courting flute. The same instrument was known in Java, as the old Dutch settlers have told us. But we never hear of it as creating awe, or as being thought a fit instrument to use with the drum or trumpet in connection with religious rites. Leonardo da Vinci had a flute player make music while he painted his picture of Mona Lisa, thinking that it gave her the expression he wished to catch — that strange smile reproduced in the Louvre painting. The flute member of the pipe species, therefore, was more or less an emblem of eroticism, and, as I have already said, has never been even remotely identified with religious mysticism, with perhaps the one exception of Indra’s flute, which, however, never seems to have been able to retain a place among religious symbols. The trumpet, on the other hand, has retained something of a mystical character even to our day. The most powerful illustration of this known to me is in the ” Requiem ” by Berlioz. The effect of those tremendous trumpet calls from the four corners of the orchestra is an overwhelming one, of crushing power and majesty, much of which is due to the rhythm.

To sum up. We may regard rhythm as the intellectual side of music, melody as its sensuous side. The pipe is the one instrument that seems to affect animals — hooded cobras, lizards, fish, etc. Animals’ natures are purely sensuous, therefore the pipe, or to put it more broadly, melody, affects them. To rhythm, on the other hand, they are indifferent; it appeals to the intellect, and therefore only to man.

This theory would certainly account for much of the potency of what we moderns call music. All that aims to be dramatic, tragic, supernatural in our modern music, derives its impressiveness directly from rhythm.* What would that shudder of horror in Weber’s ” Freischutz ” be without that throb of the basses ? Merely a diminished chord of the seventh. Add the pizzicato in the basses and the chord sinks into something fearsome; one has a sudden choking sensation, as if one were listening in fear, or as if the heart had almost stopped beating. All through Wagner’s music dramas this powerful effect is employed, from “The Flying Dutchman” to “Parsifal.” Every composer from Beethoven to Nicodé has used the same means to express the same emotions; it is the medium that pre-historic man first knew; it produced the same sensation of fear in him that it does in us at the present day.

Rhythm denotes a thought; it is the expression of a purpose. There is will behind it; its vital part is intention, power; it is an act. Melody, on the other hand, is an almost unconscious expression of the senses; it translates feeling into sound. It is the natural outlet for sensation. In anger we raise the voice; in sadness we lower it. In talking we give expression to the emotions in sound. In a sentence in which fury alternates with sorrow, we have the limits of the melody of speech. Add to this rhythm, and the very height of expression is reached; for by it the intellect will dominate the sensuous.