It’s a safe bet that, since the arrival of cognitive human beings on this earth, music has, in some form had a significant effect on their lives. The first sounds, other than speech, were probably produced by hitting something; wood, stone or hide; and ancient peoples must have appreciated the sounds of the world around them; of water, weather and animals; and were the sounds of a rippling stream or a gushing waterfall music to their ears? And when they stood at the seashore did the crashing waves and the suck of the tides move them in some way?
There is something deep within our psyche, which reacts and ‘remembers’ music. It is more than probable that sounds relating to music and rhythm came long before sounds relating to communication and speech. Today, this theory can be tested by noting a baby’s reaction to a lullaby as compared to speech. If you’re lucky, humming can soothe the most fractious child and even send them to sleep! Music, in the form of rhythm was used by many peoples as a way of sending messages to out of sight recipients; consider the jungle drums of Africa or the Alpine horn, the Aboriginal didgeridoo or the use of bells as a warning of attack.
The days of learning our lessons by rote have, mostly, disappeared. This is because it has, rightly, been recognised that we don’t necessarily absorb the content of what we repeat over and over again. But, as an aid to memory, music still has its uses. Songs we have learnt in childhood can be recalled far later in life than mere words. Music is a well-known and much used therapy in illnesses that involve memory loss; Stroke, Alzheimers etc; and not only as a recall aid but also as a re-learning tool. Speech therapists use music extensively when trying to teach stroke victims how to speak again. The rhythm and melody of a familiar tune will often ‘trigger’ a positive response, when no amount of visual stimuli has an effect.
And then there is the cohesive quality of music; from the singing of a country’s National Anthem to a football crowds chant; from carol singers to brass bands. Musical participation has been used in every walk of life. The chain gangs of America’s Deep South would use music to get through the day and establish a rhythm to mundane physical labour. Sailors would pull a hawser or ‘sheet’ in unison while singing a familiar ‘hornpipe’ or reel; The wonderful gospel sounds that poured from the wooden churches of the Southern states black population were a potent community tool to promote and celebrate their culture; a lucky offshoot was the inspiration of much of our modern rhythm and blues. Nowadays factories all over the world use ‘piped’ music to soothe the workers; if you’re doing a humdrum task music can make the time go faster.
When we think about it music is not just a pleasant pastime that is either passively listened to or actively produced. It has a much deeper, more fundamental purpose. Our reactions to outside events can be completely altered by music. It can make us happy, sad, frightened, elated, thoughtful . . . the list of emotions it engenders are as long as their number. And words are not necessary to create this ambience; for instance, how would silent movies have worked without the music? Those Keystone Cops without the frenetic piano plinkity plonk; the doe eyed heroines without the sobbing strings; the huge sweeping epics without full orchestral back up? They just wouldn’t have worked. Nowadays, with the proliferation of world music, we listen to and enjoy music in many different languages, without necessarily understanding a word the singers say; much as opera was once listened to as the fashionable ‘world’ music of its day; just another example of the emotive power of music.
So, it’s fair to say that music has an innate basis in our evolutionary makeup. We have probably used it since homo sapiens first walked the earth. Other animals do use sounds in their day to day living (frogs croak, dogs howl, sheep bleat etc.) but, with the possible exception of birds, we are the only species to enjoy making melody out of sound. We’ve utilised every viable tool, from the human voice to electronic tones, to create ever more varied compositions. Wouldn’t it be intriguing to discover how soon into our evolution the power and beauty of the human voice was appreciated? As the centuries have passed musicians have been, rightly, feted for their skill to move us with song, melody and rhythm. Once musicians were revered as priests, interpreting the sounds of the gods. Nowadays we are more pragmatic; but we still need that harmony in our lives; even if it’s only our mobile phone ringtone!