From Source to Self-Reference

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There was a time in our distant past when sounds emanating from non-human animals were the major source of musical inspiration. Our ancient ancestors were completely absorbed in their wild habitats. Their ears perked at the calls and songs of birds and other animals. They mimicked those sounds in their own voices, adding a human signature to the dense and varied biophonic soundscape. Over time and through waves of experimentation, replication, manipulation and refinement, human sounds developed their own logic and conventions. The sequences became more and more complex and yielded increasingly numerous varieties. Found and handcrafted instruments were added to the acoustic mixture. At some point, probably early on, their efforts came to resemble what we call music: nonlinguistic and conscious control of sound exhibiting structure and intent (a working definition from soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause).

The above hypothesis is consistent with what is known about the development of human culture. Biological evolution does not achieve adaptations by concocting novel mechanisms, but by modifying what is already in place. New skills and behaviors are not the result of radical blueprints, but of re-configuring existing capacities and apparatuses. Quoting neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland, evolution’s modus operandi is “tinkering-opportunistically rather than redesigning-from-scratch.” Likely, then, music is an outgrowth of our biological predispositions for language, sensuality, motor control, dexterity, emotionality and, perhaps most importantly, imitation.

Imitation is the hallmark and foundation of human culture. We innately transmit information and pass on practices from person to person and generation to generation. We learn from, add to, and carry forward this imitative process. Elements are preserved and gradually upgraded, culminating in culture: an assortment of behaviors, customs, skills, methods, standards, norms and expectations.

Cultural evolution occurs at a far quicker pace than biological evolution. Modification of tendencies is much more fluid than the extremely slow process of adaptation that brought about those tendencies. Of course, the speed of change within a society tends to be self-regulated, hinging on things like access to resources and social outlook (conservative, progressive or something in between).

Musically, this helps explain how the urge to add human sounds to the biophony (animal soundscape) developed relatively rapidly from imitation of natural sounds to musical invention. This process occurred in three generalized stages (accounting for thousands of years and inclusive of untold variations): (1) The human capacities for language, emotionality, etc., set the conditions for nonlinguistic sound production; (2) These capacities combined with the inclination to mimic, making environmental sounds the fodder for musical production; (3) Human beings began imitating each other’s music, thereby distancing themselves from nature (in degrees relative to the group’s physical distance from a natural setting).

The third stage has particular relevance for music in the West. As Western culture has separated itself incrementally from the natural world, its music has followed suit. Sounds become further and further detached from organic sources and more and more abstract. The progressive distancing from nature is perceptible in the timeline of musical periods (Early, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, etc.). Instead of drawing inspiration from wild landscapes, we base our music on other music, our instruments on other instruments, our techniques on other techniques.

We have reached a point where musical iterations and innovations occur in an almost purely human domain. True, a few composers have replicated birdsong in Western form or sampled field recordings from native habitats; but these are novelties and not the norm. Western music is millennia removed from its feral origins. It is a self-referential art.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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