The Rudiments of Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Alfred Einstein (1880-1952), one of the twentieth century’s most respected musicologists (and possible fifth cousin of Albert), wrote a daring and enduring book at the age of thirty-seven. A Short History of Music first appeared in print in his native German in 1917. The preface to later English editions includes this admission: “[The book] was written in a few weeks, at a time and place that precluded resort to any books of reference.” In Einstein’s view, this was a help rather than a hindrance. Rather than drown himself (and the reader) in a swamp of names and dates, he attempted a through-composed picture of the development of (Western) music as a whole. Some specialists have pounced on this approach, but the book’s resonance among lay readers is attested in the abundance of revised printings in German and English, each amended to include recent data (the last edition I’m aware of was published in 1954).

Naturally, Einstein gave greater attention to the area for which he was the primary authority: sixteenth-century music, especially of Italy. But no period up to his day was overlooked entirely. An intriguing case in point is the first chapter, which summarizes what was then known about “primitive” music. Aside from employing that now distasteful term, Einstein’s offerings remain the general hypotheses of the field. Indeed, while contemporary interest in the origins of music has produced fascinating details and possibilities, current research mostly complies with broad assumptions made during the first half of the twentieth century.

Einstein included seven hypotheses: (1) Singing has deeper historical roots than speaking (pre-linguistic music); (2) After singing came rhythm and percussion, which were explored in ritual dance (devotional music); (3) Song and rhythm combined to accompany labor (work songs); (4) Notes of definite pitch were used as signals in war (war songs); (5) The “easy” intervals of the fourth and fifth were the first preferred pitches (early scales); (6) Ancient songs were comprised of repeated patterns of a few notes (monotony); (7) The rudiments of harmony began with the “unintentional polyphony” of heterophony—what Einstein describes as the “arbitrary ornamentation of the same melody by several performers at the same time” (group song).

As mentioned, these premises are still foundational. Where contemporary studies have expanded upon them is in the aspect of motivation. Advances in anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology and other fields have added deeper perspectives regarding why our species began making music—the dominant theories being mating and cohesion (with variations of the two, like fitness displays, preparing for the hunt, and bonding between mother and child).

Such evolutionary theories, combined with Einstein’s strictly musical concerns of many decades ago, help us to ponder not only how the earliest music sounded, but why it was sounded at all. Fortunately, these central questions are currently on the front burners of researchers possessing great skill and imagination. And the more the topic is explored, the more interesting it becomes.

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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