Category Archives: evolution

Ancient Echoes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In her book, Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places, music therapist Susan Elizabeth Hale attempts a sonic link between our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors and modern spiritual aesthetics: “Canyons, caves, and rock amphitheaters were sought out and sanctified for the purpose of amplifying prayers. Later, sacred architecture was created to house our song-prayers so that Spirit could hear us and reverberate us into stillness—into a living silence where we could listen more closely to the pulse of life.” An acoustic leap from Paleolithic caves to acoustically vibrant cathedrals might seem a speculative stretch. However, according to University of Paris archaeoacoustician Iegor Reznikoff, pictographs occur in reverberant parts of a cave, and red dots were often used to mark off resonant spots too difficult to paint. This suggests that ritual chant played a role in cave paintings.

Reznikoff’s acoustic discoveries add potential clarity to ongoing debates about the purpose of Paleolithic pictographs. The images—made by hand prints, daubed fur, or sprayed pigment from the mouth or a bone tube—typically portray game animals. This holds true wherever the paintings are found (Europe, Africa, Mexico, Australia, and Southeast Asia), implying a universality of impulse and function. Some see them as inventories of animals killed, or records of animal migrations. Others contend they were used as hunting magic, perhaps to “catch” an animal’s spirit in order to make the hunt easier, or to increase the abundance of animals encountered. David Lewis-Williams, founder and past director of the Rock Art Research Institute, imagines shamans retreating into the darkness of the caves, entering a trance state, and painting their visions.

Each of these theories addresses the uniqueness of art-adorned caves, which have no signs of ongoing habitation, and are often too remote to access for everyday usage. They were special places set aside for a special purpose. Their acoustic richness best complies with a shamanistic ritual involving painting and chant. Dance might also be added to the mix, as a few images include stylized females or animalesque “sorcerers” engaged in transformational dance. Reznikoff explains in a 2012 paper, “On the Sound Related to Painted Caves and Rocks”: “When the cave has been vocally explored and the best resonant places discovered, then, in such resonant locations, provided there is a panel or panels that are suitable for painting or that can be prepared for painting by scraping, it would be natural, indeed, to paint pictures of animals. A ritual dedicated to the animal is best performed in such a place, since a ritual is always done with chant, sounds, and possibly dances, if the space is large enough. This is why the paintings are mostly located in resonant places.”

These findings support a twofold ethnomusicological observation: all known cultures have vocal music, and all cultures associate singing and chanting with the supernatural. Human beings not only possess reasoning capacity (Homo Sapiens), but also an instinct for music (Homo Musicus) and a yearning for transcendence (Homo Religiosus). Since the dawn of humanity, people have sought contact with energies greater than themselves through music-infused rituals. More often than not, these rituals have taken place in especially resonant settings, where voices are amplified and echo back—a mysterious reverberation analogous to the voice of the cosmos.

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

Electronic Music and the Separation from Nature

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the 1960s, German-American composer Gershon Kingsley shifted his energies to electronic music. He was among the first to experiment with the Moog synthesizer (invented by Bob Moog in 1963), recording two albums with fellow electro-musician Jean-Jacques Perrey (The In Sound from Way Out! 1966 and Kaleidoscopic Variations, 1967) and a solo album, Music to Moog By (1969), featuring the synthpop classic “Popcorn.” Kingsley was drawn to electronic music for two reasons: it promised seemingly infinite sound options, and it gave composers complete creative control. He told Harry Reasoner in a 1970 CBS interview: “Instead of going through the process of first conceiving the idea, then orchestrating it, then having it played on an instrument, now a musical work can be created entirely in the studio environment….[A] composer can now function the same way as a painter or a sculptor.”

Electronic music in those early days was gruelingly hands-on. The Moog comprised a keyboard and a set of speakers connected to a refrigerator-size consul cluttered with dials, knobs, meters, and patch cords. A pressed key sent an electronic signal to the console, which “synthesized” a particular sound. The instrument was monophonic—only one note could be played at a time—meaning that chords, counterpoint, and harmony were achieved through overlaying multiple tracks. It was a tedious, highly skilled, and labor-intensive undertaking.

As technologies advanced, electronic music became further and further removed from the manual interaction of player and instrument. Music was now programmable, automated, and easily rearranged. The performance was unhindered by the limits of human breath, endurance, or dexterity. The sonic palette was endless and undefined, and tonal possibilities—note bending, durations, microtones, pitch range—far exceeded the capacity of organic instruments (those classified in the original Hornbostel–Sachs system as idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones). These properties combined to disassociate electronic music from the natural world.

The aesthetic appeal of music divorced from a naturalistic backdrop has parallel in the “imaginative geography” of cities, where clear borders separate ordered human civilization from the untamed wild. Cities exert human dominion: the permission of certain forms of nature to exist in certain places within a human-centered environment. As Colin Jerolmack, author of the paper “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals,” says: “We cut out little squares in the concrete, and that’s where the trees belong. We don’t like it when grass and weeds begin to grow through cracks in the sidewalks, because that’s nature breaking out of those boundaries that we want to keep it in.”

Implicitly or explicitly, a principle of “perfecting” motivates bifurcated cityscapes and nature-eschewing electronic sounds. In the conventional scheme of human progress, there is a movement away from uncontrolled habitats to manicured environs. At first, sounds emanating from animals and the atmosphere were a major source of musical inspiration. Human beings mimicked the noises of insects, the pattering of rain, the calls of birds, and other non-human sounds. Over time, human music developed its own logic, techniques, conventions, and instruments, and became a self-imitative art form. The resulting styles and sonorities increase our distance from music’s evolutionary origins.

An early critic of this separation was French Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet. In a 1723 treatise, Dissertations sur la poésie et la musique des Anciens en général et des Hébreux en particulier, he called out the “false notion that the world develops toward greater and greater perfection and that our century is much more enlightened and cultured than previous centuries.” As if predicting developments that would lead to electronic music, Calmet wrote: “Many believe that the simplicity of ancient music was an imperfection. I think, on the contrary, that it contributed to its perfection. The more one approaches nature, the more one approaches the beautiful and the perfect.”

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

In Birds as in Humans?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

David Rothenberg concludes Why Birds Sing with an answer to the question implied in the book’s title: “For the same reason we sing—because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sounds.” This notion is reminiscent of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s application of funktionslust—“pleasure taken in doing what one does best”—to impressive animal displays. In both cases, the pleasure is not merely frivolous or “for itself,” but an evolutionary adaptation that increases the likelihood of survival. As with theories of musical development in early humans—from Darwin’s sexually selected mating songs to Joseph Jordania’s “battle trance,” in which repetitious beats prepared our prehistoric ancestors for the hunt—there appears to be a mechanistic basis for sonic aesthetics.

One of the refreshing aspects of Rothenberg’s work on bird song (as well as whale song and bug rhythm) is his apparent embrace of the pejorative “anthropomorphizer.” A musician and philosopher, he compares structural and functional aspects of human and avian songs, and freely speculates about links between them. He is no stranger to criticism from the scientific community: “Scientists who say they are investigating what actually occurs in nature caution that musicians and poets tend to hear what they want to hear, to extract some human meaning out of the world’s alien inscrutability. Musicians remain enthralled by what seems unassailably beautiful about the sounds of birds, whether akin to noise music or dulcet melodies.”

Is there common ground between the two camps? Can we, as primatologist Frans de Waal advocates, avoid “gratuitous anthropomorphism” without conducting “linguistic castrations”? More to the point, can bird song reveal anything about our own songs?

Research on bird mimics offers intriguing possibilities. A brief report by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology summarizes several explanations for this behavior. In northern mockingbirds, which can learn upwards of 200 songs, mimicry is likely a sign of fitness. Females seem to prefer males who sing more songs, and adding tunes to the repertoire—from other birds and environmental sounds—can give a mating advantage. Similarly, male marsh warblers pick up songs from wintering grounds in Africa and bring them back to Europe—presumably to impress potential mates. Human virtuosi and sophisticates have similar allure.

Other birds use mimicry to fit in. Indigobirds, for example, are brood parasites that lay eggs in the nests of other species. Chicks learn the begging calls of the host to blend in and get fed. The female thick-billed euphonia uses alarm calls of other species to solicit help in defending her nest from predators. Assimilating songs of the “in-crowd” and using sounds of the “other” to gain their sympathy—these, too, have human analogues.

Occasionally, bird mimicry can also go awry. There are numerous cases of birds learning the wrong songs, such as a vesper sparrow singing songs of the Bewick’s wren and a common yellowthroat singing a chestnut-sided warbler song. These hapless mimics often go unpaired. For humans, engrossment in “uncool” music has a comparable effect.

Hard-nosed scientists caution against drawing parallels between humans and animals—especially distant relatives like birds. Without doubt, there are significant limits to such comparisons. At the same time, the distance provides room for reflection. The immediacy and ubiquity of music in human life—not to mention its labeling as “entertainment”—can obstruct our awareness of its functional basis. The scientific approach to bird song encourages us to ponder like traits in our own music cultures.

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

Whence Came the Musical Bow?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A note of caution should be added to any discussion of musical origins. Musical history predates recorded history. Practice comes long before theory. Current forms mask a gradual evolutionary process. Using the present to reconstruct the past is as tempting as it unreliable. As ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann related, “Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from ethnological studies is that argument based on plausibility can be dangerous.”

Wachsmann’s warning came in a 1962 article, “The Earliest Musical Instruments.” A pioneer in the study of African music, he learned firsthand the fallibility of “practical” assumptions. These include hunches concerning the musical bow, one of the oldest known instruments. “What for instance could be more plausible than that the shooting bow and the manipulation of its string led to discoveries in the sphere of harmony?” British archaeologist Henry Balfour proposed such a timeline in his 1899 treatise, The Natural History of the Musical Bow: the shooting bow was emancipated from hunting and warfare to become a musical instrument, in the process accumulating modifications.

A hunter happening upon a bow’s musical qualities is not the only possibility, nor is it the most likely. Musicologist Curt Sachs, writing twenty years before Wachsmann, declared the idea “plausible but wrong, like many plausible explanations” (The History of Musical Instruments, 1940). According to Sachs, the false assumption hinged on two biases: the practical (hunting) always precedes the aesthetic (music), and similar forms necessarily point to a shared source. He asserted that the oldest musical bows were ten-feet long, and therefore useless for shooting. Other early designs were idiochordic, with the bow and string cut from the same piece of cane and still attached at either end—an equally ineffective hunting tool. Moreover, to make a clearly audible sound, the bow needs a resonator, usually a hollowed-out gourd or the player’s mouth. This effect does not come about naturally by simply shooting an arrow.

The musical bow’s cultural meanings are similarly mixed. A cave painting at Trois Frères, dating to about 13,000 B.C.E., apparently shows a bison-man playing a hunting bow, and Plutarch described Scythians playing music on their hunting bows. Yet, Wachsmann considered the cave painting too ambiguous to be conclusive, and cautioned that a hunter plucking his bow tells us nothing about which came first. Complicating the matter, Sachs noted several customs unrelated to war or the hunt: “among many tribes only women play [the bow]; in Rhodesia it is the instrument played at girls’ initiations; and the Washambala in eastern Africa believe that a man cannot get a wife if a string of the musical bow breaks while he is making it.”

Absent a time machine, it is impossible to know for certain if the musical bow derived from the hunting bow, the hunting bow came from the musical bow, or the two emerged independently. When an instrument’s lifespan extends so far into the unrecorded past, it is perhaps unwise to disregard any plausible theory. Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to refute a simple, mono-directional development from hunting to music. Resemblances between the modern-day weapon and instrument could reflect later interactions, rather than a conjoined evolution. After all, just because we can set up pots and pans in a drum set configuration does not mean the cookware gave rise to percussion instruments, or vice versa.

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

The Useful and the Useless

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Among the many definitions of beauty is the one most operative in our everyday lives: the pleasing or attractive features of something or someone. This is beauty in the intuitive or experiential sense; we know it when we sense it. Aesthetic snap-judgments of this sort and the disagreements they ignite recall the cliché, “There’s no accounting for taste,” and its Latin predecessor, de gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”). This does not mean that taste is thoroughly or hopelessly subjective. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have uncovered basic universal principles of art. For example, philosopher Denis Dutton observed that we find beauty in things done especially well, while anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake contends that “decorating” was a crucial way our ancestors marked off practices essential to physical and cultural survival, such as hunting, peacemaking, and rites of passage. Yet, once we move beyond the baseline acceptance of the existence of beauty and its importance in human life, opinions take over and vary widely.

Historically, aesthetics has been a difficult subject to intellectualize. George Santayana observed in The Sense of Beauty (1896) that, as a philosophical subject, beauty has “suffered much from the prejudice against the subjective.” This is mitigated in part by the inclusion of art history and critical theory under the philosophical umbrella. Yet, such efforts highlight rather than bypass the fundamental obstacle of personal taste: in order for beauty to be taken seriously, it must be removed from the proverbial beholder’s eye and placed in some externalized rubric. Santayana summed it up: “so strong is the popular sense of the unworthiness and insignificance of things purely emotional, that those who have taken moral problems to heart and felt their dignity have often been led into attempts to discover some external right and beauty of which our moral and aesthetic feelings should be perceptions or discoveries, just as our intellectual activity is, in men’s opinion, a perception or discovery of external fact.” In other words, if beauty (and morality) cannot find footing in objective truth, they are forever doomed to triviality.

The dismissal of emotions runs counter to the biological-anthropological theories alluded to above. Whereas philosophers tend to view beauty as an end and art “for its own sake,” evolutionary theorists investigate the basis for art’s emergence and persistence as a cross-cultural phenomenon. For them, what constitutes the beautiful from one person or group to the next is less important than its functionality. Beauty and utility are not at odds, but are instead inextricably linked.

In a way, our aesthetic judgments harmonize the philosophical and biological-anthropological sides of this debate. On the one hand, we over-rely on the moral-philosophical categories of “good” and “bad” when describing art, giving the impression of absolute or empirical standards, whether or not they actually exist. On the other hand, these designations stem from a functionalist response: “good” means useful; “bad” means “useless” (or “less useful”). A painting or musical composition might be beautiful according to academic standards, but fail to move us on a personal level. We can intellectually appreciate its creativity and execution without being emotionally attracted to it. Likewise, something of lesser technical quality can be strikingly beautiful if it serves a purpose. As Baruch Spinoza put it in his Ethics (1677): “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.”

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

Symmetric Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

According to science writer Philip Ball, roughly ninety-four percent of music lasting more than a few seconds contains verbatim repeats. This is true of music-cultures scattered throughout the globe. Indeed, despite the astonishing variety of expressive sounds culturally defined as music, repetition appears to be a unifying characteristic. On the micro scale, repetition derives from alternating longer and shorter note values, sometimes with pauses in between. If extended, these temporally balanced blocks merge into macro patterns: ostinati, verse-chorus form, sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), thirty-two bar form (AABA), and so on. Repeated rhythms and melodic/harmonic lines are also heard in through-composed works, flowing ecclesiastical chants, and patchwork songs, such as “Fingertips” by They Might Be Giants, comprising twenty-one short songs of five to twenty seconds apiece.

On the small and large scale, repetition yields symmetry: a sense of pleasing proportions. Symmetry is a fundamental aspect of beauty. Biologically, left-to-right symmetry in the face and/or body is a generalized indicator of physiological and psychological health. Thus, the most symmetrical people are considered the most beautiful (eye-of-the beholder arguments notwithstanding). Likewise, we are attracted to well-proportioned patterns of nature—flora, fauna, and geological—and repelled by their opposite.

To a significant extent, art is indebted to the mathematical symmetry present in nature. Nature-imitative patterns are woven into pottery, poetry, architecture, and musical repetition. Contrastingly, modernist movements that intentionally frustrate our pattern-seeking brains tend to provoke negative responses. (In the works of Pierre Boulez, for instance, references to other music are expunged as far as possible.)

However, over-redundancy has its own problems. Occasional deviations can be welcome and gratifying surprises, so long as the pattern is quickly retrieved. In music, agreeable breaks are typically achieved through truncation (subtraction of metrical units), prolongation (addition of metrical units), or elision (overlapping of two symmetrical units). It can also result accidentally. For example, during a performance of Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 1974, Charles Mingus and his band of all-stars (George Adams, Hamiet Bluiett, Jon Faddis, John Handy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles McPherson, Don Pullen, and Dannie Richmond) botched the AABA form under Bluiett’s baritone sax solo. The musicians played three A sections in a row in one chorus, and just one A section in the next. In Montréal, these gaffes are known as a “three-headed monster” and a “one-eyed beauty,” respectively. The “three-headed monster” emerges again in the last chorus of Pullen’s piano solo. These errors, hardly unusual during jam sessions, rarely spoil the music. They are (usually) amusing anomalies, which temporarily rupture, but never dismantle, the predictable pattern.

The attraction of symmetry in music is self-evident. All human cultures have music, virtually all of that music contains repetition, repetition creates symmetry, and all cultures consider music aesthetically rewarding. Moreover, music that discards symmetry is often called “ugly,” with some challenging its very musical-ness.

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

Music and Supernaturalism

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The companionship of music and supernatural speculation appears to be almost as old as humanity itself. Paleolithic cave paintings, possibly created by shamans, are often found in the most resonant parts of the cave, implying their use in a chant-infused ritual. Hurrian song tablets from the city of Ugarit (c. 1400 B.C.E.) are not only the earliest examples of written notation, but are also hymns. Anthropologists observe that all cultures, ancient and modern, exhibit some partnership of singing/chanting and religious ceremony. Explanations for this pervasive phenomenon typically focus on the spiritual-emotional quality of sound. The ineffable essence of music simulates or stimulates the ineffable essence of the supernatural. While intuitively valid, such inferences overlook a more fundamental link between music and supernaturalism: the desire for order.

The Future of an Illusion (1927) presents the emphatic culmination of Sigmund Freud’s lifelong thinking on religion. Among its many proposals is the role of gods and spirits in the “humanization of nature.” The human psyche is uncomfortable with uncertainties. The precariousness of nature and uncertainty of life events suggest a cold and uncaring universe. “But,” Freud writes, “if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety.” In other words, if otherwise inscrutable happenings, good and bad, can be attributed to evil spirits and the deities that combat them, then a sense of purposeful organization can be obtained. The inexplicable becomes explicable.

As a theory of the origin of religion, this is perhaps too reductionistic—a charge Freud himself was willing to entertain. However, its logic does play out in all sorts of theologies and cosmologies. Anthropocentric projections onto nature are instinctual and often subconscious. They underpin descriptions of the weeping willow, raging storm, wise old owl, and pleasant valley. Such humanization brings comprehension to an unstable world. That this impulse would generate religious conceptions seems inevitable.

Music can be understood as a sonic consequence of the yearning for order. Natural sounds, like visible phenomena, can give the impression of disarray and erratic spontaneity. The earliest human-made patterned sounds—what is minimally defined as music—were in all likelihood imitations of sounds from the local habitat, generated by rain, wind, insects, birds, critters, and the like. By mimicking these sounds, humanity could achieve psychological control over them, and, in turn, hear their own sentiments expressed in nature.

Admittedly, this musical conjecture has the same reductionist shortcomings as Freud’s proposal. Neither theory addresses the full picture of why and how human beings invented religion and music. No single theory can do so. Nevertheless, their shared motivation adds some clarity to the age-old union of music and religion. Both aid our largely fanciful quest for reason and order.

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