Tag Archives: Curt Sachs

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.

Art is Not Life

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is not life. Although woven into life’s intricate tapestry, artistic expression stands apart from the messy details and fluid meanderings of worldly experience. Even the most elaborate artwork—be it a novel, film, symphony, or painting—is simplistic compared to the overwhelming complexities of an average day. Poetry, both calculated and free-flowing, bypasses the vagaries of flatly spoken words, and all the “uhs” and “ums” that come with them. Poets supplant natural speech with measured syllables, crafted imagery, thoughtful word choices, and detours from standard syntax and grammar. Singers follow suit: their words are crafted into clean and fluid phrases; their “speech” is regimented into meter and tonal intervals. The focus is narrowed, the fat is trimmed, the message is tightly conveyed.

This essential quality of art is illustrated by its opposite. In 1951, University of Kansas psychologist Roger Barker and co-author Herbert F. Wright published One Boy’s Day: A Specimen Record of Behavior, chronicling a fourteen-hour span in the life of a mid-western boy. Eight researchers took turns following the boy, recording his minute-by-minute activities at home, school, and play. 7:08 AM: “He came out of the bathroom carrying a bottle of hair oil.” 8:24 AM: “He tossed a stone in the air and swung, but accidentally clipped a flag pole.” No theoretical approach was offered or suggested, just 435 pages of unadorned verbatim notes. Barker expected scientists to enthusiastically examine the raw data, breaking it down and interpreting it in various directions. But the book flopped. Readers—both scientists and laypeople—had little interest in trees without a view of the forest.

Artistic representations avoid life’s tedious details. According to musicologist Curt Sachs, “Art denaturalizes nature in order to raise it to a higher, or at least a different, plane.” This applies well to music. Unlike the ever-ticking clock, musical pieces are set within limited durations (“The Song that Never Ends” perhaps notwithstanding). The self-enclosed architecture of musical form contrasts with the convoluted tangles of the natural world. Musical lines, whether monophonic or hyper-polyphonic, are cherry-picked from infinite sonic possibilities. In both vocal and instrumental music, there is an unnatural clarity of intentions and ideas. Stereotyped modes, phrases, devices, and figurations replace the murkiness and gray areas of real life.

The foregoing discussion is summarized in Picasso’s famous saying: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Our attraction to art stems from its distinction from natural processes and mundane human affairs. Without this fundamental separation, there can be no art.

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