On August 29, 1952, in a concert hall in New York, pianist David Tudor performed the premiere of John Cage’s 4’33’’, a piece that would impact the rest of Western music history. What the audience heard (or didn’t hear) was a pianist opening the keyboard, sitting in silence, and then closing the keyboard after four minutes and thirty-three seconds had passed. Despite being a great historical work for a new era of experimental music, the piece is still “controversial” because it challenges our beliefs as to what music is and is not.
Cage’s goal was to show that music is produced by the audience as opposed to music being produced by the composer. To answer the question “when was music invented” depends on what we consider to be music. Does it require intentionality? Do only humans make music, or can other species create it too? Can silence be music? It is true that a composer can create music with both notes and silences. But could the random and barely audible sound of a leaf falling create music as well?
When was music invented
Throughout history, there are many instances of sound that some could argue to be music. While discussions on how the nature of music can be complicated, scholars and musicians alike have examined sounds and looked for “music” within them.
The Music of the Universe
Pythagoras posited that the sun, the moon, and each planet created its own vibration or tune resulting from the movement of celestial bodies. Other scholars throughout the Middle Ages accepted this notion of “the music of the spheres.” The idea refers more to the mathematical and astronomical laws that govern the movement of the planets rather than the sounds actually produced by such planets. To this day, music and astronomy are an inspiration for many musicians, ranging from Gustav Holst’s classic suite The Planets to James McAlister’s experimental electronic album Planetarium released in 2017.
The Music of Animals
The study of zoomusicology studies the use of “music” among animals and how they communicate using auditory signals. Many animals, such as frogs, insects, and birds, use auditory signals during mating season. Humans have tried to imitate the sounds of different animals in their music throughout history. As Western art music moved towards the twentieth century, composers began to experiment with more animal sounds in their music. Perhaps the most dedicated to the sounds of birds was Olivier Messiaen, the French composer who recorded and transcribed live birdsong into his own pieces. Composers have also tried to imitate the sounds of insects. Rimsky-Korsakov’s well known “Flight of the Bumblebee” uses rapid ascending and descending chromatic lines coupled with dissonant harmonies to imitate the buzzing of the bumblebee.
The Music of Humans
The field of evolutionary musicology studies the origins of music and its evolutionary function for the survival of a species. In the theme of biology, the question we must answer is why does a certain trait arise, and how does it help a population survive?
Some researchers believe that music was a way for different species to claim territory. A shared song among members of a group encourages social cohesion and distinguishes members of that group from others. Both birds and gibbons use vocalizations as a way to defend a territory during mating rituals. Therefore, music may have developed as a form of communication and later as an emotional form of ritual solidarity.
Motherese or “baby talk” is the array of sounds and intonations a human mother makes when interacting with her newborn. This helps strengthen the bond between mother and infant as well as helps the baby to develop language skills. The intonations and pitches are common across different cultures, and baby talk may be a possible origin of the development of vocal music.
Brown proposed the musilanguage hypothesis after studying the inherent connections between both language and music. The musilanguage hypothesis argues for a similar stage in which both language and music evolved. There are three main properties that language and music both share, of which Brown argues formed the components of the musilanguage stage. The first is the lexical tone (using pitch as a way to distinguish elements of a sentence, such as in many East Asian languages). The second property is the combinatorial formation, which is the facility to take tones and create various phrasic structures. Finally, expressive phrasing in language and music is the act of stressing certain pitches or phrases to emphasize a specific idea or section.
The first instrument created was probably the one most available to the Neanderthals: the human voice. In the same stream as the development of language where humans started to experiment with clicks, trills, and tones, music began to evolve.
The first man-made instrument was probably a percussion instrument, developed first from rhythmic hand-clapping and then from various objects striking together. One of the most well-known ancient instrument, known as the Divje Babe flute, is a cave bear bone bored with holes discovered in Slovenia. Some believe this 45,000-year-old artifact to be the oldest prehistoric instrument, while others consider it simply a bone that a carnivore chewed on overtime.
Music: Universal Language?
Since almost all humans understand music and can produce it, many people have claimed music to be the “universal language.” An example of a universal musical “property” that is widely known across all cultures is the Pentatonic scale. The scale consists of five semitones and evolved independently across cultures in Eastern China to the indigenous African music to the American blues. The Pentatonic scale, thus, could be an example of music that all humans can relate to.
Despite musical similarities, however, music cultures around the world are still vastly different and can often be quite unintelligible (just think about Cage’s 4’33”!) And while there are varying types of genres across cultures, each culture understands its own unique form of music. Just as different organisms arose from a single cell through the long process of evolution, so did different music cultures arise from the intersection of biological, social, and cultural forces. While musical “language” may differ across the world, we can all understand what music means to us as individuals and as a larger society.