20-30 years of new studies and archeological finds, it is now possible
to move the subject of the origin of music out of the realm of mostly theory
into a new phase of physical reality. The
first physical evidence pointing to an understanding of how music probably
arose came with Helmholtz' 1877 Sensations of Tone and his advance
of acoustic science after Pythagoras. But little new was added until the
By then, an extreme
deeply set in among some music circles which believed that no physical
"universals" governing an "evolution" of music were
acceptable ideas. ‘Creativity could not be standardized or quantified;
any attempts were ethnocentric, possibly even repressive' was the feeling.
Not all is known or
we'd like, but an overall picture can now be drawn of actual stages
in the progression of music from its earliest beginnings, based on the
new and now sufficient evidence. This picture does suggest an evolutionary
process that proceeds within a lawful or clearly definable historic, acoustic,
physiological, and psychological framework. This picture is always tempered,
even obscured, by some creative impulses that cannot be, & may never
be, quantified, or that are bred within any given culture and its own conditioned
internal aesthetic growth.
This overall picture
theories that were laid out in the views first published privately as Music
& Materialism by Bob Fink in the 1950's, developed further into
the 1970 book The Universality of Music, later in 1981 titled The
Origin of Music.
The newer evidence that
over the recent past -- but not without most of the same music circles
& other factions rushing to stridently dispute each item of evidence
itself & its significance -- involves:
* the study by Trehub
& Co regarding the effect of consonance & dissonance on infants;
* The discovery of 9,000
Chinese flutes (one still playable) showing a 1,200 year evolution of flute
scales from 5 notes to 7 and 8 notes, not unlike the scales in wide use
today; and last but not least,
* the discovery of the
Flute & Bob Fink's controversial, famous & award-winning internet
The controversy has given
a bit more ongoing drama (and even some humour) than what the usual run
of academic research articles develop.
About author Robert
has been cited in many journals, including articles in Science magazine;
Scientific American; Archaeologia
Musicalis; the published proceedings of the September 2000 music
archaeology conference: Archaeology
of Sound,and innumerable news articles [Globe & Mail; The
Times of London; Ottawa Citizen (Oct 28,2002 in the "Enchanted
Ear"); Some magazine cover stories (e.g., Alberta's
newsweekly: "Western Report," May 5, 1997), etc]. He
has several citations in the recently published Massachusetts Institute
of Technology's (MIT) book of a collection of writings titled: Origins
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E S S A Y
The stages (without assigning any length of time for a "stage"
to play itself out) begin with rhythm and may include various forms of
bodily movement, ranging from the rocking of a baby to social dancing.
Rhythm is produced by banging on things and the noises become organized
in various meters.
In this period, noise serves rhythm. Noise, as different from musical
tones, probably was not fully separated to distinguish any kind of
from "dissonance." Again, there is no way of knowing how long
any "stage" could take or last.
While rhythm implements evolved to have purer and purer pitch qualities,
banging sticks and logs would originally be done without much regard to
tone qualities. Thus the banging out of rhythms on drums or logs, or on
shells and the like, will produce many simultaneous pitches (e.g.,
organized noise) -- but it would not be reasonable to call this any
kind of deliberate "harmony" because the pitches chosen for
this simultaneity are a product of the chance or spontaneous nature of
materials at hand. There is little consistency regarding choices of tone
where rhythm dominates in any musical culture. The focus is rhythm, not
pitch tones nor the nature of the mix of these tones.
The earliest separations of pitch made from rhythmic noise or cries
would have been the octave, fifth and fourth. Melodies could not be readily
formed from these pitches, but these pitches would automatically appear
inside the hollow bores of signaling flutes, or from such things as ram's
horns, etc., caused by accidental or deliberate overblowing or under-blowing,
creating octaves and fifths. The human voice (such as humming to a child
by a mother) can also break tones into these pitches on many occasions,
again, accidentally or deliberately.
Such pitches and tones become part of the fabric of ceremony and religious
events, often appreciated as separate, or single, tones. Many early gongs,
chimes and other instruments are found as single tones, unrelated to other
tones (and sometimes represent single ideas -- such as a gong for moon,
or sun, or death, etc). Pictures of single gongs are well-known & plentiful,
and so not needed to be shown. But older single stone chimes are shown
below. [First top illustration from Smith, World's Earliest Music,
p.161. 2nd illus: Source not available.]
After a while, a sense of consonant pitches usually found in the earliest
pentatonic scales, such as C,D,F,G,A,C -- [based on cumulative overtones
from the use of the fourth, and fifth and "tonic" -- See Origin
of Music or see http:// www.greenwych.ca /
natbasis.htm] -- would become the basis of melodies and
"motifs" (or segments of melodies), and likely would be noted
very separately from just the arts of dance rhythms or noises. Instruments
and chimes will reflect this set of related pitches more, and less and
less be used just to produce single tones. In the illustration below an
ancient set of stone chimes is seen as well as a single chime -- or possibly
a "key note." (Illustration source not available).
At this stage, there is the adding, to the art of rhythm, of the art
of early melody.
We can see that for the musician, the connotations of a single pitch
give way to a greater importance to the connections between pitches,
or the "links" between one pitch (or note) and another (which
we nowadays call "tonality" or "key"). It is at this
point that, as happened in widely differing cultures, the gaps in the pentatonic
melodies are more and more filled with tones that are known today as
tones" (usually, the 3rd and 7th notes of the diatonic scale) and
which turn a pentatonic melody more and more into a diatonic one.
Note here that melodies are not made from scales. The reality
is almost invariably vice versa. Scales come into being because scales
must eventually be deduced in order to produce instruments that
will play the existing melodies. And as shown in the colour illustrations
[top & bottom], instruments derive from objects at hand, such as bones,
the Ram's horn, the hunter's bow, going from basic tones to additional
notes and scales.
Instruments made to reflect this acoustic influence would sometimes,
on flutes, exhibit unequal hole spacings. Such spacings are now found in
some of the recently announced find of Chinese 9,ooo year old flutes, one
of them still playable, and clearly found in the Neanderthal flute.
The reports given on the ancient Chinese flutes, at a 2000 conference
of music archaeologists, indicate that over a thousand year period, the
scale appears to have moved from 5-note scales to 7-note scales, with sounds
that appear somewhat pentatonic and later diatonic. See Update
Without giving detail, there is also the work by Professor Anne Draffkorn
Kilmer, et al, that interprets the 4,ooo year old cuneiform song from Ugarit
(oldest song known) also having used the
diatonic scales. These scales are hardly "Western," after all.
The significance of the
of this growing sense of "melodicism," tonality and key, is that
we can answer a fundamental question about how and why harmony evolved
and explain some related historic phenomena.
To do this, let's return to a simple acoustic description of matters
of tone now.
The simplest tone in nature is a single note (albeit, even these
notes have overtones, but we'll put that aside for now).
When any harmony is added to a given note, it is a huge demand on our
senses to acclimate themselves to not perceiving the combination as dissonant
(in comparison to the non-harmony of single tones). That's because each
tone added will produce its own additional audible overtones, each conflicting
with those of other notes, producing an increasing movement back toward
the dissonant properties of noise, as each new note or harmony is added.
The single note is always more consonant than harmonies and chords.
Noise may serve rhythm, but when tones or pitches become increasingly
the objects of musical interest, then noise and dissonance are assigned
a limited and specific role and are usually avoided for the most part in
So why did humanity bother with development of harmony at all??
The answer is that there are relationships of overtones between
the notes of a melody, even in a rudimentary pentatonic melody. That
is the heart of any "scale." [A full pentatonic or diatonic scale
can be called the 'first' tonal melody -- or better: The 'essence' of melody].
Role of Harmony
The role of harmony in a melodic musical culture is this:Harmony
tends to overtly reveal between the notes of a melody what is hidden (in
overtone relationships) by playing some of these overtone relationships
out loud. This -- in the hands of a harmonicist/composer
can either aid the perception of the connection between a melody's notes
as they unfold through time, or even deliberately obscure those connections
-- all to aesthetic effect. [To hear an example, click
The dissonances of harmony now become tolerable once a musician is
concerned with the connections between notes of a melody. As said, a musician
in an "earlier" stage, prior to such melodic practices, is concerned
more with the aesthetics effects of single or pure tones, and so would
avoid the dissonances of deliberate harmonies [with the possible exception
of using octaves and fifths, which are assigned to different voice ranges
as a form of "unison"].
Therefore, we can so far explain from this why, in the limited data
existing of the most ancient music, we likely will never find any deliberate
harmonic practices existing unless and until the diatonic scale (or perhaps
a pentatonic that includes occasional leading tones) has been established.
Of course, as history unfolds, it never progresses in a neat &
tidy manner to suit any theory of "stages." The stages can overlap
or often be interrupted by a cessation of communication of, or inability
to hand-down, past practices to a later community, and so the stages may
end up beginning again in a later culture.
In my studies into music's origins (The Origin of Music), I published a hypothesis on the evolution of the scale,
going a step or two beyond the landmark acoustic information provided us
by Pythagoras and Helmholtz.
As many of us may know, a "cycle" or circle of fifths can
produce all the notes we use, and return approximately to the original
tone (much higher), missing it only by what Pythagoras called a
about an eighth of a tone. However, this cycle does not produce the notes
entirely in the order in which history seems to have added them to the
scale. This perplexed Helmholtz, who wondered, with two halftones already
in the diatonic scale, why the ancients didn't go further and add more
(available from this cycle) into their scales.
Therefore, ancients had to arrive at their scales by some other method,
especially when we note the consideration that this cycle was not technically
producible when scales and music began and evolved.
I started to think in terms of the effects of the three most commonly
used intervals, the "tonic" or starting tone with its octave,
and the fifth and the fourth intervals of that starting tone. This "trio"
of intervals would have been an everyday pervasive occurrence in the making
of musical sounds in all cultures.
Fourths and fifths can be simply shown as C-F and C-G [or a fourth:
C-F and fifth: C-G.] C has the role of the "tonic."
The most audible overtones of these notes can be heard easily by normal
ears -- somewhat subliminally, but, for example, their effect easily allows
us to distinguish the same note sung by a person from one played on a flute
or string. Over time, overtones also influence the addition of other notes
to fill the gaps between the C-C' octave.
The overtones, say of the notes C, and of the F (a fourth up) and of
the G (a fifth up) when recognized (by a long historical process of using
octaves, 5th and 4ths) and relocated within the range of an octave, will
produce the most commonly known scales in the world: Diatonic, Pentatonic,
and the minor scale.
Using the most audible DIFFERENT overtones [repeats &
octaves omitted] of the tonic, fifth and fourth, you get C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C,
the major scale.
This simple chart below shows how this happens:
audible overtones are:
its audible overtones are:
(fifth) -- its
audible overtones are:
[From left to right, the loudness of the overtones of each of the
trio of notes generally decreases.]
But as the E and B are also among the less audible overtones
of our "trio" of the tonic, fourth and fifth, then leaving
them out of the scale produces the pentatonic scale: C,D,F,G,A,C.
The "A" remains because it forms no half-tones with the other
scale-notes. As Helmholtz wrote, "many nations avoided the use of
intervals of less than a tone."(On the Senstaions of Tone,
Dover, 2nd Ed., 1954 p.257)
But people would add halftones -- only if they were justified
by being a melodic "leading-tone" to an important interval. The
E above -- in the full diatonic scale -- therefore "leads" to
the important cadential fourth (F), and the B is a leading-tone to the
octave (C). The Chinese had the name "pien" for these
tones, meaning "becoming," and would add them occasionally into
their pentatonic. And in Scotland, Ireland and in pentatonic Celtic music,
the notion of these tones was described as "on the way to," or
"crossing over" tones. And in Africa, these tones are often tuned
in a "neutral" compromise between being major or minor, which
in jazz are called "blue" notes.
In the earliest times, before any concepts of melodious "flow"
may have existed -- such as using blue notes, or leading tones, or when
melody was very rudimentary -- these notes could have been left out of
songs and even preclude any notions of a "scale." [Note: When
instruments like flutes are made, then what holes to put in them often
will eventually force peoples to seek some kind of concept of a general
"scale" over time.]
Finally, being weakly audible, these overtones (E and B) could be confused
with the next audible overtones (of this trio of basic tones), which are
Bb and Eb -- thus producing (with use of an Ab) the common minor scale
-- when these flatter tones replace the E, A, and B in the scale.
Thus all the scales most widely used throughout history are accounted
for in these acoustic parallels.
Finally, as additional evidence for the source of the scale coming
from this trio of notes, the advent of harmony, especially in the West,
has generally seen a harmonization scheme that assign chords to any particular
note of the scale (or a melody) based on how that note arose within
The notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C, you might think, could
each be harmonized by a chord of the same letter name, that is, the C harmonized
by a C chord;
The D harmonized by a D chord;
The E harmonized by an E chord;
And so on -- but it was never done that way.
Instead, as history and practice shows, the method evolved is that
the notes are usually harmonized by only three chords [or derivatives of
them], those of the tonic, fourth and fifth -- the same "trio":
The C is harmonized by the C chord;
The D is harmonized by the G chord (because it was the G in the trio
of notes that gave rise to the D in the scale or in melody);
The E is harmonized by the C chord;
The F is harmonized by the F chord; And so on: The G by the G chord;
the A by the F chord; the B by the G chord, and the octave by the C chord.
These parallels of
evolution and harmonic practice with the fundamentals of acoustic principles
of consonance are difficult to accept being dismissed as simply massive