No one person invented music. The music we enjoy today is steeped in a history older than time itself. To understand music is to look back to what it came from, but you won’t find one individual that got up one day and invented music. Music is a natural occurrence that developed from the world around us. Sound, rhythm and harmony are all organic elements that were not brewed in a lab, but developed through a natural, systematic development of human civilization. Understanding music is to pay respect to a rich history that goes back even further than cave drawings. To appreciate music, it can serve us to understand it’s formative beginnings and through its developments over many millenniums. Music is based on a system built on actions as simple as walking, breathing, crying and singing. And a heavy dose of mathematics.
Cave drawings exist of musicians, instruments some kind of recording system. But this is all conjecture. We really don’t know much about music before 900 AD because we didn’t have a way to notate music, much less understand how it was played. Music is mentioned in the bible, specifically Psalms, but we’re left with only the lyrics and the message.
We have a mouth, hands and feet that can create sound. Music is made by adjusting the noise from our mouth to what becomes singing, and creating rhythms from clapping our hands or stomping our feet.
A common question is “where did music begin”? This may infer some kind of system of organized pitch or rhythm. And here’s where the mathematical part comes in.
Say, someone hits a bar of metal, like a blacksmith’s anvil, and creates a sound. The Not just any sound, it creates a pitch, a note that is discernable unlike shuffling your feet in sand. Some wise person surmised that if you change the size of the anvil, it would change the pitch of what was heard. If the anvil is cut to a smaller size, the pitch is higher; if the cut was half of the original size, it would not only be higher in pitch, but may be discerned as a pitch relative to the original.
Now, let’s talk about animal bones. We’re not talking fried chicken here, let’s consider larger animals, or maybe remnants of prehistoric animals. If you’ve seen “2001: A Space Odyssey”, you’ll recall the moment our ape ancestors discovered the power of animal bones as tools, weapons, and just maybe, the sound a dried out animal skull made when hit by a bone. And how the sound might have changed hitting different parts of the skull.
Here’s another scenario… our ancestors used the dried-out intestines of animals as a way of binding materials, like string. One day, someone stretched this material, around a fixed resonant, box-type vessel, and picked at it, which produced a sound, much like stretching rubber bands around a cigar box. Much like anvil discovery, someone surmised that the shorter the string, the higher the pitch, and likewise, the longer the string, the lower the pitch. Here’s where mathematics comes into play.
Along with the short-high and long-low pitch discovery, it was soon learned that if you shortened the string by one-half, the pitch was not only higher, but sounded like it was related to the original length. The string was shortened in half again. The pitch was higher again, and like the last length, had a pitch that was related to the original length. So, someone elaborating on this experiment, one could make a judgment based on the relationship between length and pitch.
Keep in mind that there’s a few million years or so between these discoveries. It wasn’t until a more modern era that we had the ability to express these sonic relationships, and it wasn’t until some sort of writing system that allowed an explanation that could be documented and shared with others. Fast-forward to around 3000 BC when commerce and economics arose in Mesopotamia and a numeric system was necessary to compute money, taxes, real estate, and interpersonal exchange. Add to that the need to record time, calendars and the like, and we’ve now graduated from simply counting with sticks and stones.
In comes the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who, through his concept of musica universalis, discoveed the relationship between the Sun, moon and planets, and formed a cosmological concept of “orbital resonance”. He believed planets had their own sonic signature, though these sounds were imperceptible to humans. This gets esoteric, especially when Aristotle weighed in with his own theory of cosmology. What came out of these discoveries though was musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis, sounds made by singers and instrumentalists, which is what our main interest is here.
Pythagoris’ contribution to music is the field of Pythagorian tuning, which explained the relationship of pitches to each other. His theory was based on several equations, but the end result was a scale of seven pitches built on the overtone series. This was the mathematical explanation of the “rubber bands on the cigar box” theory. Because of the math involved, which include ratios and intervals, a 12-note system was developed, which is largely responsible the system of music we enjoy today.
This system worked for a while, at least until the 1600’s. Music sounded good, but it only sounded good in one key. Music written in the key of C would only sound good played on an instrument tuned to the key of C. This became complicated as music became more chromatic, and the music written in C didn’t sound good when you played it in D, or any other key. Modern day composers like J.S. Bach thoroughly exhausted the tonal status quo to find the limits to Pythagoris’ math.
The culprit was tuning. Something that was “perfectly” in tune was suddenly not. To make music sound universally “in tune”, scales have to be adjusted to work in every key. So, in tune became slightly “out of tune”, which meant a certain degree of temperament, or elasticity had to be introduced. The beauty of all of this meant music could be played in any key. Furthermore, this allowed the introduction of more chromatic music and more complex harmonies.
This was a revolutionary departue in music, and a matter of joy for Bach, as he became the most prolific and preeminent musician of his era. Music as we know it today is based on this system, which we call well-tempered, as it’s based on this scalar system of compromise. The combination of these pitches together make up our current “western” harmonic system (western in a “west of the orient” sense, not referring to country-western music).
Rhythm must be held in the same high regard as the development of the tonal system. Rhythm, especially time, the spatial relationship between notes, has a profound history as old human existence. Humans have two legs, so it goes without saying that there is a natural rhythm as we walk. While walking is an involuntary movement, it does invoke a rhythm as steps and space between create not only a beat, but also an insistent rhythm, what we today call “feel” or what some call “groove”. Maybe one foot is heavier than the other, producing a loud-soft sort of rhythm. Or, someone with a limp may not keep the same order of rhythm, but may introduce a different pattern which, in a modern sense, could be considered syncopation. Breathing is rhythmic, as is a heartbeat.
Some animals have their own rhythmic signature. When horses run fast, they introduce a pattern that has been imitated in music on many occasions (think Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” or Psy’s “Gangnam Style”. The swing of a pendulum evokes it’s own rhythm; constant as it is true, it’s the organization of common time. Much like a metronome, this organized rhythm establishes a time-base that organizes music metrically, and allows ensembles and orchestras to play together within the beat.
This system of western-style music is not the be-all, end-all of all of the world’s music, it’s actually a small part of the entire scope of music when you consider the tonality of other ethnic groups, like India and China, far removed from the classical Grecian mathematics of western organized pitches. Being so far away from other cultures, India and China, along with other distant civilizations, first-nation and indigenous, developed their own systems of music based on their historic universe based in their own antiquity. For example, European opera sounds nothing like Chinese opera; they couldn’t be farther apart when comparing tonality and rhythm. “World music” embraces an ethnocentrically-steeped set of musical systems that appeal to a world culture hungry for new sounds and experiences.
While contemporary classical and jazz music further explores and extemporizes the notions of a developed system of tonality and rhythm, the entire history of music, one that spans beyond the constructs of recorded time, can often be deconstructed (or destructed) in a pop song of less than three minutes, composed and performed not by musicians, but by a consortium of boardroom executives using digital technology that thoroughly exploits the tenants of a rich background of tradition of culture at the risk of profits. A far cry from sticks and stones.