The true and definitive story of the birth of music..

1:39 pm Free Improv, Improvisation, Music, Taqasim

Some thousands of years ago someone hit a stick against a piece of wood, deliberately, not for the purpose of making a tool or for hunting or farming. S/He did it for the purpose of hearing the sound of it. Music was born.

How did music start? Why do we play music? What was the first music like? Was it invented by a child or an adult? Was it invented in daytime or nighttime? Was it improvised or composed? Why do we still improvise? Where is music going? Why are there so many different kinds of music?

I am not sure information is available for anyone to answer most, if any, of these questions. The process of thinking about the answers, however, is interesting. This is a mental exercise..

I suggest we call the birthday of music the day when someone decided to make a sound for the sake of hearing that sound. It is quite possible that sound may have been used before then for the purpose of repelling predators, or serve some other practical function. But I would like to consider that the moment that the switch was made to making sound without any practical end in mind as the birth moment of music.

Was it a child or a grownup that invented music? We can’t really tell, but we can take a guess. I would guess that it was a child. Perhaps it because grownups were too busy trying to hunt and gather, make and maintain shelter, and defend the group. More importantly, however. Children seem to have always had more of a license to play than adults. Was it invented in the daytime or nighttime? If we accept the guess that children invented it, then my guess for this question is daytime. Why? That’s probably when children played and grownups did grownup things like gather berries, and kill animals.

It may, on the face of it, seem simple to answer whether the first music was composed or improvised. One is tempted to answer that it was improvised because before there was music there certainly were no composers. Or were there? What if the child was imitating the sound of something else, like the rhythmic sound of someone crushing something. What if the first music wasn’t hitting wood against wood, but was dragging a branch on the ground. What if it was trying to imitate the sound of the wind or a creak. What if the first music was the creak? A child sat daily by the creak and listened to the sound of water against pebbles. It was music to his ears. What if the first musician was also a composer and it was water?

I now regret writing in my master’s thesis that the first music was improvised, because if there was no music before it then there certainly couldn’t have been composers. Did I leave that in the thesis or did I take it out? It could still be true. We’re only guessing.

If the first music was not played, but heard, and the first musician was not man but nature, and it was the second musician who was human. What was the first human music like? An imitation? How soon before the human musicians switched from trying to imitate to trying to produce new music? Was that some sort of a stone age avantgarde? Was it in the stone age or before? Or after? Was there a continuity in the musical heritage? When was the first musicologist born? Did people do concerts or was all music participatory in the beginning?

And what was the purpose of playing music? When and why did it turn from child’s play to something that eventually lead to Wagner, Umm Kulthoum and the Beatles?

Luckily, I have a guess here. At some point, a child or group of children were making sounds and some grownup was moved by it. That was the decisive moment. Someone was so moved by music, in fact, that they wanted to be able to experience it again.

But what happened next? Did the first music appreciator want to become a musician herself or did she just want to listen? Chopin etudes and two digit over two digit polyrhythms did not exist then, and it couldn’t have been that hard to get into conservatories. Everyone could have become a musician, but did they? Were there any music detractors? People who thought it a silly waste of time and perfectly good firewood. Was music invented before fire or after it?

When was the first orchestrator born. You know, the person who decided what the wood blocks would do, and what the branches would do, and what the shouters would do? Shouters? When did the human voice become an instrument and were the first singers difficult to deal with? When was the first diva born? When was the first time someone decided to stand before a performing crowd and waive his hand expecting that everyone would follow his directions? Did they follow his directions? Did they make fun of him? Did they hold rehearsals where he got mad and kicked people out of the his orchestra? Did he work with composers? Was he a composer himself? Did they all have fun? Who had more fun the musicians or the audience? Was there an audience or was everyone in the tribe performing?

These are serious questions. Useless. But serious. When was the first useless question about music asked? Was asked by a musicologist, a critic, or a philosopher? When was the first un-appreciated composer born? You know, the first one who was a genius but no body knew it? Did they know it after his death, or did he compose and die without anyone taking notice?

Before music paid enough, did all musicians have a day job?

Finally, a question I can answer. The answer, of course, is maybe. Maybe some of them where married to someone else who put the food on the table.

When was the first composition commissioned? What for? Who was the first person to become rich from music?

If we are to ever be able to tell the true and complete story of music we have to answer all those questions, and the questions that I haven’t thought of, and the questions that will arise from the answers, and the questions that will arise from those, etc..

But why is it important to know? Does it matter what music sounded like ten thousand years ago? Fifty?

What if it was great music? Better than anything we now know. Someone is going to roll their eyes at this one: Better than those magnificent orchestra hits? Better than the voice of Umm Kulthoum turning intervals into heartbeats. Better than the John Coltrane’s anguished saxophone prayers? Who knows? Maybe there was something better. It’s not as if the music of humanity only becomes better with time. One only needs to listen to Arabic pop music to exclaim that what was, arguably, the greatest century in the history of Arabic music was immediately followed by what is, arguably, the worst.

Was that really the greatest century in the history of Arabic music? And when was it that people started thinking of music against the passing of time? Time is always part of music. That’s rhythm. But does music have rhythm? Not within a composition, but bigger, higher rhythm. The rhythm of the life of music. Is music a living thing?

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