Wednesday, September 25, 2013

380. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 38: No Clothes

Well, sorry but . . . While appreciating the insight behind McAllester's "great awakening," and recognizing both the importance of change and the value of much popular music, I must beg to differ with the view that dismisses any concern for threatened traditions as misguided romanticism, or any attempt to distinguish the authentic from the phoney as an offensive "essentialization." Mr. Rogers may like you "just the way you are," but as far as I myself am concerned, I don't particularly like greedy individuals who want to hog everything for themselves and leave nothing for anyone else.

Monday, September 23, 2013

379. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 37: A Great Awakening

I would venture to say that the viewpoint represented by Strelitz, Moore and Greene (as quoted in the previous post) is shared by the great majority of academics today, not only in the field of popular music studies but ethnomusicology as well. In an especially influential essay, "The Astonished Ethno-Music" (Ethnomusicology, Vol. 23 no. 2, 1979), my much admired professor at Wesleyan University, David McAllester, noted with surprise that the music most admired by contemporary American Indians was not the indigenous ceremonial music he'd been studying, but that of popular country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Don Williams, supplemented by heavy doses of, you guessed it: Rock. On a trip to Australia, he discovered that "Country and Western is the current popular music of both urban Aboriginals and those on the reserves." Which should not have been terribly surprising, since, according to McAllester, the “one great constant in human culture" is: change.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

378. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 36: The Argument for "Hybridity"

There is, of course, more to the story of musical "globalization" than I've presented so far, and there is definitely another side to this issue that warrants consideration. Some understandable concerns are eloquently expressed in an essay by Larry Strelitz, of Rhodes University in South Africa: "Against cultural essentialism: media reception among South African youth" (Media Culture and Society 2004; 26; 625 -- Strelitz takes exception to the "cultural essentialism" of what he calls the "media imperialism thesis," i.e., the notion that age-old traditions all over the world are being shunted aside by the aggressive marketing of popular music based on "Western" tastes:

Monday, September 9, 2013

377. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 35: Pissing in the Stream

As an ethnomusicologist specializing in the study of indigenous music, I am particularly disturbed by the effects of globalization on so many of the indigenous traditions I've learned to respect and even, in so many cases, love. Especially disheartening is the common tendency, on the part of some of our most influential musical pundits, to applaud the destruction, and indeed desecration, of such traditions in the name of cultural "reclamation"  or "revitalization."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

376. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 34: My Breaking Pointe

I apologize for the long delay between the last post and this one. I've been distracted by other projects and I've also been traveling, so that's two good excuses right there. But also I must admit that I'm finding it difficult to express my thoughts and my feelings at this point in the presentation and have been reluctant to proceed because the topic is in fact so extremely complex and challenging - not to mention controversial. And also because, frankly, the issues raised by Alan Lomax are very meaningful to me, and I too, like him, can tend to get a bit emotional, and even outraged, despite my efforts to be calm, cool, collected, professional, fair, and even handed.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

375. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 33:Grey-Out

To summarize my previous two posts, one thing I find especially interesting about the rhythm  section/ continuo phenomenon I've been discussing has to do with the metaphor of musical motion, which appears to have grown out of the association between the development of common practice harmony and dance. Thus just about all common practice music (with the exception of recitative, I suppose) can be considered, in some sense, dance music, if only via an internalized visualization/representation of dancers moving across an empty space according to the dictates of a steady beat, a regularized metric, and an essentially four-square phrase structure. Of course, during the 18th and 19th Centuries, the continuo dropped out of view, at least as far as "classical music" was concerned, but the underlying sense of chord progression and directed motion, as revealed especially in the analyses of certain "classic" works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., by noted theoretician Heinrich Schenker, remained. And when that sense of smoothly flowing, step by step continuous motion was interrupted in the 20th Century by the disjunctions of a Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, etc., then the Schenkerian model became utterly useless. (Some will disagree, and there have been efforts to adapt Schenker's methods to "modernist" music, but in my view none have been successful -- I feel sure even Schenker himself would not have approved.)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

374. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 32:The Metaphor of Musical Motion

What I've been getting at in the previous post is the idea that the introduction of the figured bass/continuo in the 16th century, in conjunction with the dynamic new approach to tonal structure now referred to as "common practice" tonality, appears to mark the introduction of a new concept as well: what could be called the metaphor of musical motion. In this regard I see the notion of a "chord progression" as having opened the door, during the Baroque period, to an entirely new way of thinking about musical meaning. Of course, any music, from any time, could be considered as in some sense "moving," viz. from note to note or motive to motive, etc., but the notion of a chord progression, i.e., a set of chords progressing systematically toward a preconceived goal, is especially compelling in this respect.

Monday, July 29, 2013

373. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 31:In Motion

Now that I've established (in my own mind at least) the pedigree of this very interesting phenomenon, known to some as "rhythm section," to others as "continuo," I'd like to think a bit about what it might mean. And as far as I can tell, there are two different aspects to this question. The first has to do with what one might want to call its "semiotic" aspect, and the second with its "socio-political" aspect. Let's start with the "semiotic."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

372. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 30:Hidden in Plain Sight

The point I've been trying to make is that what we now call the rhythm section has been around for a very long time, and despite many changes in style and taste, especially in the realm of "classical" music, it's been with us from at least the early 16th century, through the "Baroque" period, all the way up to the present -- when, once again, as in the Baroque, it has gone viral. While many might argue that it vanished entirely during the 19th century, that is not at all the case. It's only that our musicologists have been looking in all the wrong places.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

371. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 29:From quadrille to jazz

As we've learned, evidence gleaned from the study of gypsy music suggests the rhythm section (aka "continuo") was alive and well in the popular dance music of many European towns and villages during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, unlike what happened during the "Classical," "Romantic" and "Modern" periods of the "serious music" tradition, the rhythm section and its ilk never completely disappeared, but, on the contrary, seems to have gone under the radar. This is true not only of gypsy music, of course, but also many other types of dance music popular during this same period.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

370. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 28:Kontra and Bass

Please forgive the repetition, but the last quotation in my previous post warrants some further consideration:

"According to general present concepts the smallest number in any gypsy ensemble which can still be considered complete is four: two violins (one of them playing a kontra, that is an accompaniment), a cimbalom and a bass." The earliest known example being that of Panna Czinka (female), who died in 1772. (Bálint Sárosi, Gypsy Music, p. 71.)

Is it unreasonable to extrapolate backward from the practice of traditional gypsy bands of today to that of gypsy bands with precisely the same makeup in the 18th Century, as described above?  Especially interesting in this regard is yet another Sárosi quote, this time from his essay, "Gypsy Musicians and Hungarian Peasant Music" (Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 2 (1970), pp. 8-27):

Sunday, July 14, 2013

369. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 27:Passing the Baton

Finally, after having literally dominated the musical scene throughout the Baroque period and well into the early Classical period, the Basso Continuo virus appears to have gradually dissipated and, by roughly the year 1800 had apparently more or less died out entirely.
By the second half of the 18th century, figured bass was almost entirely eliminated, except in sacred choral music, where it lingered until well after 1800: Beethoven's Mass in C major (1807), for example, has a figured bass part. (Figured bass - Wikipedia)

Monday, July 8, 2013

368. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 26:Persistence Is All

All too often, in my opinion, we find the continuo even where it isn't really needed -- or even called for. As in this Bach Motet for example, which could easily have been performed a Capella. Bach's original lacks a continuo part, but here it is anyhow:

J.S. Bach: Motet BWV 225 'Singet dem Herrn' - Vocalconsort Berlin

Sunday, July 7, 2013

367. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 25:Major Infestation

The basso continuo literally infected the entire Baroque period from beginning to end, very quickly becoming accepted as a taken for granted element in almost every single "classical" genre. The only exceptions I can think of would be music intended for a solo instrument: harpsichord, violin, 'cello (or gamba), organ, etc. Let's listen to a few more examples to get a sense of how completely this "virus" infested the entirety of the European courts, opera houses, concert halls, drawing rooms, cathedrals and churches of the time. Here's something everyone will recognize, a fine performance of "Autumn," from Vivaldi's Four Seasons:

Thursday, July 4, 2013

366. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 24:Going Baroque

As seems clear, the "rhythm section" I've been preoccupied with over the last several posts, along with the new tonal language that went along with it, must, in all likelihood, have originated with a type of urban-based popular dance music propagated initially by minstrels and other musicians of the "lower orders," according to a largely oral tradition now for the most part lost to us. We have no reason to believe, moreover, that this oral tradition simply died out after being taken up by the "learned" musicians of the aristocratic courts. While "minstrels" are often treated in the literature as low-class adjuncts of the courts, clearly a great many professional musicians of roughly the same status were active among the general populace, and it seems highly unlikely that the need for their services for weddings, celebrations, dances, etc., in the cities and towns would have suddenly vanished. (The peasants, on the other hand, would have retained their own age-old musical traditions, as performed in rural areas by peasant musicians rather than professionals.) Thus, regardless of what happened subsequently, in the foreground of our historical awareness, it's important to realize that the new musical style pioneered by the popular musicians of the day would, in all likelihood, have persisted unimpeded in the background, among the general populace, for a very long time.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

365. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 23:Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Whether the "tonal revolution" highlighted by musicologists such as Lowinsky and Taruskin was relatively sudden or, as claimed by Taruskin, "cooking behind the curtain for centuries," its origins seem to have been out of sight in the "unwritten tradition" noted by van der Merwe and Prizer, a tradition active largely in the cities and towns, practiced for the most part by the "pop" musicians of the day, usually referred to now as "minstrels," wandering and otherwise. Why it is that the "learned" musicians of the day suddenly got interested in the vernacular of the lower orders is hard to say, but its a good bet that, then as now, all good musicians tended to keep an ear out for what all the other good musicians were up to, regardless of their status or pedigree. It's also possible that this simpler, more clearly defined, popular style, so much easier to dance to than the usual court fare, was more suited to the tastes of the newly influential merchant class.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

364. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 22:A Tonal Complex

Yet it should not be thought that the "tonal revolution" was a sudden thing, just because it has swung so suddenly into our historical purview. . .  What is suddenly made literate and visible can be cooking behind the curtain for centuries, and in this case certainly was. [ibid.] 
Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 1

To recapitulate:

We see, in the music of certain late 15th and early 16th Century court dances of southern Europe, the apparently sudden emergence of a tonal complex foreshadowing developments that were to eventually dominate almost all notated music of the 17th and early 18th Centuries (i.e., the "Baroque Period"). What was this tonal complex? First and foremost, the institution of a tonal system built around a distinctive and all important bass part, which, aside from recitative, adhered closely to a steady beat, defined a highly regularized metric, and supported clearly defined chord progressions based largely on the tonic, dominant and subdominant triads of the major and minor scales. Put these together and we have the essential elements of what ultimately came, in the 20th Century, to be called "rhythm section," and, for the Baroque Period, Basso Continuo.

Friday, June 28, 2013

363. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 21:Out of Africa?

To repeat my previous question: "So if we are looking for a connection between some important historical event and dancing, then could that historical event have been: the discovery of the New World?" And the answer, I'm afraid, would have to be: "no." For a long time I thought it was "yes."

Why? Not because of any influence streaming from the dancing and singing of Native Americans to European colonists -- the cultural differences are simply too great, and there is no trace of any significant influence of that sort anywhere in Europe for centuries. But the Americas were also the scene of a mass migration of African slaves to the newly founded colonies, and, as we well know from the proliferation of so many hybrids in Latin America, the Caribbean and North America, African music and dance has always had a magical effect on the European psyche.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

362. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 20:Emergence of the Ground

In secular vocal music tonality emerged, especially as it opened itself to popular sources of inspiration; but in the instrumental dance literature it had the strongest representation right from the beginning of the century.
Edward Lowinsky,
Tonality and Atonality in Sixteenth Century Music , 1961, p. 75.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

361. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 19:An Unwritten Tradition

The musicological literature contains many references to the large body of unwritten "popular" music that clearly flourished in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Italy, but most scholars simply throw up their hands, as it's so poorly documented. To my knowledge, the self-described "amateur," Peter van der Merwe, is the only one to have undertaken a major comparative analysis of popular music through the ages, in a study that in some ways parallels my own.1 He too attaches considerable importance to the popular music of Renaissance Italy, which he describes as the "cradle of tonality."

Monday, June 24, 2013

360. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 18:The Dancing Merchants

At the risk of oversimplification, it's possible to divide the musical life of the Renaissance into four broad categories:  1. Court music, i.e., the music of the "aristocratic class"; 2. The music of the countryside, aka "peasant music"; 3. Liturgical music, i.e., the music of the church; 4. And finally, the music of the towns and cities, populated by numerous guilds, members of the working class and middle class, both lower and upper, thrown together into a complex social mix. Dance was an important element in the social life of all but the clergy, and, in my view, it is to dance that we must turn in order to understand the musical developments we've been considering.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

359. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 17:Roots of the Continuo

Most sources define the "basso continuo" or "thorough bass," as a bass part accompanied by "figures" indicating the chords to be played in the upper part, usually the right hand of a keyboard instrument. Thus the harpsichordist, or organist, but also in certain cases lute, chitarrone, etc. player, would be expected to play from the bass part only, improvising the upper parts based on chords implied by the accompanying figures. In most cases, the bass would be reinforced by an instrument such as the viola da gamba, 'cello, double bass, trombone, bassoon, etc. So defined, the continuo is generally thought to have originated early in the 17th century. Thus, for the Harvard Dictionary, "Continuo accompaniments may well be older in secular than sacred music, but no examples survive from before 1600." [p. 26]

Friday, June 21, 2013

358. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 16:Dancing Voices

In addition to the "modern" tendencies found in 16th Century dance music, Lowinsky points to two  equally "advanced" vocal repertoires, the "dancelike" Italian Frottola, and Spanish Villancico. As with so many of the dances, many of these relatively light vocal works were also organized around repeating chord progressions, in many cases grounded by ostinato basses.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

357. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 15:Dancing Bass

According to musicologist Edward Lowinsky, Glareanus and Zarlino, leading theoreticians of the 16th Century, "agreed that the Ionian was the favorite mode in dance music. Glareanus was speaking of the music of several European countries, Zarlino of that of Italy. Both were right." [p. 62] The Ionian mode is roughly equivalent to the modern major scale, a pillar of the "common practice" tonal system that would ultimately emerge full blown during the following century. Here's an example, a scene lifted from a movie, apparently about Henry VIII, of a 16th Century court dance, in a very "modern" sounding G major:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

356. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 14:Tonality

Throughout much of the 15th and early 16th Centuries, the bass was, in a great many cases, just another part, contributing more or less equally with the other voices to a polyphonic web largely characterized by stepwise melodic motion, based on the traditional church modes of that time. There were exceptions, notably in homophonic interludes, or cadence points, where leaps of a fourth, fifth and/or octave in the bass were not uncommon, but for the most part it behaved like any other voice. In the Kyrie of Josquin desPres' Pange Lingua Mass, for example, the bass shares the melodic/motivic materials of the upper parts with only a few exceptions, largely at cadence points:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

355. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 13:16th Century Roots

Gordon Tracie's comment about adding a bass part to simplify rhythmically complex peasant dances hit me hard because, as a student of music history, I was aware that the bass isn't just another instrument or musical part, but an element of musical organization with a history crucial to the development of music as we know it today. And that history is relatively recent. It wasn't until the 16th Century that independent bass parts came into prominence and not until the 17th that this became the norm.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

354. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 12:Knowing When to Step

Now that I've presented a rough overview of the rhythm section, how it works, where it can be found (everywhere), and why I consider it "viral," it's time for me to come clean about how I got this bee in my bonnet in the first place, why I consider it important, and what I propose to do about it. And forgive me, but at this point I feel the need to present a bit of personal history.

Back in the early 1960's, I worked as Alan Lomax's collaborator/assistant on the "Cantometrics" project (see posts 4, 76, et seq.), devoted to the comparative study of world music. One of the many experts we consulted was the noted Swedish folklorist and musician, Gordon Tracie, a specialist in the study of Scandinavian fiddling and dancing traditions. During the course of a long interview, Tracie played a recording of a dance as performed by traditional fiddlers, which, as he pointed out, sounded quite fast to the untrained ear. He then demonstrated, by dancing along, that actually the tempo was slow -- but only someone thoroughly familiar with this tradition would be able to find the correct beat.

Friday, June 14, 2013

353. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 11:Going Global

In this post I'll be trolling youtube for examples of rhythm sections worldwide, old and new, even where you might least expect it. Of course anyone with a strong interest in music and a degree of musical curiosity is already in a position to know that the rhythm section can be found everywhere. The problem is that it's been "everywhere" for so many years we can easily take it for granted, and in many cases not even pay much attention to it; thus fail to notice how literally every corner of the world has been "infected," and, on some very basic level, transformed, by this musical "virus."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

352. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 10:Virus or Fetish?

Well, as I was about to say, when I was so rudely interrupted (ahem) . . .  As I see it . . .

Wait, first let's hear just one more example of "free form jazz," this time from the repertoire of the inimitable Sun Ra:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

351. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 9:Ghost Dance

The next major phase in the history of jazz was, of course, Bebop:


Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie - Hot House (1952) (

Monday, June 10, 2013

350. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 8:From Rock to All That Jazz

Here's one of the Rolling Stones early hits, "Satisfaction":

Rolling Stones -- "Satisfaction" (

"Satisfaction" begins with a very distinctive riff in guitar and bass that's become justifiably famous. Like the bass riff in their version of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun" (see previous post), it has a quality that sounds, to me at least, typically African. Unlike the previous examples, however, the riff does not continue unchanged throughout. Once Mick enters with the vocal, it's necessary for the bass and guitar to conform to the more or less standard chord progression that underlies the melody, with a chord change on every 4/4 measure. After the initial statement of the melody, however, the riff returns for an extended vocal-instrumental refrain that, once again, owes a lot to John Lee Hooker. After it returns, the riff sort of takes over the song for a while, and in this section, with the repetition of the words "I can't get no," the music is temporarily freed from the domination of typically European "common practice" harmony and phrasing, and takes on a decidedly African quality.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

349. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 7:Some Roots of Rock

Many people associate the rhythm section with jazz, and also, of course, rock, and it is certainly true that literally all rock performances employ rhythm sections, with especially prominent electric bass and percussion, usually played on a standard drum set. Since both jazz and rock are thought to have their roots in the blues, it's natural to assume that the rhythm section has its origin in early blues performances. But that is not really the case. The country blues from which all later blues derived began without a rhythm section and also, in fact, without the chord progressions taken for granted today as fundamental. As with the Clarence Ashley solo we heard in the last episode, early blues, i.e., Yazoo or Mississippi Delta or other forms of country blues, were most often just a matter of a vocalist (or vocal group) with a guitar and maybe a simple percussion part added, often just some hand clapping or foot tapping.

348. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 6:From E. Europe to S. USA

To continue with some more examples of rhythm sections worldwide, here's another group, very similar to the Rumanian Gypsies of the previous example, only this time from Slovakia (the dancing is also very similar):

Slovak Folk Dance (

Friday, June 7, 2013

347. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 5:From Liverpool to Transylvania

To get a better idea of what I'm running on about, let's listen to some more examples, only this time a bit more closely. It's difficult to know where to begin because there are literally zillions of recordings to chose from. But, hey, why not start with everyone's favorite band, The Beatles?

346. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 4:Introducing The Rhythm Section

So. What is a rhythm section anyway? and why would anyone find it particularly interesting? it's just a kind of beat heard in the background, right? all the really interesting stuff is played by the "lead" instruments, no? and why would anyone want to characterize it as a "virus"?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

345. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 3:Is it Kitsch?

At this point, you might be assuming that the "virus" of my title has something to do with the replacement of traditional musical practices with what could be labeled, "Global Kitsch" (aka "World Music"). Well, that very interesting, and also very disturbing, development certainly does concern me. It's a topic I'll be returning to at some point, for sure. However, the practice foremost in my mind at the moment is far more pervasive, far more basic, far more interesting and also, as far as I can tell, far less analyzed and discussed by writers on musical topics, be they critics, historians, musicologists or theoreticians. And before I go any farther along this line, I must make the point that a virus is not necessarily a bad thing.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

344. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 2:Returning to "Innocence"

The first video in the previous post is a straightforward documentation of a performance by an elderly couple, husband and wife, singing a traditional "drinking song" of the Amis people, one of several indigenous tribal groups of Taiwan. The second is a rendition of the same song, and in fact the same performance, as appropriated by the band, Enigma, in their 1994 hit single, "Return to Innocence." The Enigma version was extremely popular, widely aired, and used in a promotional video for the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta. The original recording was used without permission, and became the subject of a lawsuit, ultimately settled out of court. Here's another version I found on youtube, possibly the band's own music video, titled "Return to Innocence," with appropriately "innocent" imagery:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

343. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 1:Two youtubes

It's been a few years since last I posted here, though I'm pleased to see this blog still getting a decent number of hits (now totaling almost 150,000!). Since then, I've written, and self published, a book, based on many of the issues raised here (Sounding the Depths:Tradition and the Voices of History). And when that project was complete,  I felt I had said just about everything I had to say on the topic of world music, deep history and cultural evolution.

It will surprise many of you to learn that, in the meantime, I "secretly" started yet another blog, on what might seem a completely different topic: the "poetry" of economics, inspired by an American folk song made famous by Bascomb Lamar Lunsford: Mole in the Ground. Because, yes, I am not only a musician and musical scholar, but also, like my mentor the late Alan Lomax, someone with a deep interest in politics, both in itself and as reflected in the arts. As I see it, the study of music, or any other aspect of culture, can never be completely divorced from politics, and if you read my book carefully, you'll certainly find it there.

What I want to do now is turn to another aspect of politics and the arts, i.e., the politics of the arts -- specifically the politics of music. And I'll begin by sharing a couple of very interesting youtube videos.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sounding the Depths goes paperback

Sounding the Depths, the "blog-book" discussed in the previous post, is now complete in eighteen chapters, readable either online -- or as a beautifully bound paperback, available for purchase via CreateSpace or 

The paperback contains the complete text, but does not contain most of the figures (photos, maps, diagrams, etc.) or any of the audio and video links. For the convenience of hard copy readers, I've added two pages to the book blog, one containing the Audio-Visual Examples, another containing the Figures. (Both links can be found directly under the Blog Archive at
The paperback, priced at $18.00, can be ordered from either CreateSpace or Amazon. (If you order from CreateSpace I'll get a larger commission, but you'll get free shipping from Amazon with an order of $25 or more.)
Many portions of Sounding the Depths are based on materials originally posted on this blog, so the book should be of interest to anyone regularly reading here. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

341. Blog-Book

The book project I referred to in the previous post has been completed, though some chapters still need work. I changed the title to Sounding the Depths: Tradition and the Voices of History. The earlier subtitle, Music, Genes and Culture in Deep History, is more informative, but also sounds a bit too academic for my taste. For reasons made clear in the Preface, I decided not only to self-publish this book, but publish in an unusual way. Not that I didn't try to get published the usual way -- but after being turned down by several agents and editors solely on the basis of my query letter, I realized that an interdisciplinary book on an off-beat topic, by an unknown author, has very little chance of either trade or academic publication. Realistically, self-publishing seemed the only way to go. Once I accepted this, I realized that a whole new set of possibilities presented themselves.

I could have gone with publication-on-demand, and there are several companies that now offer this service. But that would severely limit distribution, and I want my ideas to be disseminated as widely as possible. And since there is very little chance of making much money on such a book, why not make it available for free? That's when I hit on the idea of publishing as a blog. Blogging makes a great deal of sense to me, especially since so much of the book concerns music, and placing it on a blog enables me to include as many links to musical examples as I'd like. Blogging also encourages people to comment, offer criticisms, make suggestions, etc., and I like that idea very much. An interactive book! Why not?

Finally, by presenting it as a series of blog posts, I can release one chapter at a time, which means I can start getting it out now, editing and polishing each chapter as it comes up in the queue. And readers can read it a chapter at a time, rather than suddenly being confronted with an entire volume. If Charles Dickens could publish his books in serial format, why shouldn't I?

So. Everyone is invited to head over to the new blog, Sounding the Depths, and check it out. And by all means, whatever your thoughts might be and whatever questions you might have, post them as comments. Since this is a work in progress, I will be open to making changes based on reader input.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

340. A New Website

After 339 posts, I may have reached the point where I either have no more to say or may simply have run out of steam as far as this blog is concerned. If I get inspired with a new idea, or some relevant new research becomes known to me, I may well want to add more posts. I have been busy with related projects, including a rather ambitious essay on cultural history, drawn largely from what I've already written on this blog, and the development of a book proposal, tentatively titled Soundings from the Depths: Music, Genes and Culture in Deep History. Which could well be the title of this blog.

Meanwhile, during the summer months I managed, finally, to dig some old reel to reel tapes out of the attic, and make decent digital copies. I even managed to complete an unfinished work that had been on my mind for over 40 years! I was so pleased to once again hear these early electronic music compositions that I decided to put together a web site where I could share them with friends and other interested parties. And while I was at it, I decided to make several other compositions of mine also available via the same site: The Music of Victor Grauer. Anyone interested is invited to check it out, but I'll warn you: some of these pieces are long and require fairly intense concentration as well as considerable patience. On the other hand, certain rituals held by indigenous peoples can go on for days and nights at a time, while the longest work on my website lasts "only" 45 minutes. :-)

Monday, September 13, 2010

339. Tonoexodus 2

In a recent comment, Maju called our attention to a very interesting new article in which a possible connection between tonal and non-tonal languages is tested and discussed: Real-Time Correlates of Phonological Quantity Reveal Unity of Tonal and Non-Tonal Languages, by Juhani Jarvikivi1, Martti Vainio and Daniel Aalto. (How does he find this stuff?) The authors point specifically to the influence of tone in certain non-tonal "quantity languages," (i.e. languages in which differences in syllable length have phonemic import), citing evidence suggesting
that in non-tonal quantity languages such as, Estonian,
Finnish, Japanese, and Serbo-Croatian, tonal differences affect
speakers’ judgments of vowel length, in so far
as the available evidence can be taken to suggest that the speakers
of these languages tend to categorize syllables or words as long
more often than short when the target syllable has a falling rather
than a level tone. (p.2)
To further test this hypothesis, the authors performed experiments with Finnish speaking subjects, to determine the effects of certain tonal configurations on their perception of lexical difference. For them, the results of these experiments "are clear: whether the first syllable has a falling or a level (high) tone is a robust online cue to . . . lexical identity in Finnish" (p. 4).

In a Discussion section, they elaborate on the meaning of their results:
In contrast to the usual assumption that there is a clear-cut
conceptual distinction between tone and non-tonal quantity
languages, we have put forth the idea that, cognitively, these two phonological systems could perhaps be seen as two variants of . . . the same underlying mechanisms. In addition to reviewing the available evidence that we thought would point this way, we carried out two experiments investigating whether pitch information would affect perception of length and thus word recognition in a language with a par excellence example of a quantity-based lexical-phonological system. The answer based on the two experiments was a clear affirmative (p.4).
In short, "our results showed that pitch information is an important co-index of the quantity opposition in Finnish." On this basis, they make a rather startling claim: "Consequently, . . . our results imply that in terms of the production and perception mechanisms, pitch in Finnish is probably in all respects like pitch in any prototypical tone language, e.g., Mandarin Chinese" (p. 5).

In more general terms,
we would like to argue that rather than a
discrete categorical classification of languages into tone languages
and non-tone languages, a more fine-grained account is needed
that takes into account the extent to which (in this case) pitch
information is actually used to distinguish phonological categories
in processing. This would not only sharpen our criteria of tone
languages, but would also provide a more realistic, more refined,
explanandum for studies of linguistic evolution. (p. 6)

With regard to tonogenesis - at least in some cases - it
may be that tone in the phonetic sense has been present all along
and only surfaces phonologically when other linguistic factors force
the change. Importantly, our results suggest that there is no
unidirectional link from perceptual sensitivity to pitch information
to the emergence of a tone language. (p. 6)
The authors never go far as to question the tonogenesis dogma per se, but their work certainly raises many questions regarding its validity as a "unidirectional link" in linguistic evolution.

What I find especially intriguing in this research is the fact that two of the three European languages they cite as typical "quantity languages," Finnish and Estonian, are Uralic languages, thus among the very few non-Indoeuropean languages on that continent. Since the establishment of Indoeuropean throughout almost all of Europe appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, and Uralic is widespread among languages spoken by indigenous peoples scattered through vast regions of northern Europe and Asia, it seems likely that the Uralic complex could predate Indoeuropean and thus might represent an earlier stage of lingustic evolution.

Indeed, according to a very interesting paper by Mario Alinei (Interdisciplinary and linguistic evidence for Palaeolithic continuity of Indo-European, Uralic and Altaic populations in Eurasia, with an excursus on Slavic ethnogenesis, 2003), a new theory of Uralic origins
was advanced about thirty years ago and is now universally recognized by linguists as well as archaeologists: it is called the Uralic Continuity Theory (UCT) and claims an
uninterrupted continuity of Uralic populations and languages from [the] Paleolithic (Meinander 1973, Nuñez 1987, 1989, 1996, 1997, 1998)

According to this theory, which historically represents the first claim of uninterrupted continuity of a European people from [the] Paleolithic, Uralic people must belong to the populations of Homo sapiens sapiens coming from Africa, who occupied mid-eastern Europe in Paleolithic glacial times . . . and followed the retreating icecap in [the] Mesolithic, eventually settling in their present territories . . . (pp. 12-13)
I don't want to pursue my speculations too far, since my knowledge of historical linguistics is very limited and I might well be on the wrong track entirely. Nor are such speculations really necessary with regard to the overall argument I've been presenting over the last few posts. Nevertheless, I do find the link between tonal languages and non-tonal quantity languages very interesting and definitely worthy of further investigation. As I wrote in my response to Maju's comment,
If the earliest language was indeed tonal, as I strongly suspect (due to the saturation of tone languages in Africa, and the lack of evidence for "tonogenesis" on that continent), then the association these linguists found between tone and quantity could represent a first step in an evolution from tonal to non-tonal language. . . . I'm now wondering whether Uralic languages such as Finnish, Estonian and Saami were among the "native European" language families displaced by the advent of Indoeuropean. If so, then the close association with tone language demonstrated in this paper would make a great deal of sense. . . The evolution from a tone to a quantity language would have been the exact opposite of the "tonogenesis" so confidently assumed by so many linguists.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

338. Tonoexodus

As I see it, there is little question that the earliest languages must have been tone languages. Since modern humans are almost universally thought to have originated in Africa, and since the great majority of African languages are tonal, it would be extremely difficult to explain how an originary non-tonal language could have produced so many tone languages on the continent of its birth. The hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that "there are no documented cases of tonogenesis in Africa, despite the wide variety of languages . . . and the widespread presence of tone on the continent" (George Tucker Childs, An Introduction to African Languages, 2003, p. 86.).

Since linguists are in agreement that tonogenesis represents some sort of universal process through which all tonal languages are generated from non-tonal ones, the abundance of tone languages in Africa, plus the lack of evidence for tonogenesis anywhere on that continent, should represent something of an embarrassment -- but apparently not. From what I've read in the surprisingly extensive literature on tonogenesis (not to mention many other topics in linguistics), linguists seem much too preoccupied with the discovery of universally valid principles and far too little concerned with the messy contingencies of history, as reflected in the worldwide distribution of the traits they study (the WALS project being a notable, and very welcome, exception).

Given the preponderance of tone language in Africa, it seems likely that the original Out-of-Africa migrants must have also spoken a tone language. And since this is generally understood as the founding group, both genetically and culturally, for all peoples outside of Africa, it seems likely that non-tonal languages could only have arisen via a process that must be regarded as the reverse of tonogenesis, i.e.: tonoexodus.

When I "coined" this term in a tongue-in-cheek comment on the previous post, I wasn't aware that it was already in circulation. And, yes, some linguists have considered the possibility of what they too have named (with a straight face, apparently) "tonoexodus":
Tone systems are not static. A language can acquire tones and then increase the complexity of this tone system but it can also decrease the number of its tones and ultimately become non-tonal. These two processes, acquisition and recession of tones, have been termed tonogenesis [Matisoff 1970, 1973) and tonoexodus [Lea 1973). Cases of tonoexodus are rare and it is not clear what the intermediate historical stages between the tonal and non-tonal stages are. (CONSONANT TYPES, VOWEL HEIGHT AND TONE IN YORUBA, by Jean-Marie Rombert, 1977, p. 174.)
I suspect that "cases of tonoexodus are rare" only because 1. linguists aren't looking for them; and 2. they tend to focus on very specific processes within specific languages, rather than taking the big picture into account. I've seen countless studies of "tonogenesis" as it appears to have developed in a single language, but have noticed not one study of the topic as applied to the worldwide distribution of tone.

But the (apparently revolutionary) notion that tone language came first, is only part of the story. Because if the first language was a tone language, then it seems only logical to go a step farther to consider whether it might have consisted exclusively of tones. Or, to be more accurate, specific tones presented in specific rhythms, which also happens to be a way of defining music. In a comment on the previous post, Marnie reminds us that a great deal of content in a great many African languages can be conveyed by the "talking drum," limited exclusively to differences of tone and rhythm. She asks the very sensible question, "is it possible that pitch and rhythm developed together in our earliest languages?"

In response to my previous post, I received an email from a very perceptive reader, Alex Petrov, who provided a link to this extremely interesting Wikipedia article on Whistled Language. I had always assumed that so-called whistled "languages" were merely elaborate signalling systems, but there is clearly more to it than that:
A whistled language is a system of whistled communication which allows fluent whistlers to transmit and comprehend a potentially unlimited number of messages over long distances. Whistled languages are different in this respect from the restricted codes sometimes used by herders or animal trainers to transmit simple messages or instructions. Generally, whistled languages emulate the tones or vowel formants of a natural spoken language, as well as aspects of its intonation and prosody, so that trained listeners who speak that language can understand the encoded message.

Whistled language is rare compared to spoken language, but it is found in cultures around the world. It is especially common in tone languages where the whistled tones transmit the tones of the syllables (tone melodies of the words). This might be because in tone languages the tone melody carries more of the "functional load" of communication while non-tonal phonology carries proportionally less. The genesis of a whistled language has never been recorded in either case and has not yet received much productive study.
Especially interesting is the observation that "In continental Africa, speech may be conveyed by a whistle or other musical instrument, most famously the "talking drums . . . As two people approach each other, one may even switch from whistled to spoken speech in mid-sentence." If so much in so many African tone languages can be communicated by tone and rhythm alone, then it is only logical to wonder whether any of the other features of such languages are necessary -- and whether their existence could be undersood as the initial stages of a progression from a language of pure tones to a tonal language, and from there to a non-tonal language -- i.e.: tonoexodus.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

337. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 8: Speech

Most linguists have managed to convince themselves that tone languages must have derived from non-tone languages, under the assumption that the earliest languages must have been non-tonal. The process through which a non-tone language evolves into a tonal one is known as "tonogenesis." Very strangely, however, almost all the research on tonogenesis has been centered in either East Asia or the Americas. Africa, the continent with the largest number of tone languages by far, has been all but ignored -- and for good reason, apparently:
What is quite surprising . . . is that there are no documented cases of tonogenesis in Africa, despite the wide variety of languages . . . and the widespread presence of tone on the continent. (George Tucker Childs, An Introduction to African Languages, 2003, p. 86.)
Since almost every single language in sub-Saharan Africa is tonal, "widespread presence" is something of an understatement. To illustrate, let's take a look at the world map of tone languages produced by WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures:

The red and pink dots represent tone languages, the white dots non-tone languages. As is clearly evident, Sub-Saharan Africa is simply saturated with tone languages, with only two or three exceptions represented in the enormous WALS sample. It's interesting to note that a similar degree of tonal saturation is depicted for Southeast Asia and Melanesia. I've discussed the possible meaning of this very odd distribution in an earlier post, but it need not concern us here.

What does concern us at this point is the overwhelming genetic and archaeological evidence that's developed over the last 20 or 30 years pointing to Sub-Saharan Africa as the locus for the development of "modern" humans (homo sapiens sapiens), who are thought to have migrated from there to the rest of the world roughly 60,000 to 80,000 years ago. Since most historical linguists now agree that all human languages must have had a common ancestor, then, if the Out of Africa model is correct, that ancestor could only have originated in Africa. And since just about every language in Africa (including Khoisan, considered by many to be the oldest surviving language) is a tone language, then there is clearly something very wrong with the widespread assumption that the earliest languages must have been non-tonal, and linguistic tone could only have been produced via "tonogenesis."

Which returns us to the experiments by Diana Deutsch (see previous posts), and the surprisingly strong correlations she found between tone language and absolute pitch. Unlike some of the other common features of language and music, such as interactivity, cooperation, phrasing, etc., the use of discrete pitches is the only one generally regarded as uniquely musical. And the puzzle we've been considering, of how such tones could have developed, and, more important in the context of the present discussion, what sort of adaptational advantage they might have posed, can now be seen in an entirely new light.

Based on the evidence presented above, the following sequence may now be considered:

1. Interactive "hooted" vocalizations of early primates and pre-humans, along the lines of the "duetting" and "chorusing" of certain contemporary ape and gibbon populations. The adaptational advantage of such behavior would most likely be the facilitation of both long distance communication and cooperation.

2. The development from the above, among early humans, of precisely pitched vocalizations. Among the various means by which this may have come about, one stands out as particularly suggestive as far as adaptation is concerned. Since many birds sing using discrete pitches, there would have been an advantage for humans in learning how to imitate bird songs as a lure. This could have been accomplished through the morphing of pre-human "hooting" into precisely pitched yodeling. Since yodeling involves a process akin to the "overblowing" of wind instruments (such as pipes, flutes, etc.) to produce discrete overtones, it might have been the simplest means by which humans would have become aware of certain basic pitch relationships. Another possibility might have been the discovery that simple reed pipes or hollow bones could be blown into in such a way as to produce discrete pitches that in many cases could be used as bird-call imitations. Since each reed or bone could only play a single note, it would require close cooperation on the part of a group to imitate multi-pitched bird songs. Reed ensembles of this type are still widely found in Africa and elsewhere among indigenous peoples, and such performances are in many cases associated with birds and their calls. Vocal ensembles organized along similar lines may have developed either independently or in imitation of the wind ensembles.

3. Since bird songs are precisely pitched, hunters with absolute pitch would have been more effective than those without it, giving a selective advantage to those with absolute pitch.

4. On the basis of the above, admittedly speculative, sequence, it's not difficult to see how both vocalizing and playing with discrete pitches could have led to the development of a language of sorts, based exclusively on tonal relations. For one thing, each such musical sequence would have symbolized a specific species of bird. For another, it's possible to see how, for those with perfect pitch, each pitch could have been perceived as an easily identified semiotic "module," very close, in fact, to a linguistic phoneme, which it could have anticipated.

5. If the earliest "language" consisted essentially of discrete pitches, then we can see how, for early humans, the development of musical awareness would have had a powerful adaptational advantage (now lost, of course). This would also explain the widespread presence of tone languages in the continent where early humans developed, since the use of tonal phonemes would have persisted even after non-tonal elements were added.

The above is highly speculative of course. A great deal depends on whether or not Deutsch's results, based on research among East Asians, can be replicated with African subjects.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

336. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 7: Speech

In her recent Scientific American article, Speaking in Tones, psychologist Diana Deutsch describes some remarkable research, by herself and others, revealing some unexpected and very exciting links between speech and music. For example, despite many years in which it was assumed they were controlled by two completely different regions of the brain, "Psychologists, linguists and neuroscientists have recently changed their tune . . . as sophisticated nueroimaging techniques have helped amass evidence that the brain areas governing music and language overlap." The two regions are so interconnected that "an awareness of music is critical to a baby's language development and even helps to cement the bond between infant and mother" (p. 37).
This overlap makes sense, because language and music have a lot in common. They are both governed by a grammar, in which basic elements are organized hierarchically into sequences according to established rules. In language, words combine to form phrases, which join to form larger phrases, which in turn combine to make sentences. Similarly, in music, notes combine to form phrases, which connect to form larger phrases, and so on. (pp. 38-39)

I'm a bit skeptical regarding the many examples of baby-mother interaction she provides, because, like so many others in her field, and in cognitive science generally, she assumes that all babies and mothers interact similarly, based on research typically limited to American and European subjects. Before attempting to universalize such evidence, it's important to compare it with evidence from non-Western societies, as well as various indigenous groups from a wide range of different world areas.

The above reservations do not apply to her most remarkable and exciting results, regarding a completely unexpected and indeed very surprising correlation between absolute (or "perfect") pitch and tone language. She made the astonishing discovery that among students who had received musical training by the age of five, fluent speakers of Mandarin, a tone language, were far more likely to have absolute pitch than a comparable group of students who grew up with English or some other nontone language. We're talking a huge difference, of 92% of "very fluent tone language speakers," as opposed to only 8% of English speakers. To determine whether the correlation were primarily genetic rather than linguistic, she tested East Asian students who grew up speaking a non-tone language and discovered that they too scored only about 8%. The correlation seems definitely associated with tone language rather than genetic inheritance.

Another important discovery concerns the pitch sensitivity of tone language speakers generally. It's always been assumed that the pitches of tone language are relative and not absolute, yet Deutsch learned that
not only were Vietnamese and Mandarin speakers very sensitive to the pitches that they hear, but they can produce words at a consistent absolute pitch. . . We found that their pitches were remarkably consistent: when compared across days, half of the participants showed pitch differences of less than half a semitone (p. 42).

In the next post, I'll explain why I attach such importance to these results.

Monday, August 30, 2010

335. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 6: Speech

It's not very difficult to see that the development of language would have provided early humans with an enormous adaptational advantage over both predators and other primates competing for a similar array of resources. What's much more difficult to understand is what sort of adaptational advantage could have been provided by the development of music. At this point, the only answer that makes sense to me is that music and speech must have developed in tandem. Indeed, in order for music to have survived, in the Darwinian sense, it must have functioned as a sign system of some sort from the very beginning.

Is there any evidence for this? Yes:

1. The long-range "proto-musical" interactive hooting of Bonobos, as described by Hohmann and Fruth (see Post 330), appears to function as a type of communication and as such, might certainly confer an advantage with respect to both predators and prey. Since Bonobos appear to have so much in common with the ancestral humans I've defined here as HBP, or Hypothetical Baseline Population, and since their duetting and chorusing have a dynamic so similar to the hocketed vocalizing of Pygmies and Bushmen, it seems reasonable to assume that early humans could have been communicating vocally in a similar manner.

2. The fact that musical pitches and rhythms are perceived not simply acoustically but also semiotically, in terms directly parallel to the phonemic organization of literally all forms of speech (as outlined in the previous post), strongly suggests a historical connection between the two modes of communication.

3. Since music is "phonemic" in the above sense and speech is both phonemic and symbolic (in terms of the so-called signifier/signified relation), it seems reasonable to conclude that phonemic awareness must have preceded symbolic awareness.

4. If, as I have argued in many places on this blog and elsewhere, the musical style of the Pygmies and Bushmen is essentially the same as that of the common ancestor (HBP), then it's difficult to ignore the fact that the vocal music of both groups is dominated by meaningless vocables, with only very brief interjections of meaningful text. As a play of "phonemically" articulated tones, linked syntactically, but with little or no morphological content, it's not difficult to imagine how such a practice might have preceded the development of meaningful speech.

5. The fact that music is not only "phonemic" but also has an important syntactic dimension, tells us, first, that music represents an evolutionary "advance" over primate vocalizations, which appear to lack anything more than the simplest syntactic organization, and, moreover, suggests the possibility that linguistic syntax may have developed from that of music.

An important study of the relation between music and language has just been published in Scientific American Mind: Speaking in Tones, by Diana Deutsch. Her article contains many very interesting observations, based on some of the most recent developments in psychology, cognitive science and linguistics, including some remarkable findings especially relevant to the question at hand that I'll be discussing in the next post.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

334. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 5: Speech

When evaluating musical behavior as an adaptation, it's essential to ask ourselves, before anything else, what it is, exactly, that makes music music, as distinguished from any other type of sound production (such as bird calls, primate "hootings," human speech, etc.) or cooperative interaction (such as ritual, dance, warfare, etc.). And as far as I've been able to determine, it seems reasonable to accept the following very simple "working definition"*: the production, by either voice(s) or instrument(s), of clearly defined pitches and/or clearly delineated rhythms. However, when we investigate the nature of pitch or rhythm, we discover that in both cases we are dealing with something far more complex than a simply auditory phenomenon. For example, here is a spectrogram representing 14 notes, as played by a violin, in purely acoustic terms:

This image can be found at the Wikipedia Commons website, along with the audio file that was used to produce it.

Note that each pitch is represented, not by a single line, but a vertically aligned array of short horizontals, each representing a separate "overtone." This is what is known as the "spectrum" of the sound, and all sounds, musical or otherwise, have a spectrum.

What we see in the spectrogram is a reasonable image of what we actually hear, in strictly acoustic terms. But, obviously, this is not anything like what we hear psychologically, which for most of us will be a simple series of "notes." Contemplating the difference between a sonogram image of a musical performance and what it is we think we hear, can give us an idea of the degree of psycho-cultural processing we perform when we listen to music. Musical notes are, in fact, not simply acoustical but also semiotic, i.e., acoustic phenomena filtered through a symbolic system.

To clarify, I'll take the liberty of offering an extensive quote from my paper, Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors:

As linguist Roman Jakobson once noted, “[t]here is...exactly the same relationship between a musical value and its realizations as there is in language between a phoneme and the articulated sounds which represent this phoneme in speech” (1987: 456). In other words, a pitch class (or a time point class) and a vocable class (phoneme) operate in more or less the same way. In semiotic terms, music, like speech, possesses second articulation [i.e., the ability to break sounds into distinct phonemes]. But unlike speech it lacks first articulation (morphology, the basis for the signifier/signified relation).

A basic principle behind what we usually understand as music is in fact this field of tonal and/or rhythmic values which can produce pitch and/or time-point classes, i.e., “second articulation” (see Grauer 1993, 2000). This is not something to be taken for granted. Music is (traditionally) not made from raw sounds (with apologies to John Cage) but from sounds that are (with a nod to Claude Levi-Strauss) “cooked.”

To put it yet another way (with a further nod to Jacques Derrida), that famous “supplement,” music notation, was in some sense always already there, in the form of the tonal/metric “force fields” which give rise to the values, or notes, “inscribed” in music from the start. The existence of tuned pipes, either free or bundled into panpipes, is early evidence of this, as such pipes can already be regarded as a form of pitch notation, each pipe standing for a given note, the whole set for a particular scale.

What all this suggests is that early music may well have set the stage for language by providing a kind of laboratory for phonological and semantic experimentation. It is perhaps only a short step from the play of sung “nonsense” vocables and the construction of tuned pipes to the birth of signs. While one might need to rely on “native speakers” to puzzle out the phonology of a given verbal language, the “phonology” of music is, apparently, already given to us—i.e., we ourselves may already be “native speakers” of any and all (traditional) musical “dialects.” This could explain why we are able to enjoy, and also notate, so many different kinds of music (p. 43).

(to be continued . . . )

*By "working definition," I mean a definition that would seem to apply in the great majority of cases, but not necessarily all. Additionally, while it's been argued that a great many peoples have no word for what we call "music," it is also true that in almost all cases, there are words for singing and words for the playing of instruments. Thus, for the purposes of my "working definition," music can be understood in the context of either singing or playing or both together.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

333. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 4

On the following page, Dissanayake makes a questionable, though all too common, assumption: "Although ritual ceremonies are cultural inventions, all human groups practice them so they must be biologically-predisposed." The possibility that such ceremonies could stem from traditions established in the culture of a common ancestor has, apparently, never crossed her mind. I'm not claiming that such ceremonies could not have originated in biologically determined adaptations -- possibly they did -- but I must protest the commonly held view that any cultural "universal" could survive only due to a biological predisposition, based on the questionable assumption that cultural practices per se are subject to continual change and could not have survived unless continually reinforced by biological imperatives.

There is another hidden assumption worth discussing here as well, the assumption that Darwinian adaptation is strictly biological. As I understand it, the basic unit of adaptation is not the gene but the organism (and/or population) as a whole (see Mayr, What Evolution Is). If, for example, one population is better organized socially than its neighbors, this would confer on them a selective advantage potentially as effective as anything biologically determined (such as, for example, physical strength).

Dissanayake continues with some further speculations under the heading, THE ADAPTIVE FUNCTION OF PARTICIPATION IN RITUAL/MUSIC. As in so many other cases, among so many others who have considered such questions, what is really being discussed is the context in which musical behavior occurs, rather than the very specific nature of musical performance per se.

In sum, while there is much to be said about the adaptational efficacy of certain practices associated with music, such as social cooperation, ritual behavior, etc., there is nothing in any of the theories developed along such lines that distinguishes the sort of behavior that can be associated with music from what actually happens when people sing or play instruments (or, for that matter, dance). Thus, while cooperation per se undoubtedly constitutes an effective social adaptation, and musical cooperation may well serve to enhance its efficacity, there is nothing about singing or playing clearly defined pitches and/or clearly delineated rhythms that, as far as we know from either ethnographic or historical data, would appear to have conferred any significant competitive advantage on human individuals or groups.

Which returns me to the first of the alternatives proposed in Post 328: music may have prepared the way for the development of language.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

332. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 3

Vocalizing together in precisely timed harmony, counterpoint, or interlock, is one of the most highly cooperative activities of which humans are capable. But what sort of competitive advantage did such behavior confer on our ancestors? And if there were no advantage, then for what reason did musical skills develop?

Don't get me wrong. In itself, learning to cooperate certainly conferred enormous advantages on humans. Evidence of effective cooperation, in strictly practical terms, among virtually all human groups abounds. Nevertheless, despite evidence that human singing may have originated in the highly cooperative, interactive vocalizations of certain apes and gibbons, it remains difficult to understand what there was, or is, about vocal cooperation per se that could have provided either primates or humans with a competitive edge. The hallmark of cooperation may be interaction, but what was there, specifically, about vocal (or even instrumental) music that would have made this highly distinctive type of behavior effective enough to be selected for according to the classic Darwinian model? While it's certainly possible that musical cooperation might have been helpful in encouraging humans to cooperate, it's not difficult to think of other, much simpler, types of cooperation that could have had the same effect.

Merker has suggested that rhythmic entrainment may have been "selected for as a means for signal competition in the context of mate selection during rhythmic chorusing," (Op. Cit., p. 8) but there is no evidence for such a function among either humans or apes. In a fascinating, but also rather fanciful, recent paper by Ellen Dissanayake, entitled If music is the food of love, what about survival and reproductive success?, the author concentrates on certain musical features of mother-infant interactions. Significantly, she points to "interactive behaviors" between mother and child that
take place . . . sequentially, in bouts of 1.5 to 3 seconds, on a time base, so that each partner in the dyad reacts and responds contingently to the other’s signals within one-half second or less, anticipating and participating in an ongoing, changing, cocreated engagement. I propose that the dyadic coordination developed in mother infant interaction is likely a precursor of human music in which individuals mutually coordinate their voices and body movement in temporally and dynamically structured sequences (my emphasis, p. 177).

Since, as we have learned, a very similar type of interaction, also "paced at roughly 2 Hz" (Merker, Op. Cit., p. 7), i.e., two times a second, is characteristic of Bonobos, Dissanayake's observations seem remarkably consistent with the notion of a possible link between human and Bonobo vocalizations, reflected in the structure of the mother-infant bond.

Dissanayake moves on from there to consider "A HYPOTHETICAL PROGRESSION FROM PROTO-MUSIC TO MUSIC" based on the invention of "ceremonial ritual":
Like music and the other arts, ritual ceremonies occur universally in human societies. Indeed, the arts and ritual tend to occur together. Although human ceremonies are not instinctive — and indeed are culturally highly varied and complex — I propose that they build upon the proto-musical capacities and sensitivities that developed during human evolution to create and reinforce the mother-infant bond. . . . Emancipated from their maternal-infant origins, the elements of what eventually became music were probably first developed and elaborated by individual cultures, ancestrally, in religious practices (ritual ceremonies), which served to unite groups temporally and hence emotionally, as their proto-musical sources did for mother-infant pairs (p. 178).

As I see it, this sort of thinking, however interesting, and indeed suggestive, becomes far too vague far too quickly. We are still left wondering what it is about either mother-infant interactions or ceremonial rituals that caused something so distinctive and complex as musical behavior to emerge.

(to be continued . . . )

331. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 2

With reference to the "gibbon-like nature of [Bonobo] long-distance hooting," as quoted at the end of my last post, I'll once again (as in Post 21) present the following youtube video, of interactive "duetting" between Siamang Gibbons:

Since I haven't been able to find any Bonobo examples, and since their hooted "duetting" has been described as "gibbon-like," this video will have to do for now. For some examples of interactive human vocalizing of a somewhat similar type, see Post 22.

As far as function is concerned, Hohmann and Fruth state that their study
supports the general, assumption that high-hoots are part of a system of signals that facilitate communication between members of different parties. The small number of observations available on locomotion and vocal activity of different parties suggests that the calls affect movements and, thus, may regulate proximity between single individuals, groups, or parties. . . [Thus] high-hoots may be the major device to regulate and to maintain the social network of the community. (p. 780).
If this is the case, and if primate duetting-chorusing is in fact "proto-musical," as the striking similarities with the "shouted hocket" of so many indigenous peoples suggests (as per the comparisons on Post 22), then the close cooperation associated with this type of vocal interaction might well have conferred an adaptational advantage on both early humans and their pre-human ancestors by enhancing social integration.

I must confess, however, that I'm not completely convinced. While interaction of this sort might well promote social stability and enhance the ability of a group to act in close coordination, I see no reason why either social stability or coordination would require the relatively precise synchronization so characteristic of both Bonobo or Gibbon vocalizations and human music-making. While primates and humans are capable of varying degrees of cooperative activity, none of these species appear to gain any sort of competitive advantage from acting in strictly synchronized concert. Aside from certain types of military drill, which are almost certainly a relatively late development, human "entrainment" of this sort appears to be limited exclusively to certain types of musical performance and dance.

Thus while the interactive element of Bonobo and human "proto-musical" and musical behavior might have conferred an adaptational advantage related to cooperation, it's much harder to see any such advantage accrueing from the precisely synchronized "entrainment" associated with it. Loosely coordinated cooperation would seem to have been equally effective as far as the survival of any of these species is concerned. It's also very difficult to see what adaptational advantage the more or less precise tuning of specific pitches, an essential element in almost all human music, might confer, since the sort of close cooperation required in deploying such pitches in either polyphony or unison appears to have no correlate in any other aspect of human behavior associated with cooperation per se.

There is one other possibility we have not yet discussed however, and this will be the principal topic of my next post.