Sunday, July 8, 2007

52. On the Origin of Tuned Pipes and Music Theory

In his essay, "Aspects of 'Are'are Musical Theory" (see post 48), Hugo Zemp, after demonstrating that the 'Are'are people of the Solomon Islands do indeed possess a theory of music, produces the following very intriguing quote, from Marcel Mauss: "A theory of music exists everywhere there are panpipes. Distinctions are made between lengths of pipes, and there is evaluation of absolute pitch for tones, of intervals." (The last phrase is a bit confusing, but the meaning should be clear: pitch relations are evaluated with respect to the intervals they produce.) This is followed by a more extensive quotation from George Herzog, associating the development of "native theories" with the presence of "an object or instrument on which an otherwise abstract system can be observed in visible operation . . . "

I doubt whether these authors had the myth of the Yellow Bell in mind, but it would seem to illustrate very well their point: that the invention of tuned pipes (including but not limited to panpipes) implies from the start a theory of musical tones -- in the Chinese case, the theory of the 5 (ultimately 12) Lü.

Where my myth differs from all of the above, however, is in my hypothesis that a system based on overblown tuned pipes could have developed from, or in close association with, overblown vocal tones (yodels), which could have developed, in turn, from some form of pre-homo sapiens or pre-human hooting, in the context of a shouted hocket tradition akin to primate duetting/chorusing. What this implies is that the emergence of tuned pipes, and thus music theory, could have antedated the development of language.

Zemp would certainly not agree, especially as his whole argument is based on the ability of the 'Are'are to explain their music by speaking about it. If we assume, nevertheless, that tuned pipes may have emerged prior to language, via the very simple step by step process outlined in earlier posts, we are left with the problem of how something so systematic as a tuning system could be produced in the absence of a theory. Or, to put it another way, doesn't the existence of tuned pipes, even in the absence of a language that could explain them, already imply the existence of some sort of music theory? How, in the absence of some sort of theory governing the evaluation of pitches and the intervals produced by them, could early humans have arrived at such a system in the first place? And yet, as I've been arguing, it's not difficult to trace a very logical direct link between pre-homo sapiens vocalizing, homo sapiens vocalizing based on that, and the blowing (and overblowing) of pipes based on that. The constructors and tuners of such pipes would have needed, at that point, to be only one small step beyond their pre-homo sapiens ancestors.

What I'm leading up to here, is the following conundrum: if the existence of tuned pipes implies the existence of music theory, and it's impossible to conceive the existence of any theory in the absence of language, then is it really necessary to assume that the development of language must have preceded the origin of such pipes? Or is there some other possibilty that hasn't as yet been considered?

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