The Evolution of Music: 40,000 Years of Music History Covered in 8 Minutes

“We’re drowning in music,” says Michael Spitzer, professor of music at the University of Liverpool. “If you were born in Beethoven’s time, you’d be lucky if you heard a symphony twice in your lifetime, whereas today, it’s as accessible as running water.” We shouldn’t take music, or running water, for granted, and the comparison should give us pause: do we need music –- for example, nearly any recording of any Beethoven symphony we can think of -– to flow out of the tap on demand? What does it cost us? Might there be a middle way between hearing Beethoven whenever and hearing Beethoven almost never?

The story of how humanity arrived at its current relationship with music is the subject of the Big Think interview with Spitzer above, in which he covers 40,000 years in 8 minutes: “from bone flutes to Beyoncé.” We begin with his thesis that “we in the West” think of music history as the history of great works and great composers. This misconception “tends to reduce music into an object,” and a commodity. Furthermore, we “overvalue the role of the composer,” placing the professional over “most people who are innately musical.” Spitzer wants to recover the universality music once had, before radios, record players, and streaming media.

For nearly all of human history, until Edison invents the phonograph in 1877, we had no way of preserving sound. If people wanted music, they had to make it themselves. And before humans made instruments, we had the human voice, a unique development among primates that allowed us to vocalize our emotions. Spitzer’s book The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth tells the story of humanity through the development of music, which, as Matthew Lyons points out in a review, came before every other metric of modern human civilization:

The earliest known purpose-built musical instrument is some forty thousand years old. Found at Geissenklösterle in what is now southeastern Germany, it is a flute made from the radial bone of a vulture. Remarkably, the five holes bored into the bone create a five-note, or pentatonic, scale. Which is to say, before agriculture, religion, settlement – all the things we might think of as early signs of civilisation – palaeolithic men and women were already familiar with the concept of pitch.

If music is so critical to our social development as a species, we should learn to treat it with the respect it deserves. We should also, Spitzer argues, learn to play and sing for ourselves again, and think of music not only as a thing that other, more talented people produce for our consumption, but as our own evolutionary inheritance, passed down over tens of thousands of years.

Related Content: 

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See Ancient Greek Music Accurately Reconstructed for the First Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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