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: 

Watch an Archae­ol­o­gist Play the “Litho­phone,” a Pre­his­toric Instru­ment That Let Ancient Musi­cians Play Real Clas­sic Rock

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

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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