The Origin and Function of Music – Part I

October 5, 2006

One of the most interesting of the many interesting stories of our civilization is the story of Music. It affords an intimate knowledge of the inner life of man as manifested in different epochs of the world’s history. He who has failed to follow it has failed to comprehend the noblest phenomena of human progress.

Mythology and legendary lore abound in delightful traditions in regard to the birth of music. The untutored philosophers of primitive humanity and the learned philosophers of ancient civilizations alike strove to solve the sweet, elusive mystery surrounding the art. Through the myths and legends based on their speculations runs a suggestion of divine origin.

The Egyptians of old saw in their sublime god, Osiris, and his ideal spouse, Isis, the authors of music. Among the Hindus it was regarded as a priceless gift from the great god Brahma, who was its creator and whose peerless consort, Sarasvati, was its guardian. Poetic fancies in these lines permeate the early literature of diverse peoples.

This is not surprising. Abundant testimony proves that the existence of music is coeval with that of mankind; that it is based on the modulations of the human voice and the agitations of the human muscles and nerves caused by the infinite variations of the spiritual and emotional sensations, needs and  ispirations of humanity; that it has grown with man’s growth, developed with man’s development, and that its origin is as divine as that of man.

The inevitable dualism which Emerson found bisecting all nature appears also in music, which is both spiritual and material. The spiritual part of music appeals to the spiritual part of man, addressing each heart according to the cravings and capacities of each. The material part of music may be compared to the body in which man’s spirit is housed. It is the vehicle which conveys the message of music from soul to soul through the medium of the human ear with its matchless harp of nerve-fibres and its splendid sounding-board, the eardrum.

Music is the mirror which most perfectly reflects man’s inner being and the essence of all things. Ruskin saw clearly that he alone can love art well who loves better what art mirrors. This may especially be applied to music, which offers, as a Beethoven has said, a more lofty revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.

Having no model in nature, being neither an imitation of any actual object, nor a repetition of anything experienced, music stands alone among the arts. It represents the real thing, as Schopenhauer has it, the thing itself, not the mere semblance. Were we able to give a thoroughly satisfactory explanation of music, he declares, we should have the true philosophy of the universe.

“Music is a kind of inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the Infinite, and impels us for a moment to gaze into it,” exclaimed Carlyle. Wagner found in music the conscious language of   feeling, that which ennobles the sensual and realizes the spiritual. “Music is the harmonious voice of creation, an echo of the invisible world, one note of the divine concord which the entire universe is destined one day to sound,” wrote Mazzini. Literature is rich in noble definitions of the divine art.

From a matter of fact standpoint music consists of a vast concourse of tones which are its raw materials and bear within themselves the possibility of being moulded into form. Utterances and actions illustrating these raw materials are common to all living creatures. A dog, reiterating short barks of joy, or giving vent to prolonged howls of distress, is actuated by an impulse similar to that of the human infant as it uplifts its voice to express its small  emotions. The sounds uttered by primeval man as the direct expression of his emotions were unquestionably of a like nature.

The tendency to manifest feeling by means of sound is universally admitted, and sound, freighted with feeling, is peculiarly exciting to human beings. The agitations of a mob may be increased by the emotional tones of its prime movers, and we all know that the power of an orator depends more on his skill in handling his voice than on what he says.

A craving for sympathy exists in all animate beings. It is strong in mankind and becomes peculiarly intense in the type known as artistic.The fulness of his own emotions compels the musician to utterance. To strike a sympathetic chord in other sensitive breasts it becomes necessary to devise forms of expression that may be unmistakably intelligible.

Out of such elements the tone-language has grown, precisely as the word-language grew out of men’s early attempts to communicate facts to one another. Its story records a slow, painstaking building up of principles to control its raw materials; for music, as we understand it, cannot exist without some kind of design. Vague sounds produce vague, fleeting impressions. Definiteness in tonal relations and rhythmic plan is requisite to produce a defined, enduring impression. In primitive states of music rhythmic sounds were heard, defined by the pulses but with little or no change of pitch, and sounds varying in pitch without regularity of impulse. A high degree of intellectuality was reached before our modern scales were evolved from long-continued attempts at making well-balanced successions of sounds. As musical art advanced rhythm and melodic expression became united.
The study of the origin, function and evolution of music, according to modern scientific methods, is a matter of comparatively recent date. As late as 1835 a French writer of the history of music expressed profound regret that he had been unable to determine when music was invented, or to discover the inventor’s name. It was his opinion that musical man had profited largely from the voices of the feathered tribes. He seriously asserted that the duck had evidently furnished a model for the clarionet and oboe, and Sir Chanticleer for the trumpet. An entire chapter of his book he devoted to surmises concerning the “Music before the Flood.” The poor man felt himself superior to the poetic fancies of the ancients, which at least foreshadowed the Truth, but had found no firm ground on which to stand.

Much finer were the instincts of Capellmeister Wolfgang Kasper, Prince of Waldthurn, whose historical treatise on Music appeared in Dresden in 1690. He boldly declared the author of music to be the good God himself, who fashioned the air to transmit musical sounds, the ear to receive them, the soul of man to throb with emotions demanding utterance, and all nature to be filled with sources of inspiration. The good Capellmeister was in close touch with the Truth.

It was in 1835, the same year that the French writer mentioned offered his wild speculations, that Herbert Spencer, from the standpoint of a scientist, produced his essay on the “Origin and Function of Music,” which has proved invaluable in arousing discriminating thought in these lines. Many years elapsed before its worth to musicians was realized. To-day it is widely known and far-reaching in its influence.

In those inner agitations which cause muscular expansion and contraction, and find expression in the inflections and cadences of the voice, Herbert Spencer saw the foundations of music. He unhesitatingly defined it as emotional speech, the language of the feelings, whose function was to increase the sympathies and broaden the horizon of mankind. Besides frankly placing music at the head of the fine arts, he declared that those sensations of unexperienced felicity it arouses, those impressions of an unknown, ideal existence it calls forth, may be regarded as a prophecy to the fulfilment of which music is itself partly instrumental. Our strange capacity for being affected by melody and harmony cannot but imply that it is possible to realize the delights they suggest. On these suppositions might be comprehended the power and  significance of music which must otherwise remain a mystery. The progress of musical culture, he thought, could not be too much applauded as a noble means of ministering to human welfare. Mr. Spencer’s theory has of late led to much controversy. Its author has been censured for setting forth no explanation of the place of harmony in modern music, and for not realizing what a musical composition is. In his last volume, “Facts and Comments,” which contains many valuable thoughts not previously published, he declares that his critics have obviously confounded the origin of a thing and that which originates from it. “Here we have a striking example of the way in which an hypothesis is made to appear untenable by representing it as being something which it does not profess to be,” he says. “I gave an account of the origin of music, and now I am blamed because my conception of the origin of music does not include a conception of music as fully developed. If to some one who said that an oak comes from an acorn it were replied that he had manifestly never seen an oak, since an acorn contains no trace of all its complexities of form and structure, the reply would not be thought a rational one;” but he believes it would be quite as rational as to suppose he had not realized what a musical composition is because his theory of the origin of music says nothing about the characteristics of an overture or a quartet.


One comment

  1. hey there… love ur writings on music bro~ u wouldn’t mind if i linked you on my blog rite? i dont write about music though, i play it 😉

    drop by if once in awhile yeah?

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