Something has been on my mind lately, and that is the ability for us humans to sing songs. Particularly, the aspect of being able to think about what note we want to hit and just sing it.
Say I’m singing along with the car radio. I can anticipate the song and hit the next note spot on, just in time and rhythm. I realize there is an element of memorization going on to know what comes next, but that’s not the part the puzzles me. It’s the ability to think of a note and hit it without fishing around for it.
Now I realize some people can’t carry a tune in a bucket. My father falls in that category. However, I did some aptitude testing that indicated I have above average musical abilities in discerning tone, pitch, timing, and pattern. I find this fascinating as I’ve never really excelled at music lessons. I did piano as a child, and then took several years of cello in jr high and high school, but I wasn’t particularly good. I know a big part of the problem was lack of desire to practice, but I also had trouble reading music. I’m not really fluent, and sight-reading is nigh impossible for me.
But I do enjoy singing, especially singing along with the radio. And I sometimes vocalize the musical sections, like guitars wailing.
So I wonder how we can do that? I mean, it takes an effort of configuring your vocal chords as well as your mouth in just the proper shape to get just the sound you want.
I understand a lot of this must rely on our ability to learn to talk at all. Our brains have to be configured during development to make sounds and learn to differentiate the sounds and copy them. I’m assuming there is a lot of practice element in training our brain to recognize different sounds and training our muscles just how to reproduce them.
Still, it baffles me that we can manage to so accurately replicate specific notes, jump around in singing, and hit so many variations.
I think the answer to this question can be found starting from there. The ability to speak has evolved and refined over millennia. If you took an adult living 500,000 years ago and asked him to sing along with the radio, I don’t think he would ever be able to reproduce anything. And since modern people’s brains vary, it is possible that certain individuals should lack the neuronal infrastructure that would allow them to correctly identify musical patterns and reproduce them.
In addition, modern humans live in an artificial auditory environment. Unlike the people who inhabited the planet 10,000 years ago, a great deal of the sounds that surround us are generated by human beings and/or their artifacts.
Sounds have always produced an emotional reaction in human beings - it is natural. Music is artificial in that it incorporates a lot of coding, where basic units of sound and rhythm are used to produced certain emotional states and reactions. Although it incorporates a lot of non-linguistic meaning, music is highly abstract.
Childhood and youth, when music appears to be as important as a creed, plays a crucial part in a human’s education as to what sounds, rhythms, and sound patterns constitute music. The sounds that formed a tune 500 years ago were not exactly the same as those we use today.
The human brain shows teleological abilities. It is a highly adaptive component, which enables our entire biological infrastructure to shape itself into the tool we need for a specific purpose, no matter how abstract, that we ourselves can conceive and plan.
Styles of music were different, but it’s simply a matter of taste and what we are used to hearing.
There’s plenty of music from 500 years ago that’s still enjoyable today, even without being accustomed to it.
Here’s a short piece of music from 16th century England. It’s sung by exactly the same kind of choir and in exactly the same style that it would have been sung in the early 1500s, but I think it’s perfectly enjoyable to 21st century ears.
I was referring to aspects such as temperament. Nowadays equal temperament is widely used in the West, but 500 years ago composers and performers employed meantone temperament. One has to train one’s ear to perceive harmony and music in either of these two systems.
Having fallen in love with The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, I bought Musicophilia brand new many years ago - in paperback, but still a fairly extravagant purchase for a student. I read the first chapter and then accidentally left it in the cafe on platform 3 at Bristol Temple Meads railway station. If anyone has seen it, please could they let me know? Never got round to acquiring another copy; thanks for reminding me!
To the OP, although a musician and singer myself, I don’t have any great insight I’m afraid, but I think - as your experience shows - there are many facets of good musicianship - it’s perfectly possible to be an excellent singer without knowing anything about notation, theory etc. Which suggests, as others have said, we are naturally wired to be able to do this in some capacity, similar to how we learn language.
It is possible for a cosmopolitan ear, which is not always the case. During colonialism, for example, the colonists and colonized enjoyed different types of harmony and were probably incapable of perceiving beauty in each other’s music.
Now, discussing outside the technical aspects of music and referring to what we commonly label as tastes. My opinion is that most of the members of the two types of populations (i.e. the colonists and the colonized) lacked the ability to enjoy each other’s art.
It is clear for me, to give a different example, that the ancient Greeks who listened to the choir in their tragedies would not regard Bobby McFerrin’s performance in Don’t Worry Be Happy as music. To them it would only sound like weird speaking, or at most a failed attempt to produce music. It’s not just the ear but also the mind that needs to be educated in order to perceive exotic harmonies. And everybody (and I mean everybody) has his own limits.
I think we’re wired for music and singing, the same as we’re wired for language.
What music we enjoy, and our skill in music, depends to large extent on what we were exposed to in childhood, though we can still acquire a taste for different music simply by listing to a lot of it and learning about it.
I don’t think ancient Greek music was as different as that. Here’s some recreated ancient Greek music, both instrumental and choral. The tunes were recorded in ancient times in a kind of musical notation.
I’d suggest also that singing and language (speaking) are actually a similar activity. I’m not a linguist, but I recall reading that many, if not all, languages use pitch to convey meaning. Western languages are often not explicit about this, possibly due to being focused on the written word, but we still use pitch when for example expressing a question, emphasising words.
So being able to change pitch is essential for speaking properly, Singing is simply a further extension of that ability.
Thanks for the link, that was beautiful and very exciting. And it underlines my opinion that music is a universal language and not necessarily directed by cultural preconceptions. I could enjoy this ancient Greek music quite fine, though it was a new experience and different from what I’m usually listening to.
Not to forget, I second the recommendation for Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. A fascinating read.
Well there it is, the chorus from Orestes by Euripides, sung to the original melody, rhythm, and instrumentation. It disproves the claim that ancient Greeks would be unable to hear our music as music. In fact, the Orestes chorus O demon runners, with beating wings, goddesses of the night! With baneful music, you dance sinister revels with wailing and laments Ye black-coated kindly goddesses who tread the thin air aloft for bloody kin-murder! is metal a.f. I don’t know about Bobby McFerrin, but I definitely think the ancient Greeks would get Slayer.