contains mild peril

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Entire History of Music. In one post.

So, I thought I'd write something about the entire History of People and Music.

The whole thing.

From the Beginning to the End.


It's a personal ramble and skips lightly over (and downright ignores) plenty of innovations, milestones and eras.
I haven’t even bothered talking about musical genres, or what makes good or bad music; I’ve ignored the invention of music videos and I don’t even mention ‘decades’. 
It’s a surprise I wrote anything when I ignored all that.

I hadn’t exactly realised where I’d end up but it turns out I was more interested in how our experience of music has changed over time.

If you want, you can ignore the words and just think of it like a weirdly themed mixtape or album.

By "music" I'll use Varese's definition of "organised sound" - mainly as he thought about such things for far longer than I have and I can't think of a better description.

On vocals

So - lets begin at the beginning. What was the oldest music people listened to way back in pre-history?
Well obviously we don't know (that's why its called 'pre-history'). 

Personally (this is all "personally") I think that we progressed from rhythmic chants which were just words said in unison (maybe in a call-and-response way). Words and rhythm are all that’s needed to give us “organised sound” but after that some clever trevors invented melody to go along with it (possibly as an enhancement to the ’natural’ intonation of the words themselves).

But why develop rhythm then melody along with the words?

Rhythm and melody aid memory and so chanting helps groups remember the stories of where they’ve come from, where to find stuff, how to hunt, where the dark goes, and when the cold will end.
Singing lullabies (which are words with melodies) also helps babies recognise and remember words as distinct from other sounds. 
Rhythm and melodies help emphasise the emotions of the story, the love of the parent, the nostalgia, excitement, fear and hope in stories, the feeling of kinship by saying things in unison - as well as having fun.

The roots of the words even imply this beginning - the Greek “meloidia” means “singing, chanting” and the Muses (who helped inspire all knowledge) were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (the personification of memory).

[I will at this juncture deliberately annoy some people and NOT link to Muse]

Instead I'll link to a lullaby.*

(* I actually found a home video online of a father recording his wife singing lullabies to their daughter. Although their love is really evident it was massively creepy as was filmed in the dark with a filter - I’ll spare you the weird voyeurism I got watching it part way through and deciding that really, some things are best kept private!]

So music started with people singing with each other.

All instruments

Ok - how did music evolve from this point? 
Well to my mind the quantum leap was the invention of instruments.

Initially these may have simply been rhythmic (eg handclapping and knocking bits of wood or rock together).

But then some more clever b@#tards (who probably had help from their mum) produced something that could make a series of notes. 
Now, people can make a staggeringly wide variety of noises with their mouths and throats, but someone (who maybe couldn’t) invented an instrument to produce sounds.

It only struck me while writing this how bloody amazing it was for someone to do that.

The earliest instruments that have been found are flutes or pipes between 42,000 and 43,000 years old.

Ok, you might get hollow bones if you suck the marrow out or find very old ones lying around. But why blow through it? and why then make holes in them to vary the sound?
'Even' a simple bone flute seems an amazingly sophisticated tool. And it’s a tool specifically for making music (you can make better bird whistles just using your mouth - in fact your mouth can already sound like a whistle).

Well, certainly whoever was doing this was being visited by the Muses. 

[again no link to Muse!].

Anyway, these instruments meant that melodic sound could develop away as accompaniment to ‘words’; from ‘just‘ as an aid to storytelling. Melodies could exist on their own, for dancing, pleasure and to share emotions.

Searching for ‘flute’ on my iTunes I got this.
From bone pipes to this - my version of that jump cut from a bone weapon to a spaceship?!?!

Studio Engineering

Ok - hands up. I first came across this idea when John Foxx {CLANG*} used it as the theme for a lunch lecture where I studied around 1992.

* that loud clang was me dropping a name - sorry. However I didn’t study music and he didn’t teach it, as he was back to being plain Dennis at the time teaching illustration.

I had written the rough idea of ‘buildings shaping music’ and then, while researching this blog post it turns out David Byrne has also been thinking about acoustics.

And it turns out that the 100 or so words I wrote are much much better expressed and with far more information by Mr. Byrne (who'da thunk?). 
It makes me feel good that he uses the same example at one point, but that feeling of ego is quickly snuffled out by the extra erudition and insight he has, covering African music and birdsong.

But the general theme of this chapter that I had in mind was "music evolves as buildings allow for different acoustics". Byrne's theme is slightly different and wider, but you get more from his 15mins!


So just a link to his TED talk!

So where were we? 
From people singing words together, to non-vocal sounds through invented instruments, music develops in complexity (such as polyphonics) as a reflection of where people are performing and listening to music.

Recorded at Manor Farm

But still - up until the late 19th century, people are gathering to listen to music and be a part of the performance, as they have done since the Dawn of Time. 

Its 'live' - a unique experience, a one-time only event.
Even with the invention of radio and people eventually being able to stay at home, everyone’s experience of music is still a one-time-only 'live' event that they are at.

And all that changes with Mr Edison.
(Ok - as with all inventions there were a variety of people inventing similar things at the same time - if you’re interested as to the evolution of recording here’s a resource I found quite useful).

The techniques and materials their inventions used had profound impacts on how people would listen to music. Recording and playback required the capture of sound usually via a trumpet-shaped part. The sound causes a needle to vibrate and etch a groove into a material. The depth of groove changes with the air pressure caused by the soundwaves. 
This recording is then played back by getting the needle to retrace the groove (where it follows the peaks and troughs that were cut by the original sound). This is then amplified via mechanical means.

What this meant was that people could listen to a specific performance that they were not part of over and over again. 

The technical limitations of recording onto vinyl (cutting those grooves) influenced the form (the sounds and length) of music as much as buildings had.

The stories may be similar (love, loss, though less hunting) but powerful baritones were able to overcome the limited quality of early recordings and sing about where the dark goes 

As microphones improved singers whose voices suited them began to benefit, such as Bing Crosby.

3-4 mins was about the maximum for a 78rpm so from this point, people started to get used to the 3 min song. When people simply play live, there is no such restriction...

The physicality of handling these ‘discs’ was also important. You had 2 sides of a record(ing), which introduced an experience of start-stop/flip-start again-end. Later, bands would ensure that the last song on side 1 was strong and that "side 2" of their Long Player kicked off with a good track.

As an example, The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” closes side 1 of Abbey Road. 

You have the scream, the cataclysmic doom bass, white noise (almost heavy metal) and you think “whoa!”, sit a bit stunned, get up, walk over to the player and flip the LP, replace the needle and then almost in trepidation of what‘s coming now, you get the sweet "Here comes the Sun… "

Limited Edition 

As mentioned, cutting grooves into vinyl has its limitations. 
This is from the liner notes by Orrin Keepnews for the CD reissue of Straight No Chaser by Thelonious Monk. [takes breath as have to type the bloody thing out - why ain't this online!]
"But those old-fashioned pre-digital LPs had to be sequenced in terms of each individual limited-length side. Only careful engineering and some very impressive disc mastering techniques could handle the more than 27 minutes on Side 2 of the original release of the Straight No Chaser album. (And even with such skills, it was really only possible because the side included an uncharacteristically long solo piano piece... the absence of bass and drums meant that, in effect, the grooves of that selection ate up much less space on the record surface)."

It also included editing out "more than five and a half minutes" from Japanese Folk Song as well as other edits to songs (which no listener had noticed so they were good edits, usually of bass or drum solos, but still - the medium couldn't handle the actual music the musicians were playing).

Ironically(?) the medium is also annoying in this YouTube clip, as 15 mins seems to be the maximum that the poster can put up and has to fade the song out at the end. 
On the reissue album there's another minute and a bit of playing. 

But its not all limitations. The medium (in this case vinyl) also allows for experimentation in producing music. 
Here’s Mixmaster Mike (because as the Beastie Boys say “no body can do it like Mixmaster can c’mon”).  

The development of tape as a medium to record and playback sound, allowed people to play music in a more portable way in public and between rooms. The development of cheap affordable personal headphones meant that people’s experience of music was now utterly personal wherever and whenever they wanted to listen to it. 

For me as an iconic moment, those portable headphones represent the growth of the importance of the listener of music from the producers of music.

Tape also allowed experimentation in the production of sounds themselves.
We've had people making noises either with their mouths or with instruments that they're hitting, plucking, strumming or whatever.
Tape allowed people to do away with the physical sound created by making something vibrate and record and manipulate purely electronic sounds. 

I'll use Delia Derbyshire as an example of someone who used pure tones created by machines recorded onto tape and manipulated then cut up, edited, recorded and re-recorded over to produce a tune.

Although she didn't invent it, she sure as hell did something wonderful.

So, the medium allows for new forms of music as well as the growing focus of the (im)personal experience of it on one‘s own.


Perhaps surprisingly for this ramble, 'digital' is a bit of a footnote.
Which will be the first and only history of listening to music where that will happen, but really from this point on there's just more of the same. But the trajectory is set.
The next innovation - digital playback eg CDs - reduces the restrictions of vinyl and tape such as degradation and length, as well as breaking albums down into 2 sides.
However by this time we're used to 3 min popular songs (and I haven’t even mentioned the commercial aspect of production and listening).

Digital did extend the access to recorded music - we're not as restricted to a few 78s at home. 

And only with this new 'perfect' reproduction would we get an aesthetic like Portishead's fake crackle and hiss (as well as scratching of course).

As an aside, overfamiliarity really does breed contempt. For a couple of years you couldn't move without being at someone's house and Portishead or Buena Vista Social Club being on in the background. And maybe that over familiarity made me think of Portishead as being just a series of clichés and I stopped listening to them. On revisiting them for this blog I now appreciate how its so well constructed and playing live I can only imagine a nightmare of pre-recorded sounds, live musicians incl orchestra, scratching, all in danger of being out of synch.  

So what have we got so far?
Music is sung words between people in the same place.
Then instruments are invented to widen the type of sounds people hear and allows focus on melodies. 
The physical spaces people play and hear music in allows for more complex sounds.
Recording means people don't have to be in the same place or time as the music being played. 
The exact same rendition of a song is now something that individuals can experience - divorced from the musicians.

But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still enjoying live events and being part of music with others - its just that a completely different way of listening to music has developed over time.

Here's a recording of an event people shared in that you can listen to again and again on your own.

And there's a fitting stop to my ramble.
Thanks for coming along as far as you did.


So, as with all the best liner notes a section of “Thanks”.

Thanks to @Purofilion for all the information on Medieval music - I asked a dumb question but received a wonderful education! And as I was thinking that music began with lullabies, she made me rethink whether music actually began with ‘chants’. She also gave me the encouragement to carry on my rather stooped idea of writing the entire history of music. 

Thanks to everyone who has, is or will post on the Music thread - its always great hearing something again or that I’ve never heard before!

And obviously thanks to @Phaseshift and @Craig who created the Music Thread after a simplistic question from me as to whether we might have one as there was one for Books and Theatre… sometimes simple questions are the best and especially when asked of generous people.

Bonus Tracks

That last song is just a tad dreary - a ‘classic’ but I thought I'd add a coupla of others that occurred during production but didn't make it to the final cut originally.

People do make the most amazing sounds:
Some overtone singing.

Mind you, if you've got people who can do this you don't need anyone playing pipes to accompany the tune. 

I also enjoyed finding this - Irish dummdelydumdllydum (lilting) music. 

Having Irish parents, I grew up knowing about lilting, but no, just as I can’t sing, I can’t really diddlyedumdumdiddlydum (I go out of tune).
This guy’s doing it with family and friends - drink was taken and he's kinda so good he's taking the piss (as well as possibly being pissed!).  

Lilting made me think of the Indian singing of sharing/learning/practising the rhythm to a song. 

Sheila Chandra (where I first heard this type of thing being done).

came across this guy when looking for the earliest music that have been found and interpreted - discussed and played here by a guy who specialises in that sort of thing. 
You can imagine it’s a field with a lot of speculation(!) based on scraps, illustrated by this interesting version of the music (which he calls a ‘maqamised’ version) based on advice from modern musicians from the area it was found.

When looking for ‘call-and-response’ music I was thinking “I must have some Gospel with congregations or work-songs, boatman’s calls or shanties or something that is call and response. 
After going through loads in my library I came up with this.

But not before I’d given up and looked online and this is what came up:
James Brown - Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud

Glad I persevered as it’s a cracker but not what I was expecting to illustrate call-and-response!

I asked @Purofilion if she knew of “a good piece of music that sums up ‘early music played intimately between people within a closed setting, like lute music for a family or court‘?
Maybe 9th century or 10th?”
Well, it was a dumb question but she generously gave me lots of information about what was actually happening in music around this period (rather than the kinda stuff I was probably thinking of). 
She also urged me to complete the writing of this blog which was also a wonderful encouragement (though she may regret that after reading this blog!).
Here’s just one of the great pieces she told me about:

When I was going to write about architecture (and then stumbled on the David Byrne lecture and thought “bugger - he‘s done it and so much more!”) I was going to use the most obvious example once you’ve heard the story (and one he uses).
Spem in Alium was created by Tallis to be sung in an existing octagonal room, with 5 voices at each corner. 
Its rather amazing - I was introduced to it by a work colleague one evening in the office (we tended to be the last people around) and after chatting about music he suggested I give it a listen. He was adamant about which recording I got as its for 40 voices which is a huge choir and hard to organise and record (which is the one he urged me to get). Most times its a smaller group recording the parts separately. I thought I could thread this 'limitation' into my blog, but Byrne… ah well.

I think in exchange for this I suggested some punk tracks (the Fall?) for him to listen to, to get in to Punk as his wife was a big fan of punk and him not so much. 
He was an interesting guy, but those tales are for the Rose & Crown...
This isn’t the version he urged me to get but it is quite good and unless you’re in an octagonal room with octophonic speakers(?!?) I guess it doesn’t really matter!

Looking for side 2 opening tracks wasn’t as easy as I’d thought. So much now is simply listed Tracks 1-12 or whatever. You can’t assume that each side has the same number of tracks and can’t even half the playing time (and quite frankly that’d be beyond tedious for me to do!).
I had a look at my very meagre vinyl collection (mostly long-term borrowed) and then I thought “Hold on, there’s 2 bands that specialise in thinking about this kinda thing - the Beatles and Pink Floyd.”

I’d be interested if anyone has better suggestions (ie a vinyl collection they can rummage!)

Looking for examples of scratching actually took longer than I thought. Mainly as the scratching wasn’t foremost or was simply back-and-forward scratching (eg Buffalo Girls). Other stuff was fantastic Hip Hop but not so necessarily obvious scratching.
But as ’bonus tracks’ it’s a shame not to link to NWA’s Straight Outta Compton  

Herbie Hancock - Rockit (possibly where I was first exposed to scratching as a sound - certainly I remember it as a kid) 

And of course, I have to link to Terminator X by Public Enemy as its damn good (and even has a bit of sci fi Flash Gordon to boot!) 

My final Bonus Track is one of my favourite Live recordings - Machine Gun by Jimi Hendrix from Band of Gypsies. Its just so damn good but illustrative of nothing, so entirely crow-barred in.

Now that can end wars let alone end rambles and blogs.

Hmm, another ‘heavy’ way to end the ramble…

[still no Muse]