In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 18. Music

This emotive but hard-to-define art form has played a pivotal role in human evolution

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the focus is on music.

Music in 60 seconds

Music as a concept almost defies definition, but at its most basic can be described as a form of art centred around any combination of sounds.

 Endless theories abound about its origins, but the historical consensus is that music existed prior to the development of modern humans. Archaeology website Ancient Origins suggests that “in all probability, it is likely to have begun with singing and clapping or beating the hands on different surfaces”.

Following thousands of years of evolution and hundreds of compositional movements, music is now defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion”.

But critics say this is a rather reductive definition. For a start, many cultures have formed musical languages that are entirely distinct from the Western canon. In addition, highly experimental forms of Western music have broken free of previously understood melodic, harmonic and rhythmic forms.

Such arguments aside, music in its many forms has played a key role in the evolution of humans, allowing us to express ourselves and communicate with others, and playing a key role in cultural, political and even religious movements for millennia.

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How did it develop?

According to the BBC, the earliest known musical instruments are “just” 40,000 years old, but music itself is “almost certainly significantly older”.

Experts believe primitive music - such as banging on rocks or clapping - would have helped prehistoric human species to survive, as a means to broadcast emotions and messages and offer groups an identity. Some suggest music is also linked to the development of monogamy and other lasting emotional ties between humans, says ScienceDaily.

“Music leads to bonding, such as bonding between mother and child or bonding between groups,” explains Jeremy Montagu, former curator of Oxford University’s Bate Collection of Musical Instruments. “It has even been suggested that music, in causing such bonding, created not only the family but society itself, bringing individuals together who might otherwise have led solitary lives.”

Seemingly as a result, music has taken on a near-sacred role in human civilisation, developing in conjunction with cultural movements and eras.

Over thousands of years, the art form went through key stages of evolution to create something of a common musical language. For example, pre-medieval early music such as monophonic liturgical plainsong, heard primarily in religious services, eventually paved the way for the rise of polyphony - using multiple, interweaving melodies at the same time - in the ninth century and the subsequent advent of Western art music.

It was also in the medieval period that musical notation was perfected, meaning oral tradition was no longer the only method of passing on music. Composers then began creating more elaborate music forms that included multiple voice parts, with a range of new instruments entering the form including the viol and keyboard families.

Through the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras up to the 1900s, strict form and ornamentation was used to create increasingly expressive, emotive works featuring everything from large orchestras to solo instruments.

In the 20th century, however, musical form was torn apart and stretched to its absolute limit by avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who challenged boundaries by incorporating new experimental practices into the art form that negated prerequisites of melody, harmony, rhythm or even basic organisation.

This seminal movement gave rise to new strands of musical philosophy. More traditionalist scholars argued that such compositions could not fit under any common definition and therefore were not music, while others suggested that experimental compositions had blurred the line between “noise” and “music” to such an extent that music literally cannot exist.

How did it change the world?

Music has fulfilled a multitude of important roles for humans and is a “fundamental part of our evolution”, according to Washington D.C.-based academics Jay Schulkin and Greta Raglan.

In its prehistoric form, it functioned as a means of “calling attention to oneself, expanding oneself, selling oneself, deceiving others, reaching out to others, and calling on others”, the pair write in a paper titled “The evolution of music and human social capability”.

“Musical sensibility pervades our social space and our origins in synchrony with our interactions with others that are built on core biological propensities,” they add.

In the following centuries, “many possible functions for music” arose, says ScienceDaily.

“One is dancing,” the site says, while other “obvious reasons” for music include entertainment - both personal and communal - and ritual, as “virtually every religion uses music”.

Looking beyond mere musical expression, the United Nations’ Africa Renewal magazine highlights the relationship between music and cultural change.

“The combination of the right lyrics, rhythm and instruments can build a group identity, stir strong emotions, engage audiences and amass people to take action,” the magazine says. “This makes music the perfect partner for social change.”

Movements in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have used music to advance and raise awareness of such diverse causes as workers rights, racial equality, sexual liberation and LGBT acceptance.

As the uDiscoverMusic site puts it, “songs have always held a mirror to the world, reflecting the things going on around us, and, arguably, music changes society like no other art form”.

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