There is no better way to launch The 145 than by exploring the entire history of music in four medium-length posts. Here we go…
The Dawn of Music.
In a press release dated December 15, 2015, neuroscientists at MIT announced they have identified a neural population in the human auditory cortex that responds selectively to sounds that people typically categorize as music, but not to speech or other environmental sounds.
Basically, this means the human brain has special wiring that translates and responds to music as a separate function from the way it responds to every other sound. This is why your dog doesn’t tap his paws when you play your records, but you do.
The neuroscientists tested the neural responses of their test subjects as they listened to sounds like toilets flushing, cars starting, people talking and musical passages; and although there is still much research to be done, it’s clear to them that the brain is wired to react to music differently than it does any other group of auditory sensations. They have yet to do enough research on the emotional connection the brain has with music, but this is a very interesting start. The smart people at MIT have almost proved what we’ve kind of known all along: music is an essential part of being human.
Music has been with us as long as we have been human. A sheepskin drawn over a hollow tree trunk or an animal bone carved out to make a flute are two early musical instruments and flutes and drums are indigenous to every culture and society known to mankind. Whether early forms of music served as a rudimentary form of tribal communication or some other deeper form of spiritual communication, or both, is still open to debate, but there is no debate that the innate human need and desire for music transcends simple tribal communication. In that regard, music still plays the same role it has always played: it is still used as a form of tribal communication and as something much deeper and more spiritual.
Technology, the human mind, and music are inseparably intertwined: Our ability to make and listen to music has kept pace with our technological advances in all other aspects of life. Technology has driven our creation and enjoyment of music, and there are certainly instances where music has driven technology as well.
Music is also created for the way we are able or choose to listen to it. From early wind and stringed instruments that were audible to only a small group of people sitting around a fire, we moved to more intricate instruments played by ensembles for slightly larger (and wealthier) groups of people. By the late 18th Century, symphonies began performing in larger halls for larger audiences, so musical scores changed to accommodate that evolution. By the late-19th and early 20th centuries, music became bombastic and militaristic, befitting the mood of the times and the size of the audiences who were listening in great new opera houses and concert halls.
While vocal music has always been with us, its popularity as an event to be experienced by large numbers of people was limited to church and opera until the early days of radio and large-scale electronic amplification systems. Electronic amplification allowed singers to sing with nuance and emotion, and with that came the rise of music superstars such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Prior to that, popular vocal music was largely found in operatic scores: Performed in halls designed specifically for music, opera singers were able to be heard by larger audiences without amplification. While there is great emotion in opera, nuance can be lost if the acoustics of the room are not superb. Church and religious music were also the homes of vocal music, with religious vocal music’s evolution no doubt enhanced by the immense and acoustically favorable cathedrals that began to appear in the Middle Ages. By the middle of the 20th Century that began to change as technology advanced allowing popular, secular, non-operatic vocalists a chance to be heard.
After all of the technological advances brought about by World War II, music composition evolved to follow the mood and technology of the times as electronic media and electrified concert halls allowed even more people to experience music in all of its forms. An art form that was really only accessible on a large scale by the wealthiest of people was quickly becoming an art form easily created and enjoyed by all people. All of human technological progress follows the same path: new innovations are at first only available to a select few, and then as the technology matures it becomes available to a wider group of people until it is finally ubiquitous. The first wheeled carts weren’t available to peasants, and neither were the first motorized cars. On a broader view, it was the maturation of telecommunications technology that put a telephone in the pocket of nearly everyone on the planet, whereas a few short years ago only people in nations with a developed infrastructure had access to land-line based telephones. There are people in developing countries today who still use cow dung to fuel their heat and cooking fires but can make a call on a cell phone after dinner.
Eventually, all of this technology meant there was money to be made from music in ways that had never existed before, even from music of questionable quality. The influx of serious money drove the technology even further. Music continued as a means of tribal communication, but the tribe was now virtually global. The tribe of post-World War II parents spoke to each other through swing and Big Band music, while their tribal off-spring communicated to each other via the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. The tribal communication of punks in the 1970s was unintelligible to all who preceded them, and so on, and so on.
A great disruption in the evolution of tribal music (that is, music written for a specific group of people by members of that group) was the Delta Blues. For a variety of archaic and misguided reasons, white audiences did not listen to Delta Blues even though the genre was informing and influencing the swing, jazz and country music of the day. It wasn’t until post-World War II kids in England latched onto the Blues’ raw energy and emotion that a regional means of story telling became a cultural force. As young American and English musicians brought the Delta Blues (often disguised as rock and roll) to white America in the 1950s and 60s, this regional tribal music played a role in dismantling the culture of oppression from inner city America to the other side of the Iron Curtain.
But as a species, we are a restless tribe, so how did kids in the early 21st Century listen to music? In their cars with 1200 Watt systems powering 15” dual subwoofers, the T808 synthesizer in their hip-hop producing enough low-end rumble to make an entire generation of kids prematurely deaf. Their tribe speaking to each other through music in the same manner tribes have always spoken to each other. The tribe was just bigger and not so local anymore.
The evolution of music as a person-to-person and spiritual communication medium was moving forward exponentially. After tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years of development, music had gained its rightful place in the hierarchy of our lives.
Then something happened.
We got really good at digital electronics and really, really, good at circuit and memory miniaturization.
And technology took control of our music.