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Who's in the Video

Michael Spitzer

Michael Spitzer is the author of The Musical Human and professor of music at the University of Liverpool, where he leads the department’s work on classical music. A music theorist[…]

The evolution of music over millennia is tied to human civilization. 

For example, hunter-gatherers, who were very mobile, had to have small, light instruments to carry with them. Once we settled into bigger cities, larger instruments could be built.

Today, music is as accessible as running water. But if you were born in Beethoven’s time, you would be lucky to hear two symphonies in your lifetime.

MICHAEL SPITZER: If you were born in Beethoven's time, you'd be lucky if you heard a symphony twice in your lifetime, whereas today, it's as accessible as running water.

We're drowning in music. We in the West have tended to have a misconception that history of music is a history of works or composers. This tends to reduce music into an object, into an exhibit in an imaginary museum. It also overvalues the role of the composer compared to most people who are innately musical.

And I wanted to get away from the usual thing of 'Which composer wrote what piece at what time,' to see the bigger picture. We're in the kind of moment of the global, of the universal— and music is absolutely universal.

I'm Michael Spitzer. I'm Professor of Music at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. I've written a book called "The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth."

It's almost inconceivable to write a prehistory of music because Edison invents the phonograph in 1877 and prior to that, we have no record of any sound. In terms of the evolution of instruments, the very oldest instrument we have is the human voice. We also have lithic instruments made of rocks, such as stalactites or the famous 'rock gongs' in Tanzania.

But the landmark is a discovery of bone flutes, flutes made out of the bones of vultures, and they're dated about 40,000 years. And they were found in the South German caves. One of the problems with instruments is that the materials biodegrade. So we have to work inferentially by mapping from what we do know.

If you're looking at the broad picture of the evolution of sapiens, then the epochs are hunter-gatherer, farming community, and then the founding of cities and city-states. Each of these epochs is associated with mentalities. So, hunter-gatherers tended to be nomadic. And if you're essentially journeying through a landscape, what you don't do is carry heavy instruments. Music has to be portable, ideally, just a voice or if not, a very light flute or a small percussive instrument. And if you look at the music that is played by the Cameroon Pygmies, every time they play a piece, it sounds different. It's very much music of the moment.

Now, what changes when you invent farming? You settle down. And your whole mindset becomes fixed on the circle of the seasons, the circle of life. And you invent repeatable work. And the structure of the work becomes as cyclical as life itself. You invent a circle in music, invent musical rituals. And once music migrates from the farm to the town, certain changes happen. Instruments can become heavy because you start to set quite permanent roots into the town. You create heavy instruments like bells and gongs, but also very delicate ones like harps and lutes which would be damaged over a journey.

And music's function now also changes with the growth of social hierarchy. The job of music is to be a handmaiden to serve the power, the power of the prince or the church. And musicians become professionalized and their job is to create music to be listened to for people with leisure. And this is the origin to what we call concerts.

To have a concert requires leisure, requires money, and oftentimes, it's the aristocrats or the upper middle class who had the time to sit back and enjoy music performed for them. For most people over millions of years, that doesn't happen. So, the rule is that most music was performed functionally, as we say, "Whistle as you work." Also, it was performed in a participatory way. So there was no distinction between those who create the music and those who listened to it. It was the same people.

The idea that we have a composer, we have a listener, is a purely modern invention. an Italian monk called Guido invents staff notation. And life was never again the same for Western music. Why is that so important? Staff notation was a tool of church control. And through writing chants down, the church could ensure, literally, that monks singing at the furthest outpost of the empire of Christendom, literally sang from the same hymn sheet. And then, once the empire expands beyond the Mediterranean basin and Cortes invades Mexico in 1519, he takes notation with him, decimates the Indians in 1519, by 1530, you have Aztec musicians singing Spanish polyphony in Mexico Cathedral. So music notation becomes the sharp end of the stick of globalization.

Now, there are various consequences to staff notation, many of them are frankly bad. By pinning notes down to a page, it's almost like capturing a butterfly. You're taking a note away from the voice, making it very precise. If you look at the way most people speak or sing, the pitch slides. It fluctuates. It doesn't stay still. Notation freezes a note. It becomes rather cold and mechanical. It also freezes music as an object, which is actually quite counterintuitive. Music isn't an object. It's an activity. It's a thing you do, like dancing or jogging. But once you turn it into an object, you create a division between the composer of the object and those who merely mechanically reproduce it.

We're regaining the participatory condition of music, which was the norm thousands of years ago, where we all had an equal stake in creating and enjoying music. Greater integration with technology has served to accelerate a cultural change and we see that in the extraordinary role of the internet. We can both create music in our homes and share it. The original bone flute was a piece of technology. It serves to extend human capacity. It extends the voice, which extends our imagination.

I think it's fair to say that just as what Stockhausen or Beyoncé is achieving today would've been completely out of the comprehension of a Mozart or a Beethoven a few centuries ago. We can't even begin to imagine the possibilities awaiting us in the future.