Michael Spitzer: 40000 years of music history in 8 minutes

6 August 2022

Because music is so accessible today we’re drowning in it, says Michael Spitzer, professor of music at the University of Liverpool. That’s a far cry from a few hundred years ago when people attended, at best, two recitals in their lifetime, and music went unrecorded until 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.

But the arrival of the phonograph is only a small part in the story of music. Changes in the way music was performed, and the instruments created to make that possible, evolved as we moved away from our hunter-gatherer roots, and eventually began living in towns. Spitzer’s recounting of forty-thousand years of musical development, in the space of eight minutes, is fascinating.

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.

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