The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth by Michael Spitzer; The Life of Music: New Adventures in the Western Classical Tradition by Nicholas Kenyon - review by Mathew Lyons

Mathew Lyons

Symphony of a Thousand Millennia

The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth


Bloomsbury 480pp £30 order from our bookshop

The Life of Music: New Adventures in the Western Classical Tradition


Yale University Press 320pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The first note known to have sounded on earth was an E natural. It was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid (a kind of cricket) rubbing its wings together, a fact deduced by scientists from the remains of one of these insects, preserved in amber. Consider, too, the love life of the mosquito. When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, his wings buzz at a frequency of 600Hz, which is the equivalent of D natural. The normal pitch of the female’s wings is 400Hz, or G natural. Just prior to sex, however, male and female harmonise at 1200Hz, which is, as Michael Spitzer notes in his extraordinary new book, The Musical Human, ‘an ecstatic octave above the male’s D’. ‘Everything we sing’, Spitzer adds, ‘is just a footnote to that.’

Humans may be the supremely musical animal, but, with or without us, this is a musical planet. What makes us special? The answer is complex. It is partly down to physiological factors, such as the development of a vocal tract that is distinct among primates and our bipedal posture, which, Spitzer argues, gives us our unique ability to comprehend and copy rhythm. We are also capable of vocal learning, the skill of mimicking and adapting sounds to new environments and contexts, something that is beyond all but a few species of birds.

Then there is tool-making. The earliest known purpose-built musical instrument is some forty thousand years old. Found at Geissenklösterle in what is now southeastern Germany, it is a flute made from the radial bone of a vulture. Remarkably, the five holes bored into the bone create a five-note, or pentatonic, scale. Which is to say, before agriculture, religion, settlement – all the things we might think of as early signs of civilisation – palaeolithic men and women were already familiar with the concept of pitch.

Pitch is an abstraction: any given note doesn’t have a real-world referent. The existence of flutes that produce a family of fixed notes, however, suggests a developed tonal system of patterns and scales, a sense of right notes and wrong notes, a cultural and musical identity. This has evolutionary as well as cultural significance. Studies have shown that playing the music of Bach, for instance, retunes musicians’ brains. More than that, when a musician listens to their instrument – for instance, when a flautist listens to a flute – it activates the part of the brain that relates to the sense of self. Given that the human brain hasn’t changed much in forty thousand years, it isn’t hard or far-fetched to extrapolate a critical role for music in the development of human life.

A few years ago, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggested that, in evolutionary terms, music is merely ‘auditory cheesecake’ – a pleasant but trivial addendum to human development. The Musical Human is, among other things, a comprehensive refutation of that idea. Spitzer, who is professor of music at the University of Liverpool, has arranged his book into three sections exploring the centrality of music to human existence in the context of human life, human history and evolution. Across all three, a range of themes emerges: music’s ability to express the inexpressible; the extent to which the development of music, particularly in the West, represents a rupture with nature; how we use music to order and explain our lives and our societies. It is peppered with fascinating thoughts, questions and insights. Ranging from the Geissenklösterle caves to K-Pop, from the lost music of the Aztecs to the role of song in hunter-gatherer societies, and drawing on a vast array of specialisations, from archaeoacoustics to ornithology, Spitzer utilises a breathtaking variety of sources.

But what did our ancestors use music for? One answer can be found deep underground. ‘A musical tone instantly communicates its sense of the numinous,’ Spitzer says. The flute gave sensory form to something that had no physical presence; it summoned the invisible and the divine. Shards of ancient flutes have been found next to cave paintings, which, it has been suggested, were produced at points of maximum resonance in these subterranean complexes. If these sites have the same acoustic properties as vaulted churches, he asks, might it be fruitful to consider today’s cathedrals and concert halls as latter-day caves of worship?

There are other ancestral ghosts hidden in the Western canon. When Bach set lines from the Song of Songs in his cantata Wachet auf, he drew on a tradition that goes back at least as far as the Sumerian hymns written by the world’s first known composer, Enheduanna, in the third millennium BC. Likewise, the 6/8 time of the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is African in origin, brought into Europe through popular dances in the 15th century.

* * *

The Musical Human is predicated on the idea that the history of music is neither linear nor circular, but fractal, always the same, always different. It is an idea borne out, in different ways, in Nicholas Kenyon’s The Life of Music, which is primarily a survey of the classical repertoire from the 12th century to the present day. Kenyon presents the classical tradition in part as a centuries-long musical conversation, through which composers far distant in time speak to each other. Kenyon cites by way of example the manner in which the 15th-century Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem looks forward to the serialism of the 20th century and how the contemporary composer Thomas Adès has found inspiration in the French Baroque composer François Couperin.

Kenyon is managing director of London’s Barbican Centre. He has spent a lifetime steeped in the world of orchestral music and his expertise illuminates every page. As you would expect, the writing reflects the author’s own tastes and preferences. The early 20th-century Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, Kenyon thinks, has never found the place in the canon he deserves. And did Beethoven really write ‘more second-rate music than many great composers’, as Kenyon suggests? But everywhere, Kenyon’s judgements are generous and his deep love of music infectious.

Throughout, he is alert to how contemporaries heard the music of their peers, to how they thought about it, and to how that music is received today. This is always a book about music in performance, and about the art of listening. At almost every turn, I wanted to stop reading and listen to the music Kenyon describes – and consistently felt rewarded for doing so.

While these two books cover a little of the same ground, they complement each other well. Kenyon’s is the perfect companion for anyone wanting an introduction to the glories of the Western classical canon. Spitzer’s will make you think differently about music, about its place in your life and about its importance to human life tout court. Both, in their different ways, make the case for music as a tool to think with, as a wordless articulation of our deepest feelings about our brief, precarious, contingent lives.

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