The Origin of Music: A Brief History of Song Sharing


“We are the music while the music lasts.” – T.S. Eliot

In modern-day song sharing — what we think of as “music” — there are three participants: musicians, listeners and industry.

When music first originated, there was little if any separation between musician and listener. Certainly, there was no business of music upon which to build an industry. In prehistoric times, music was part of a holistic method of communication bundled with body movements and primitive utterances, which would respectively evolve to become body language and language proper.

Over time, however, the role of the music creator — once a role shared by all — became specialized. The musician was separated and exalted above the listening audience. And over the last few centuries, this relationship between artist and audience was rapidly commercialized, giving birth to the music industry.

Music — song sharing — happens between musician, listener and industry. It is through song sharing that music is born. Much like the observation of a quantum particle causes it to exist in a certain state, music only truly exists when it is shared. Music is not a thing, but an activity, something people do. One cannot possess music, one can only be possessed by it.

Song sharing is not just passing an MP3 across the Internet, though free access to digital music is unquestionably the latest major turning point in the history of song sharing.

Song sharing is any act that brings music into being. Composing, performing and recording are the ways musicians share songs. Listeners can distribute copies — such as MP3s shared online — but unless these copies were listened to, no song sharing really took place. The listener shares songs by playing them for other people, or getting others to listen. In a world where musical quality is judged in dollars and not sense, the listener’s role in music’s dissemination is grossly overlooked, though that is changing quickly.

For the last couple of centuries, the music industry has produced, distributed and marketed songs to be sold. They owe their existence to song sharing by musicians and listeners. As such, they have been cast in a gatekeeper role, mediating the relationship between musician and listener.

For the vast majority of music history, song sharing happened freely and naturally between musicians and listeners. The act of making and listening to music is hardwired into our brains, involving more cognition in a greater number of areas than any other activity. Music evolved over millennia without any mediation of industry, becoming the creative center around which cultures formed. Song sharing was, for most of its history, was the glue that bonded individuals together through shared expression, literally forming societies.

Four turning points in the history of song sharing forever transformed its nature. Not coincidentally, each turning point marked a major milestone in the formation of the music industry.

Each of these turning points centered (naturally) around one of the three ways musicians share songs with listeners.

Composition is the DNA of song — instructions for its formation. Performance brings song to life, the performance was the act of song sharing until the recording was invented a little over a century ago — a blip in the epic history of music. Before then, composition and performance were essentially inseparable. Music was an oral tradition, and songs were passed down in this tribal, cave-person folk tradition: sacred copies that nonetheless changed ever so slightly as they were reproduced throughout the ages, mimicking the process of human evolution. The music was not made by musicians but rather by cultures, and as such, there were no composers or performers, only traditions of sharing songs.

The role of musician became more specialized as the technology of music evolved. The voice is an instrument we all possess, and there are many things in nature, including our own bodies, which serve as readymade percussion instruments. The sounds of nature and the movements of our own bodies inspired and possessed us to create the first music. But as instruments became more sophisticated, the role of musician began to be more distinguishable against the listening audience. This was the origin of the composition and the performance as separate from a cultural tradition. The role of song sharing in the civilizations of antiquity was a sacred, spiritual one, and seen as the domain of the gods themselves.

The first major turning point in the history of song sharing has to do with Pythagoras’s discovery of the mathematics of music. Though his teachings were to be lost or ignored for many centuries, the revelations of Pythagoras eventually enabled music theory to develop, ushering in a new wave of musical technology to honor what early civilizations saw as the divine music of the cosmos.

Over the second millennia, we developed new instruments, new methods of composition and performance, new ways of notating and communicating musical ideas. These advances led to the final distinction of musician as separate from listener, and of composition as separate from performance. Thus song sharing came to be defined as a discrete activity, exchange and relationship between musician and audience.

The Romantic period ushers in the second major turning point in the history of song sharing, this one having to do with performance. In the hegemonic Western world, performance morphed from folk tradition to the work of art of an individual genius. This had a profound impact on song sharing, bringing about the classical period of composition. It removed music from the domain of the gods and placed it squarely in the hands of humans. This transition began with financial support of the arts by aristocrats but ended with the audience as patron. This fundamental transformation for the first time created a thriving market for music performance, and this capital infusion drove the evolution of music technology and theory to even greater heights.

With composition and performance clearly defined and ascendant in profitability, the third and perhaps most transformational turning point in the history of song sharing is the invention of recorded music. At the turn of the 20th century, the phonograph quickly ushered in an exponential increase in the market for compositions. At the same time, performance began to take on a completely different role, being more of a means to the end of recording or marketing recordings than valued for the music itself. New broadcast technologies and recording/playback electronics fanned the flames.In what had now become a familiar cycle, music technology and industry advanced hand-in-hand on exponential scales, forever altering the culture of music and the roles of musician and listener. How quickly we forgot that prior to recordings, performance was the only way to hear music.

Toward the end of the 20th century, an imbalance in the relationship between musician, listener and industry started becoming apparent. As the market for music grew, the music laws and technologies governing the market for music were increasingly co-opted by large corporations, causing a net negative effect on culture. Both as a counter-reaction to this corporate hegemony/homogeny — and as a consequence of complacency and nearsightedness of the the record industry elite — song sharing technologies were re-appropriated by listeners en masse as they sought an equilibrium between culture and commerce. The industry responded by doubling down on restrictive laws and technologies of control, casting its customers as thieves, which brings us to something of a modern-day impasse in the evolution of song sharing.

The history of song sharing can put into in perspective some very important questions about the origin, meaning and purpose of music. These vital issues are all too ignored in our modern-day appraisal of music as entertainment product, of musician as celebrity, of profit as purpose. This perception is itself a product of the music industry, and as the market for music came to dominate our culture, we lost sight of the true meaning, power and purpose of music.

The true purpose of music is to bond humans together in shared emotional, physical and spiritual experience. As such, music has the power to make us better people, improve our relationships, and make our society better. It has the power to help us connect with and heal our bodies. It empowers us through creativity and enriches us through a deep understanding of the human condition.

All these powers of music that we lost sight of are returning, thanks to the fourth turning point in the history of song sharing — free access to music. This is not the death of the music industry, but rather a long overdue re-balancing of the relationship between musician, listener and industry. Though the industry fights this change with all its legal and financial might, the ancient power of song sharing between musician and listener, amplified by digital technology, is too great to suppress any longer.

Today, listeners are the new patrons of music — neither mass audiences via industry gatekeepers nor aristocrats have the power alone to sustain modern music culture. The separation between musician and listener is disappearing as technology democratizes composition, performance and recording. Music’s fans become DJs, remixers and mashup artists — musicians in their own right. The gatekeepers are a disappearing vestigial tail that had largely evolved simply to grab hold of money — the deep-seated and long-evolved power of song sharing transcends the market to speak to the soul. We are rediscovering music’s incredible power to heal and to change ourselves and society for the better, rather than pigeonholing the most divine human expression to mere sonic product.

As an epilogue, a fifth and final turning point in song sharing is on the horizon, again driven by the exponential progress of technology. In many ways this turning point marks a return to the original, prehistoric role of music as a central component in a holistic expression which allowed us to survive in a challenging landscape, joining us together in the tribes that would become the first societies. The lines are blurring between musician, listener and industry; between composition, performance and recording; between culture and commerce; between technology and law.

Our modern-day music universe sets the tone for this final and total technological transformation of music that will take song sharing beyond the audible and directly into the brain. The cutting edge of neuroscience and music theory points the way to a culture is based on computation. Perhaps then we will return to the reality of music as the sacred essence of all things, the song that we play by living. Life is a song we are sharing, and song sharing is the way in which we harmonize with ourselves, with others, and with the Universe at large.

Musicians and Listeners, Your Mission, if You Choose to Accept It: Save Our Culture

Music evolved alongside language and culture over millions of years to form a universal method of communicating emotion. For most of our species’ history, music’s primary purpose was to unify communities. Over time, various forces conspired to make music’s primary purpose entertainment. Chief among these was the music industry, which subjugated and exploited cultural evolution and unity for profit.

The original intent of copyright law was to protect content creators’ livelihoods while promoting cultural evolution by preserving the creative environment. Instead, the music industry (itself now a subset of a hyper-consolidated military-industrial media oligopoly) corrupted the law to steal musicians’ profits and stifle creativity. While the industry’s rapid expansion of the market during the 20th century certainly helped spread music for and wide, the cost of this commodification on our culture and creativity was heavy.

Over the previous decade, digital technology has disrupted the balance of power between musicians, listeners and industry. The record business is no longer sustainable in an era of free access to music. Unsurprisingly, the music industry, with its history of ineptitude and entitlement, is once again throwing all the money and lawyers it can at changing the laws in their favor. As musicians and listeners, we stand at a crossroads. Do we take advantage of the opportunities technology has given us and actively redefine music in the 21st century to be a force of unification once again? Or do we continue to allow the industry to subjugate the universal method of communicating as a means for enriching corporations?

What the Origin of Music Reveals About its True Meaning

Did you ever stop and wonder, “Where the hell did music come from?”

The public has many misconceptions about how music began. Perhaps the biggest of all is that music had its origin as entertainment — a superfluous if enjoyable pastime.

It is easy to see where we might have gotten this idea. For decades the culture industry ensured that music’s primary role in our society was as entertainment. They were strongly motivated to do so mostly because this made recordings eminently more consumable and profitable for the corporations that exploited music’s creators and producers.

Entertainment is surely one of the purposes of music. To be fair, most people do realize it’s not the only purpose. Live performances can and have united broad swaths of society in ways that transcend simple amusement. Music can be used as therapy or as a call to action. Songs can move us to tears or lift our spirits far beyond a simple diversion. The right song played at the right time is not just a part of one’s music library, but a part of one’s soul. And it would be hard to argue the entertainment value of the funeral dirge or the sonic torture of Iraqi prisoners of war. Clearly, there is something more to music than mere entertainment.

Most of us don’t need empirical evidence to prove the power of music extends beyond entertainment — this fact is intuitive. But it turns out that we had very few facts about the origin of music until quite recently. Only in the last few years that the fields of neurology, cognitive science, psychology, sociology, anthropology and linguistics overlapped in some pretty remarkable patterns. In the process, academia is beginning to reveal the true nature of the origin of music. Humans can now grasp the meaning of music in ways that were inaccessible for millions of years.

Though a mountain of academic research has built up over the past few years, a trio of layman’s nonfiction books brilliantly lay out the three key pieces of the origin of music puzzle.

Steven Mithin’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origin of Language, Mind and Body blew the topic wide open in 2005. The eminent archaeologist revealed music as a precursor and shaping force of language, imbuing it with the emotional meaning that pure semantics could not evoke. His ‘Hmmmm’ theory describes primitive verbalization as a combination of holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic functions. Essentially, our system of communication was formed by representing nature with the sounds we could make (in addition to, and inseparable from parallel evolutions in gesture and bodily expression).

Over time, this communication system not only evolved along with the growing sophistication of our brains, but was directly responsible for said evolution. Evolutionary changes to our vocal tract and bipedal capacity for rhythmic movement helped amplify and articulate interpersonal interaction within primitive human societies. The result was that music functioned to unify primitive humans by providing ways for them to evoke emotion and meaning in each other with vocalizations and body movement.

Since Mithin’s book was published in 2005, one might say that more happened in the interdisciplinary study of the origin and meaning of music than in all years previous. Much of this work was highly academic and analytical. Then last year another breakthrough theory of the origin of music hit the scene of layman nonfiction. Mark Changizi’s Harnessed: How Language Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man followed the wave of evidence suggesting that the high-level functions of our brain (for example, appreciating a symphony) were emergent from lower-level functions that had evolved over millions of years by miming nature as a form of interpersonal communication. In other words, our brains were not “mind over matter” so much as “mind from matter”.

Changizi’s book makes a lucid, elegant case for a simple hypothesis: “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” or in other words, “music moves us because it literally sounds like moving.” Harnessed details how virtually every major facet of music has a counterpart in the sound generated from the movement of our bodies and other physical objects in space. This is particularly true when it comes to interactions with other humans and our ability to perceive mood, intent, proximity and a host of other important sensory cues from the sound of their movement, whether or not they were paired with visual cues.

In nature, most visual stimuli are stationary and when movement does occur there is no guarantee it will be in view, but nearly every movement event makes a sound. Furthermore, each event has a sound signature that we have evolved to detect intuitively, down to the microtonal nuance.

Audition is important because at any given time, objects and events in eyeshot are only a fraction of what is in earshot. Our primitive ancestors would have been highly attuned to the sounds around them, and used sound and gesture to mimic environmental sensory input to communicate elemental concepts and feelings to their brothers and sisters. Music’s meaning to primitive humans was that of unification and interaction, so they could help each other survive. Of course this does not preclude the idea that some primitive musical communication was also meant purely to evoke pathos or joy, absent any deeper representative meaning — in other words, the first signs of music as entertainment.

When Changizi proudly proclaims in his book that ‘Soylent Music’ is made out of people, he means that musical sound is literally derived from the four elemental parameters of the movement of an individual in relation to another human. To paraphrase, he classifies these parameters as (1) proximity, (2) direction, (3) speed and (4) gait. They share a respective relationship with the four elemental parameters of music: (1) loudness, (2) pitch (and specifically, the Doppler effect), (3) tempo and (4) beat/rhythm. Without reading the text this may all sound quite abstract, but when the concept sinks it can profoundly alter one’s understanding of what music is on the most fundamental level.

To provide a quick example before wrapping up, consider the ubiquitous pop song. Like fast food or nicotine, pop music is highly consumable because it stokes our brains with pleasure chemicals and makes our brains beg for more.

Taking the parameters above, we see that pop music’s proximity/loudness mimics intimacy and leaves the listener feeling as if the singer is within arm’s reach. The direction/pitch of pop hooks rises and falls in a way that mimics the subtle movements (and subsequent sounds) of two bodies interacting in significant social rituals. The speed/tempo of these songs is almost always mid- or up-tempo, specifically calibrated to make you want to move your body. Finally the, gait/rhythm literally represents the ‘shuffle’ of our body parts as we move through space. The highly syncopated rhythms of popular music are analogous to movement that would be screaming for our attention. In fact, the whole package is designed not only to scream for our body’s attention, but to create a series of expectations and resolutions using the metaphor of movement. Though this is not exactly what cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was talking about when he controversially called music “auditory cheesecake”, a more apt description for pop music is hard to come by — it is engineered to tickle all our most pleasurable deep-seated movement instincts.

The last book in the origin of music trio helps to put Mithin’s and Changizi’s work into perspective. Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places is half-layman’s science nonfiction, half memoir of his world travels as recorder of soundscapes. In one of the coolest jobs on the planet, Krause traversed the globe and recorded all manner of sound, natural and unnatural.

The author breaks these sound sources into three types: “(1) nonbiological natural sounds — the geophony; (2) sounds originating from nonhuman, nondomestic biological sources — the biophony; and (3) human-generated sound — anthrophony — where it intrudes and, in a few cases, blends.”

The previous authors rightly focus on the third type of sound as ground zero for the emergence of music and language. Krause puts it all back in perspective by contrasting our noisy, human-dominated modern soundscapes with the natural sound tableaus that served as the inspiration for our audition adaptations. If we listen closely, we can hear nature — the original source of our inspiration — being drowned out by the noise of modernity.

Krause’s rumination on how the soundscape of our lives has changed from one that was directly in tune with nature to one that blares dissonantly and incessantly in our ears does not break the same theoretical ground the first two books do. What it does do is humanize the science behind the origin of music. As a culture and society, we would all do well to learn from the way music began, if only to help contrast today’s entertainment-dominated music industry with music’s more deeply meaningful roots as a unifying force. Perhaps then musicians and listeners can start to take steps to reclaim music’s power from market forces.