Instruments, Sound and Deliberated Beauty

  July 15, 2021   Read time 3 min
Instruments, Sound and Deliberated Beauty
Music is sound that is generated deliberately; casual and accidental sounds are not musical, although, as we shall see, they are often created by objects that we call “musical instruments.

No musical instrument can be created without purpose, although preexisting objects can be adopted or adapted for the purpose of making music. Before an instrument can even be envisaged, there must be the concept of sound and the desire to create sound. And so before we begin to consider the origins and development of musical instruments, we must first look to that sound that we call music.

Our search begins far away in time. Not perhaps so far away as the music of the spheres, but certainly to the times before mankind became human, for song is inherent in nature—song in the sense of the vocalization or other creation of sound combined with the inflection of pitch or frequency. Dance, too, is inherent in nature in the sense of movement combined with regular or repetitive rhythm.

When either of these became a conscious part of human development is a question impossible to answer, but, on the basis of what we know of the behavior of the animal kingdom, one has to say that it was probably from the earliest time that hominids stood upright. Certainly fellow primates have been seen dancing (or so we would say were they human) and accompanying the dance with movements that make more noise than is necessary for locomotion.

The progression from clapping paws, or hands, to the use of a pair of sticks or a couple of stones is the origin of musical instruments. When did this take place? One could say with some confidence “before the Paleolithic Age” for it could well have been precisely this act that led to the earliest phase of the Paleolithic or, as it used to be called, the Eolithic, the Dawn of the Stone Age. As stones are clashed together, they are liable to crack, to split, even to shatter. The sharp fragments that fell could have been the first tools.

Whether this scenario is true, or whether stone tools came before instruments, no one will ever know. If tools came first, then two flint knappers, chipping within earshot of each other, could have been the first musicians to produce rhythmic counterpoint as they interlocked their rhythms. Smiths and workers who use pestles and mortars do this over much of the world to this day. Many other such theories are equally possible, but it remains likely that musical instruments began with the concussive sounds of two objects struck together.

These are instruments that are still in use. We use wooden sticks as the claves of Latin American dance music, and in Australia they accompany the didjeridu. Wooden shells are used as castanets, similar objects of metal are used as cymbals, and all of these we shall see in more detail as we proceed. Many of these are used to accompany the dance, and the two most powerful influences on mankind, which may have led to music and to instruments, are dance and ritual. Dance, as we noted above, is inherent in nature, and we see such movements, apparently instinctive, in the youngest of our own children. Why it happens is a matter for studies other than this. Why an impulse toward religion or ritual is almost equally instinctive is again beyond our field, but we must accept that it exists, accept that it is often expressed in dance, and accept that it is often, even normally, accompanied by sound and by song and chant, and that those sounds are what we can call “music.”

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