Origins of Music

September 10, 2018


Throughout history the mysteries of the universe and secrets of the human heart have been encoded in song, storytelling, music, and dance. While the earliest musical instrument know is dated from at least 40,000 years ago, it is believed the voice gained full vocal range at least 530,000 years ago. Song may have developed from the imitation of the natural world and as a way to communicate emotions and facilitate bonding.

42,000 year old bone flute

It could be that the original chants first uttered by our ancestors served as protective incantations against harmful spirits and prayers to beneficial ones, given in prehistoric and ancient societies -and in many traditional cultures to this day- the arts were inextricably linked with the sacred.  For most of human history until the modern era the entire universe was imbued with spirit; and song, music, dance, regalia, and art served ritual functions.

While we don’t have direct evidence of speech or singing in prehistoric times, some 

Bronze Age rock art circle dance (www.sourcememory.net)

evidence of dance remains in the archeological record. Rock art and pottery chards show that dance was codified, unified and highly symbolic, suggesting ritual intent. There is evidence of dramatic elements in the dance, including masks, special regalia, and props, as well as trance-inducing movement that would have facilitated community healing and connection with spirit world. Through this secondary evidence we can assume rhythm and perhaps emotion expressed through vocal sound, both central to kinetic trance induction, were in use and had similar ritual function.

It is believed rituals of song and dance were integral to the daily activities of our early ancestors and the beginnings of human culture. Dance and rhythm reaffirmed the order of the universe, perhaps before language even found its way to our tongues. And the pulse of the primordial rhythm, the first beat of the heart in our mother’s womb, ritualistically bound humans to the creative impulse of life. The records show trance states and spirit visions were accessed through rhythm, dance, and plant medicine very early on in human history, and it is speculated that such visions of consciousness may in fact have sparked the beginnings of religion.

Enheduanna (http://www.projectcontinua.org/enheduanna/)

It is interesting to note that in early literate history, the first known author by name was the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) who composed songs and poems to the goddess Ishtar. Similarly, the first drummer known by name was the Mesopotamian high priestess Lipushiau in 2380 BC. As spiritual leader of the greatest temple in Ur, she led her people in ecstatic religious rituals centered around the trance-inducing power of rhythm. Evidently the arts served a sacred function at the dawn of civilization, and women were central to religion and ritual.

Having lost touch with the deep intuitive capabilities and spirit-filled world our ancestors took for granted, our postmodern lives are -at least for some- largely stripped of mystery and meaning. Though we have become much more materialistic and dependent upon external validation for the nature of reality, the limitations of the Western scientific worldview are becoming apparent. However, we can cultivate our inner perceptions so they may inform, inspire, and expand upon the benefits and gifts our rationalist worldview. In my view, this is a necessary next step if we are to usher in a future that draws upon and integrates more dimensions of human consciousness for the betterment of all. Making music and art, singing songs, and dancing in community is one way we can reclaim the deep intuition and inner perception that is our birthright.

Suggested reading:

Garfinkel, Yosef. (2010). Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture

Mijares, Sharon G. (ed). (2016). Modern Psychology and Ancient Wisdom: Psychological Healing Practices from the World’s Religious Traditions

Redmond, Layne. (1997). When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View

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