Music on the Wind

We tend to get told a lot that music began by people banging rocks or sticks together, as the origin of African music, hence of modern popular music in all of its forms. But I have never read anything about the origins of wind instruments, which I think are at least as old. In my previous post I noted a Stone Age flute, but I am not aware of any drums or other percussion from this time. Why do people think that percussion predates melody? After all, melody is nicer.

Have you ever stood in a strong wind, and listened? There used to be a group of very tall, close together pines in an estate near where I lived. I used to make a point of going there when a storm was on the rise, to hear the trees moaning as they swayed. It was an almost human sound; sometimes I felt like answering them. It was sad, but beautiful, and at times musical. I loved to just stand there, and somehow wanted to stand taller, to listen more to them.

There are lots of reasons put forward as to why our ancestors decided to stand upright, and I have long had a theory that they did so in order to listen to the wind more closely. You can hear the sound much clearer if you are upright, and something about it makes you want to reach up to it.

Our ancestors spent a lot of time out hunting during the ice ages, but they must have spent time sheltering from raging gales. What did they do while they waited for storms to pass, or for big scary animals to go away? Eat? Sleep? Learn to sing, and harmonise with the wind?

I have no idea how old bagpipes are, but they go back a long time, not just in Scotland, but in France, Spain and Italy. They sound pretty painful on street corners of Edinburgh but I have heard recordings of them in a raging gale I think in the Shetlands or Orkney, and they harmonise beautifully with the sound of the wind.

Whenever people talk about great harmony singing, they often cite families. A lot of early pop singers, especially in the States, began singing with their families. The list of family pop groups is pretty impressive, with the Bee Gees, The Osmonds and the Jacksons, The Everley Brothers,  and more recently, girl groups like The Staves, Heim, First Aid Kit and The Unthanks. It is not just that they have grown up together singing, they are genetically similar, so their voices are close enough to work in harmony.

When we are scared, it seems to help if we sing; during the war, there were a lot of communal singing. Ray Davies talks of how when one of his sisters died, nobody knew how to respond, so they stood round the family piano, singing cheesy songs; it didn’t matter about the words,  there was something about sharing the process of song that seemed to draw everyone together and deal with their pain.

The more I think about it, the more I think we as humans are somehow hardwired to make music, especially to sing. It is not just something we do, it is very much a part of us, of how we cope with our lives. There is a book I have cited before, The Optimism Bias, which suggests that when humans became self aware, they also had to cope with the knowledge that we are mortal and most of our lives are hard. We seem to be hardwired to look on the bright side of things, and one of the means to do this is to do art, in particular, music.

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2 thoughts on “Music on the Wind

  1. I like the idea that melody came before, or at the same time as, percussion. I love that sound the wind makes, particularly in high places I like it. I find however that I sing when I’m happy, these days – it’s a sign I’m happy, if I feel the urge.

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