Monday, 28 January 2008

Music and words

I’ve always been very envious of people who can play a musical instrument with any degree of facility. This now includes my own offspring as both the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist are pretty hot stuff on the electric guitar and (obviously) bass, respectively.

My parents were keen that I should learn the piano as a child but I knew that the local piano teacher was apt to rap you over the knuckles with a ruler if you got things wrong so I confined myself to learning the recorder, but only because it got me out of an hour of maths once a week. I was poor at maths and reasonable at the recorder. The obvious thing to do would have been to progress to the flute or the clarinet once I’d grasped the basic principles but, somehow, I never did.

I have had various attempts to teach myself to play the classical guitar over the years and I always get stuck at the same point – not because I can’t make my hands do the stuff but because I can’t make my eyes do the stuff quickly enough – I don’t scan well and have to count lines because it’s not obvious to me where the notes are. It’s a bit like dyslexia for notes. (Is there such a thing?)

But music remains important to me. As anyone who has read ‘my complete profile’ on Blogger will know I have eclectic taste when it comes to music but I think it comes down to a strong preference for melody over experiment (although having said that I am peculiarly susceptible to percussion as a form). I envy people who can produce music, whether they play or compose, because I know that it has an effect on me that words can never match. Music can tap into emotions more quickly than words – almost instantaneously for music which we are familiar with – and is, in my experience, more mood-altering than prescription drugs.

Several things have happened this weekend to make me think about music and its place not only in my life but in the world in general. Firstly, I was minding my own business in St John’s college front court in Cambridge on Friday when I heard the organ being played in the chapel. It chimed in so exactly with the sense of undefined longing I was experiencing that it felt like some kind of providential gift and I just stood there listening and wondering what name I should give to the longing I was feeling. I don’t hanker after the life of an Oxbridge student or academic – I had my share twenty years ago and was very grateful for it but I have, as our friends in the US say, ‘moved on’. So what was it? Something to do with the sheer beauty of the surroundings? Or was it something more akin to what Damia, the central contemporary character in Testament feels about Kineton and Dacre college – a sense of belonging to a community so old that one’s feeling of rootedness almost has a tangible physicality? I’m not generally a joiner, a belonger, but I do wonder whether this is part of what I was feeling.

Then there was The Choir Revisited on the telly. I managed to miss all but the first episode of the original series which followed Gareth Malone’s successful attempt to take a choir from Northolt School in Middlesex (number of choirs at inception of project: 0) to the Choir Olympics in China. I was in tears at various points in this programme and it was all to do with people making music together – in this context, very unpromising musicians making very successful music. They started out as a disaffected, underprivileged group of kids with very little in common with each other apart from their school and ended up as a choir. And music did this. Gareth Malone was essential but without music, as I’m sure he would be the first to admit, he wouldn’t have had a chance of getting these guys to act in concert. (Sorry, pun intended).

Then, on Saturday with friends, I was introduced to the ideas and work of Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthals, an archaeologist whose research has led him to believe that music is as least as old as human language and that music may actually predate language and have been a precursor to it.

Well, that explains everything, doesn’t it? The older a potential skill is, the more deeply embedded its neuronal structures are in our brains. If we’ve been making music for tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of years, no wonder it speaks so deeply to us. And if, as Mr Mithen seems to be suggesting (haven’t read the book myself yet, so this may be a not totally accurate representation of his thesis) music and language have evolved in tandem, then it’s small wonder that the combination of music and words can be almost unbelievably moving. Hymns, love songs, patriotic stuff as sung at The Last Night of the Proms… and don’t even get me started on Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ read over Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ at the cenotaph…

1 comment:

David Isaak said...

"...that music is as least as old as human language and that music may actually predate language and have been a precursor to it."

Oh, I'm morally certain that's correct. Like smell, music seems to bypass the forebrain. I've always assumed that, evolutionarily, the genealogy ran music ---> poetry ---> true prosaic language.

I think one of the scariest scenes in cinema is in Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" when the young boy from the Hitler Youth sings "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and the crowd gardually rises to their feet and join in. Brrrr. Gives me the creeps even thinking about it.