Music has been a lifeline during this year of Covid, but we haven’t all dabbled in drumming or taken up the trombone. Instead we’ve sparked up Spotify, soundtracking our constricted lives with a mood-changing playlist of uplifting beats or chill-out classical. This surge in listening has been little comfort to professional musicians, struggling while live venues are shuttered. Lockdown has boosted streaming by 22%, but with digital distributors keeping the lion’s share of the proceeds, some artists have found themselves delivering takeaways and stacking shelves.
As Michael Spitzer points out, this shift towards isolated listening is only the latest stage in a transition from active participation in music to our passive consumption of it that has been going on for thousands of years.
Spitzer splits his global history of music into three movements, spinning the story of a turn away from nature across a single human life, world history and hominid evolution. He starts with the individual, charting how music begins for most of us in intricate duets of cooing and peek-a-boo on our parents’ knees. Nursery rhymes, recorder groups and school choirs keep us making music during our primary years, but before reaching adulthood most westerners choose not to pursue it – a development Spitzer blames on the cult of genius, the church and Guido d’Arezzo, the Italian monk who invented staff notation in the 11th century.
The same story plays out again over the course of world history. Spitzer rewinds 40,000 years to a bone flute discovered in a cave in south-west Germany, drawing on the musical practice of contemporary hunter-gatherers to suggest that it was used to play “atoms of music”, which were repeated alongside other independent voices to the accompaniment of handclaps, body slaps and rattles. For Spitzer, music has always played a role in religion, so he finds it in the standing stones of Göbekli Tepe, a religious site in Turkey around which the first settlements were established 12,000 years ago, and in the poetry of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna – “the first recorded name of a composer in the history of the world”. The lyre and the double oboe arrive with Ancient Egypt, the idea of progress and tradition with the Old Testament, and the resolution of dissonance with Greek tragedies, which Spitzer says were “closer to operas than to what we call ‘plays’”.
The stage is now set for western music’s flight into abstraction. When Guido strung the notes of plainchant across four parallel lines, it allowed the church to standardise music across a continent and composers to preserve their work for future generations. Armed with the ability to capture music on the page, they pushed its logic ever further, launching successive waves of revolution that took us from Renaissance polyphony to Arvo Pärt. Enshrining these sounds in scores broke the “great chain of master-apprentice relationships”, leading to the canonisation of genius composers, the professionalisation of performance and a gradual decline in audience numbers.
Spitzer widens his lens to explore how we share rhythm with insects, melody with birds and a sense of musical tradition with whales. Combine these capacities with the social intelligence of apes, he suggests, and all the ingredients for a musical primate are there. The book traces a line from the rhythm of walking on two legs, through the repeated impacts of making stone tools and the percussive banging used to drive animals away, so that music carves out a place to live safely. It marks “the boundary between civilisation and nature, the village and the forest”.
With such a broad canvas, there are inevitable gaps. The musical score not only allowed composers to preserve and broadcast their work, it also meant they could write works they couldn’t play themselves. In his brief coda on future directions, Spitzer doesn’t explore how electronic music makes it possible to create music unplayable by any human being. He also says he’s more interested in our “universal predisposition to music” than “elite accomplishments”, and that he’s wary of pitting classical music against pop, but popular music mostly plays second fiddle in this account. He can discuss Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” with the same acuity as Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, but his heart is clearly in the concert hall.
Spitzer isn’t afraid of using a sweeping statement or a corny line, and his fractal compositional technique means he has to make do without the narrative thrust of a conventional, linear argument. But The Musical Human is full of delightful nuggets and sends the reader back to a world of musical examples time and time again.
After following the evolution of music over 165m years, he greets the contemporary split between professional performers and passive consumers with little more than a shrug: “We are where we are, and it is where it is.” If music is as central to human existence as he suggests, we can’t leave musicians dancing to the tune of Deliveroo.
• The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth is published by Bloomsbury (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshp.com. Delivery charges may apply.