Why Do We Love to Sing? A Look at the Origins of Vocal Expression.

The rapid innovation in interactive singing technology brought about in the late 1970’s by the invention of Karaoke equipment sparked an ever-growing interest worldwide in singing popular songs—both for the sheer delight of it and for whatever rewards and recognition it may bring to the new breed of participants.  Along with the increased popular access to the tools of music making came the realization that singing is something anyone and everyone can do with basic singing lessons, not just a select group of highly professional singers or superstar talents created by Hollywood star maker studios!

Where did this love of singing originate? Why is that people all over the world love to hear music and love to sing?  What are the deeper social purposes that singing fulfills?  In this article we look at vocal expression in the dawn of human history in order to trace the fundamental social needs singing fulfills.

When looking for the origins of music, we are looking at a period of prerecorded history. There are no song remnants, movies, videos or tapes available. No written records, or texts to guide us to the shape or structure of early music. We know from anthropologists, geologists, and other researchers of human history that as the dust settled on the Jurassic period, as the giant dinosaurs disappeared from the earth, early men formed societies and thrived in several locations on the planet.  Without any record of the music-making capacities of early societies—prior to the written records left by Sumerians and Egyptians 6000 years ago, we have little to show us how early man in the Paleolithic era, 12,000 to 25,000 years ago exhibited musical expression.

Early primitive groups. To find primitive song forms, musicologists have studied the societies surviving to this day, which contain remnants of Stone Age culture. Small isolated groups of people around the world, now confined to living in the harshest environments, driven there by the rapacious advance of modern civilization, still maintain the earliest forms of social organization. These groups include the Pygmies of the equatorial forests of Gabon and Ituri, the Bushmen of Southwest Africa, the Semang of the Malayan jungle, the Veddas of Ceylon, the Andamanese, the Australian aborigines, the Eskimos of arctic North America, and the Selknam and Yamana tribes of Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America.

These groups have in common an economy based on hunting and gathering and of following their prey and moving from season to season. They do not practice agriculture, nor do they build fixed habitations.  Men are usually the hunters and women the gatherers. Men use weapons in the hunt; the primary weapons being the spear and the bow and arrow. The only professional class is the shaman or medicine man.  Usually these are men, but this is not universal. And women in all these societies have primary healing and medicinal roles in relation to childbirth, childrearing, healing the sick and rites of passage at the time of death.

Picture 2 Archeologists have uncovered remnant evidence of musical instruments used in Stone Age times, which are corroborated by musical practices amongst surviving societies today. Animal bones were fashioned in to wind instruments, such as the flute, and into percussive sticks.  One of the earliest musical instruments used in Africa was the bow. Cave paintings from Paleolithic times reveal telling evidence of musical practices for the purpose of sustaining life or of denying fearful spirits.  Drawings depict men dressed in animal costume—thereby invoking the magical powers of animals; dancing and playing instruments such as the flute. Dancing is closely associated with the hunt.  There are spiritual, ritual, and survival overtones in these societies dependent upon the hunt for survival.

Do the war dance. As dance is driven by rhythmic activity, generated by men playing early percussive and wind instruments, primitive songs associated with the hunt dances or war dances came about when people uttered sounds to invoke the spirits and or to express strong emotions, impressions or sensations.  Often the uttered sounds were not articulated words conveying meaning, but rather were repeated syllables that captured a feeling or expressed a sensation.

For example, a greeting song of the Yamana tribe of Tierra Del Fuego goes like this:

Ha ma la  Ha ma la Ha ma la
O la la la,  la la la la la  la.   (Primitive Song : 57,58)

Another song example from the Yamana, made up of emotive sounds expresses a vague mood rather than a word meaning:

Ma-las-ta xai-na-sa, ma-las-ta, xai-na-sa.
Hau-a la-mas ke-te-sa, hau-a-la-mas ke-ta-sa.

These are sung to a fixed tune and repeated as a chorus or rhythmic utterance accompanying a dance women and girls perform.

Early songs were based on the rhythmic movement needed to perform the dance. When words were added and made to conform to the rhythm, poetry began.  Drama also began with the performance of the dance, since performers took on the character of the animals, spirits or gods they were seeking to please with their dance.  Primitive song is a communal activity, as ceremonies are a main focus of the social life of the tribe.  Song became the way to communicate with the supernatural and to express joy, grief and other strong emotions.

Some of the early songs. Primitive singers developed phrases, which were often repeated to drive home the meaning of the words of the song. The poetry and drama of the songs became quite elaborate and had the power to evoke strong responses in the listeners or participants and to create a vivid awareness of the present scene or unknown powers at work. A song sung by the Pygmies of Gabon when preparing for an elephant hunt provides an example:

On the weeping forest under the wing of evening,
The night, all black has gone to rest happy.
In the sky the stars have fled trembling.
Fireflies, which shine vaguely and p
ut out their lights;
On high the moon is dark, its white light is put out.
The spirits are wandering.
Elephant hunter take your bow!  Elephant hunter take your bow!
In the forest lashed by the great rain,
Father Elephant walks heavily. Baou, Baou.
Careless, without fear, sure of his strength,
Father Elephant, whom no one can vanquish,
Among the trees, which he breaks, he stops and starts again.
Father Elephant, you have been heard from afar.
In the forest where no one passes but you,
Hunter, lift up your heart, leap and walk.
Meat is in front of you, the huge piece of meat, which walks like a hill.
The meat which makes glad the heart,
The meat that will roast on the hearth.
The meat into which the teeth sink.
The fine red meat and the blood that is drunk smoking.
Elephant Hunter, take your bow, take your bow!

The melody line of this music may have been of the simplest form; a five or six note melody starting at the highest note and descending to the lowest note, and this repeated for each line of the verse, except on the repeated refrain at the ends, where the voice may rise for emphasis and the Elephant Hunter is exhorted to take his bow.  But the power and drama of the scene and the extent of what is at stake are clearly present in the language of the verse.

Picture 3This example demonstrates important features of primitive languages that have great bearing on the poetic content of primitive song. The languages of early people are skillful in dealing with a kaleidoscope of impressions, whether visible, emotional, or audible.  Early languages have words, which cover a vastly wider range than civilized languages for such matters as colors or effects of light and shade, or the movements of animals, or the relations of bodies in space.  In some Eskimo languages, a noun can have many forms, each with its own shade of meaning.  The aboriginal Australians of Arnhem land have a rich vocabulary for catching the precise impression of natural things.  A dictionary compiled by a British Missionary of the Yamana language of the Tierra Del Fuego region of South America contained over 30,000 words in daily use; a tribute to its richness and diversity.

Primitive languages lack words for general and abstract ideas but they have an immediate impact for those who know them. Quite a complex picture may be presented very rapidly in a concentrated form, as in a line from a song of the Australian Aranda:

“ngkinjaba iturala albutjila”

“Nginjaba” means both “sun” and “afternoon”, “iturala” means “in the heat or brightness of the sun” and “albujika” means “to turn homeward”. Thus the whole line means “To turn homeward in the afternoon when the sun is bright and hot”. (Primitive Song, 22,23)

 The purpose of the early songs. Songs of early societies can be viewed as serving either sacred or secular purposes, and these categories are not mutually exclusive.  The elephant hunt in the above example is viewed as a secular affair but with supernatural overtones. The elephant is a being whose spirit merits homage, while its conquest is a dangerous life and death affair.  Song in early societies became a way to deal with the mysteries of life that must be mastered; it was an enhanced art of words—words being the chief instrument men have of forming a relationship with the unknown.  Shamans and medicine men or healers had a large role in the composition and performance of songs. They often composed the prayers and incantations, and served as the song leaders in the performance of songs at ceremonies.  Singing was not confined to them, though certain songs in certain cultures were closely guarded by them and could only be performed by those who have been admitted to the Shaman role.  These may be songs about the origins of the tribal group or the history of the tribe in its struggles with the supernatural.

Summary. This completes this brief review of the origins of song.  It is astonishing how different is music and song today, with our romantic song literature and modern musical forms!! Nevertheless, songs still deal with ancient deeply felt human needs in the struggle with the mysteries and challenges of living in a dangerous world full of wonder and challenge.  Songs continue to tell our stories, to make sense of our trials and triumphs and to explain the spiritual and supernatural wonders of living on this earth.

Richard Article written by TakeLessons instructor, Richard Kalman. Richard is an excellent singing teacher in Berkeley, CA. With a BA in Music,
Richard is lead vocalist/keyboardist for his jazz harmony group, a
former member of two award winning choirs, and busy teacher of piano,
vocals, and guitar. Richard teaches fundamental singing techniques, and
works with jazz, popular music, blues, gospel, folk, ethnic music, and
broadway singing. Richard has a degree from CSU Sonaoma in Music
andJazz Studies, and has received his Adult Education Teaching
Credential from the University of California, Berkeley.

PRIMITIVE SONG, BY C.M. Bowra, World Publishing Co. 1962
MaCMILLAN publishers Ltd. 1980.

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