Singing in the shower and dancing around the loungeroom may be the only permission some of us give ourselves to engage in musically-related endeavour. The widespread recent uptake of ukulele has been helping to change that, but why did it need to? What caused community and family music-making to fall by the wayside in many developed nations over the past three quarters of a century?
Since the dawn of humanity, music making has been an intrinsic part of our lives. Singing and percussion, then accompaniment with wood, bone and ivory wind instruments which date back at least 40,000 years are testament to this.
Ancient Greece had a rich and diverse musical culture including the study of the relationship between philosophy, mathematics and music, and the establishment of music theory and musical notation. Instruments included human voice (for accompanied poetry and song), lyre, kithara (the origin of guitars) and the aulos, a reed instrument. Professional musicians were employed to perform music during worship, ceremony and celebration, but oarsmen, shepherds, women in the home sang and played during their working day .
Arabs mastered ancient Greek music theory and styles and incorporated the influences into their own music with their own stringed, percussion and wind instruments . Likewise in ancient China and across Southeast Asia, rich and complex musical traditions, skills, instruments and ways of indicating pitch and timbre were developed . Dance, music and storytelling were and are part of life in tribal cultures from Africa to Australia, Polynesia and the Americas.
Although like in ancient Greece, professional musicians were employed to play music that was complex and/or of high ritual or social standing, in medieval Europe, music that was not commissioned by the church, royalty or government was played by troubadors and the common people . In other words it was 'folk' music, rarely written down, passed along and learnt by ear and memory for generations.
When large numbers of people migrated or were taken into captivity (e.g. 450 years of the slave trade of millions of Africans to British and European colonies), their musicality moved with them and had a substantial influence on the surrounding culture. Africans introduced to Christianity combined their traditional rhythms into European hymns, which as well as being used as coded messages of escape, developed into gospel, blues, jazz and rock and roll . These were other kinds of folk music, but these became the basis for popular music that many of us know today.
In 1877, American inventor Thomas Edison presented a working model of the first machine that could record and playback sound, albeit on wax cylinders – the phonograph. This was a groundbreaking technological step toward widespread distribution of folk or popular (belonging to the people, general, common) music that was played by others. Just ten years later, the gramophone was invented and sound (music by now) was recorded and played back on flat discs, first made of glass then zinc, and finally plastic.
Then in the 1920s, radio broadcasting began, firstly in America, then other countries, and between 1923 and 1930, 60 percent of American households purchased a radio set. People in countries where broadcasting was available and who could afford to have one now started to gather around the radio for their entertainment rather than always playing and singing music in their own or others' homes.
In 1948 American guitarist, songwriter and luthier, Les Paul made the world's first multitrack recording. This now meant that music no longer needed to be recorded live by musicians gathered in the one place at the one time, and recording and distribution accelerated exponentially.
By the mid 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the popularity and output of acts such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones propelled this new industry to giddy financial and powerful heights. Ironically, a large amout of the early work and inspiration of these artists was drawn from the legacy of African American musicians and songwriters whose family histories were steeped in slavery.
The 1950s and 60s also saw the introduction of black and white and then colour television into people's lives. The televising of music acts was another way that people gained access to popular music without actually playing it most of the time.
The main point of this is that popular music became a hugely profitable business riding on the back of what was essentially 'folk' music, the music that people who didn't have music as their profession, used to play and enjoy in the home, at work, tribally and communally which contributed to their wellbeing, sense of belonging and participation with the people around them.
Even with the great success of this industry and the now ready availability of popular music in people's homes via mass media and in public venues, has the ease of accessing recorded popular music and the associated images and marketing become a double edged sword? Did it fulfil our desire for music while at the same time conveying an unspoken message that unless we were spectacularly talented, within a certain age range and even with a certain appearance, we should not be making music, especially in public?
In the past decade, continuing rapid advances in modern technology and sites such as YouTube (as well as piracy) have lowered the previously expensive barriers to recording and sharing music of all kinds, but in America just a few big record labels still have a lot of power and money invested in choosing who they'll sign up and promote to make their income from. Other developed nations, notably Japan and Korea, have their own massive popular music industries, evolving from a mixture of western and traditional eastern music, with performers whose image and careers are tightly controlled . Business is the operative word here, with music and celebrity the bankable products.
One logical reason for us supporting this industry is the strong relationship between music and emotion . There has been ongoing discourse and research into this topic for decades amongst psychologists, composers and philosophers. Our emotional responses to music have been shown to be as individual as we are, and the feelings brought up are often complex and subtle. The one thing that seems to hold true is that emotional response to music can neither be predicted, nor assumed to be the same for two or more people, because there are so many and variable inputs influencing the response from each individual and to each piece of music . Furthermore, listening to music, or playing a musical instrument and singing, uses almost every part of your brain, as evidenced by MRI scans. Music is "a gymnasium for the mind" as Philip Ball puts it in The Music Instinct.
The knowledge and technology available to us to study the brain has also shown that musical training, even over short amounts of time (8 weeks) can also have significant positive effects on a whole range of children's learning outcomes from language and literacy to memory and intellectual development .
Judging by our history, not only listening to, but making music seems to be a 'natural' and cognitively valuable thing for humans to do. So don't be put-off by virtuosic recordings of professionals or a music video showing a fantasy existence that is neither real nor healthy. Join friends, family and community, pick up your ukulele and let the melody, harmony, rhythm, pitch, tone and timbre fire up your brain and fill your heart.
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