The origins of instrumental and vocal music

the origins of music

The origins of instrumental and vocal music

The origins of music according to Andrè Schaeffner

le origini della musica strumentale

How did man start making sounds and defining them as music? Anthropologically, where does this type of human expression come from? Andrè Schaeffner talks about the corporal origin of instrumental music and the language origin of vocal music.

It has often been thought, thanks to authors such as Sachs (who have given invaluable contributions to ethnomusicological research), that music has originated from a human attempts to mimic natural sounds with the voice, so essentially the instrumental music could derive from the vocal one. Schaeffner, in his work “Origin of musical instruments”,

on the contrary proposes an interesting theory that divides the two categories of instrumental and vocal music, making them derive from different elements: singing would be linked to verbal-linguistic aspects while instrumental music would derive from choreutic elements.

Schaeffner writes:

It is clear that the origin of music is to be found in the human body […] on the one hand the song, produced, as well as the language, by the vocal apparatus; on the other, instrumental music, born with dance from the movement of the body. Far from posing vague problems about origin and precedence, we see two symmetrical pairs: language and dance, song and instruments. […] Man beats the ground with his feet or hands, strikes his body in cadence, shakes it partially or entirely to animate the objects and sound ornaments he wears. These are the first instrumental music that undoubtedly existed.

On a quick reading, it would therefore seem possible to hypothesize that, in the anthropological evolution of musical activity, singing and instrumental music have progressed in parallel without necessarily having dependent origins on each other.

Also Schaeffner underlines

We believe with too much certainty that in every age man has always merged voice and instruments in the same art”. So let’s try to understand his vision regarding vocal music.

The origins of vocal music

le origini della musica vocale

In this case, Schaeffner links the origins of singing to the vocal function of spoken language, the infinite articulations of the voice instrument derive from the articulatory capacity that develops differently in the various languages spoken. He says in this regard:

Let us reflect on the infinity of timbres that in the same language are produced by the different resonance of the vowels, by the friction or vibration of the semivowels, by the percussive effect of some consonants: the elasticity of the vocal apparatus exceeds way, by far any result to which, to date, mechanics can aspire. The existence of a certain phonetic system specific to a given language must correspond to a particular way of singing

Therefore the sung voice is characterized by its great variety of timbres and the agility in handling them, while the instruments are distinguished by their greater capacity for extension and simultaneity of sounds. The voice can oscillate from spoken to sung to declaimed while the instrument

Without the ductility of the vocal apparatus, […] has only random vibrato or glissando effects […] that lend themselves to a false and fleeting vocal sensation. Once again it is clear to us how little success the instrument would have dedicated to the imitation of the voice

So do voice and instrumental music, as distinct and parallel functions, have no origin in common? Perhaps an interesting keystone is to establish when the singing actually stops having such a close link with the word of complete meaning and begins to search for an instrumental purpose.

Boundaries between singing and instruments: what has ethnomusicology observed?

Thanks to many clear examples observed in ethnomusicological research, we can attest that, even if born autonomously and with independent developments, the sung voice and the production of instrumental sounds are deeply united in the broader field of music. In some vocal techniques, it is in fact possible to trace clear signs of mutual contamination, in particular in cases where the sung word gives way to the sung sound alone. Schaeffner gives us some excerpts from the research of Tricon, he speaks of “continuous tremor” in the song of the Annamites, that they imitate with the same oscillation also on their stringed instruments; and again quotes Father Joseph van Oost in reference to the vibrato of the southern Mongols, which can be observed both in their songs and in this kind of whistle:

When the Mongol sings, he tries to obtain from his own voice an excessive vibrato […] artistic expression that strives to render not only when he sings but also in his whistle “; this same sound is also produced by a sort of flute (bishur), so do the Mongols owe this sound to the imitation of this instrument?


le origini della musica indù

The Hindu Nyastaranga is even clearer: it completely penetrates the voice; similar to a copper trumpet, this instrument is placed (alone or in pairs) on the neck, it is about producing a sort of humming amplified by this instrument characterized by the presence of eight / nine small holes and covered by a membrane that enters into resonance with vocal emission. Quite everywhere we can find the practice of beating the larynx with the hand to produce the typical African youyou sound (typical female song). Another example is the practice of repeating consonants ch or sff produced in many choral expressions through the emphasis on exhalation and inspiration (for example among the Canachi and Maori).

Independently together

We can find many examples similar to those just mentioned (African speaking whistles and drums, singing expressions with onomatopoeic or no sense words linked to esoteric formulas…); in conclusion, we can say that singing and instrumental musical productions probably have anthropologically autonomous origins, but obviously, in the inevitable unity of human expressions, they merge in infinite interesting occasions.

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