We all have our reasons for picking up the ʻukulele. But your impulse to learn and create music may lie much deeper than you realize.
On a recent episode of The Ukulele Underground Podcast featuring our resident music expert, Mike Odo, Mike made an interesting offhand comment during a discussion about chords. In going all the way back to the origins of music, he was careful to emphasize the fact that we were discussing human music, noting that "animals have had music of many sorts for a lot longer than humans have been around."
With that preface, Mike jumped right into the discussion at hand. However the comment could easily have lead to another discussion entirely, namely, Where does music really originate from? If "music of many sorts" had been around long before humans evolved into being, Is the human instinct to create music fundamental to humanity itself?
Here we'll break down 3 Practical Theories for the Origins of Music and relate them to your present-moment music journey:
1. "Rock" Music (Lithic Sound Play)
When thinking of the origins of music, our minds immediately conjure images of prehistoric man banging on rocks for fun. And while this is actually a likely starting point for early musical expression, this theory has roots in far more practical matter: stone tool making. Stone tools predate humans (genus Homo) by over a million years. In Iain Morley's The Prehistory of Music, the author notes that stone tool making involved a high degree of attention, accuracy, repeatability, and future-oriented process, especially for early pre-human hominids. But the crucial link to music that Morley makes is that by banging on rocks, the ability to assess the sound qualities of a rock imparted a huge advantage to individuals in the process of selecting optimal stones to make tools out of.
TRY IT OUT
If prehistoric great apes had the ability to distinguish between the sounds made from rocks, you do too! The task is infinitely easier to do with respect to your ʻukulele, though it can be just as nuanced.
- Place a finger on a single fret of a string on your uke
- Pluck down on the string using the thumb of your strumming hand
- Play around with the angle that you pluck the string, using less nail, more nail, or a combination of both
- Notice how picking angle affects the tone and quality of the note
- Play around with the amount of force you use to pluck the string
- Notice how it affects the volume and expression of the note
Use your inherited abilities to focus your attention, accurately place your fingers, repeat your process, and project future outcomes. When you find a picking angle that produces a nice tone and volume, practice playing it like that so you can repeat the action at any time. Try it out with a simple melody and work your way up to more complex ones.
2. Getting in Sync (Entrainment)
Another prerequisite for the creation of music that history researchers recognize is the ability to sync up with an external beat or rhythm. This is referred to as entrainment. In this case the evolutionary advantages to being able to sync to a beat are fairly obvious, especially when it comes to pre-human and early human travel and cooperation. There is some of evidence that our upright-walking ancestors often travelled in groups utilizing designated trackways - literally following in the footsteps of the person in front of them. Add to this the walking coordination of two or more individuals carrying or pulling a large object over some distance, and it's easy to see why being able to follow someone else's beat would help to keep someone in the gene pool.
TRY IT OUT
Being able to follow a steady beat was essential for early human cooperation, and it forms the basis of all music. Practice listening, identifying, and syncing up with a beat. Don't overthink it - the ability is already programmed into you!
- Put on any song and really listen for a prominent beat.
- Mute the strings of your ʻukulele with your fretting hand
- With your strumming hand, try syncing up with the beat
- Don't worry about ups or downs, use whatever feels natural, just strum out the beat in time with the song
Syncing up with a simple, steady pattern should come fairly easily to you. But the more you practice this, the easier it will be to begin syncing up with more complicated rhythm patterns. When you can combine your ability to memorize, repeat, and sync with rhythm patterns with the ability to do the same with tonal patterns, your musical prowess will grow and unfold in amazing ways.
3. Animal Spirits (Call Mimicry)
Finally, one of the biggest advantages early humans had over other species was the ability to imitate and replicate sounds. A few other animal species have this ability, for example the African drongo bird, but combined with humans' ability to use tools and synchronize with other humans, call mimicry really gave humans the evolutionary upper hand. This greatly enhanced our historical ability to hunt or trap wild game and also most likely evolved in tandem with the formation of expressive language, providing humans with more advanced ways to communicate and coordinate. Being able to mimic the calls of other animals combines all of the prerequisites for the production of music: recognizing and repeating rhythms, pitches, tempo, and volume patterns to create a melody.
TRY IT OUT
You may not believe it yet, but you have the ability to figure out songs on your own! Proto-humans on the African Savanna didn't ask the birds they were hunting for the TABs. Trust in your ability to listen and repeat.
- Put on a song that has a simple melody or riff
- Pick random notes on your ukulele and try to match the sound of the melody using your uke
- Try to match the pitches of the notes and the rhythm of the melody
- Once you figure it out, try to match the volume and expression of the notes throughout each musical phrase
Practice this process and it will get easier and easier. In the same way that kids play 'copy-cat' for fun, you can repeat the melodies of your favorite artist as a great way to play with your instrument and develop your skills at speaking the language of music.
In evolutionary history, the ability to recognize the sounds of rocks, synch up with external rhythm, and recreate animal calls gave humans incredible advantages over other animals in the fight for survival. Ultimately, these advantages effectively provided humans with more time, allowing them to further develop human culture through art, architecture, storytelling, and music. All of these abilities are baked right into you. Enjoy them as you continue on your musical journey.