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Published on November 6th, 2017 | by Alan Cross

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The Pre-History of Music

As far as anyone can tell, there is no real biological or evolutionary reason for humans to have music, yet our brains seem to be pre-wired to create and enjoy it. Why? And how far does the history of music go? Thousands and thousands of years.

Gary Tomlinson, a professor of music at Yale, has just written a book called A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity. Lapham’s Quarterly has this interview.

Damon Krukowski: Something I love about A Million Years of Music is this idea of deep time. How did you move from studies of Monteverdi and opera to prehistory?

Gary Tomlinson: There are a couple of ways this happened. One is that it’s a return to my past, because, though I’ve been a musician from my childhood, I went to university thinking I was going to become a biochemist and spent my first three years working toward a biochemistry major. Then I came under the influence of a wonderful music teacher. I was playing in an orchestra and ensembles—mostly classical, with a little bit of acoustic rock and roll on the side. And suddenly I said, “Why am I in science when what I really want to be doing is thinking about music?” And so I went off to graduate school in musicology at UC Berkeley.

My interest in music history also was always anthropological in a general sense. It was the placement of music in culture, and in cultures of the past, that fascinated me, and I approached other cultures of the past in some ways like an anthropological fieldworker. And my sense of that anthropological purchase was not just to place music in a context but to understand how music helps to make the context that it’s a part of, so that there’s a real mutuality and reciprocal kind of interaction; I never saw those as separate things. The anthropological stuff took me off toward social theory and poststructuralist theory and cultural theories of various sorts. And it gradually turned toward Foucauldian work. The trajectory for me was a smooth one, in a way—even though my books seem to be on very different subjects: from Monteverdi as a part of the context of late Renaissance Italian culture, through opera as a manifestation of fundamentally shifting conceptions of the voice and its powers over four hundred years (in Metaphysical Song), to Aztec and Inca song (in The Singing of the New World)—an attempt to understand the really different ways in which cultures can come to appreciate the powers of music and voice. And the next stretch was in a way just leaping back and saying, “Well, I always was interested in evolutionary theory—how the hell did humans come to be armed with the capacities to do all these things in the first place?” So that’s the short answer. [Laughs]

Fascinating stuff. Keep reading.




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About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker.

In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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