Since Time Immemorial: Musical Tradition and the Uniquely Human

Insofar as we have examined the history of music and its relationship to religion and worship, a common thread emerges concerning the origin of music. We have seen that even when considering diverse cultures and civilizations, music’s origin is uncertain or shrouded in myth. The truth has been lost to time immemorial, pre-dating the invention of writing and the advent recorded history and belonging only to the remnants of an oral tradition that has since forgotten.

This loss of historical truth is perhaps most obvious in the Suyá culture of South America where, according to Anthony Seeger in Why Suyá Sing, the oldest songs are simply remembered as legends and myths, linking not to historical accounts of origin but to stories about “partly human, partly animal beings in the process of metamorphosis” (Seeger, 52). Nevertheless, this idea of metamorphosis and transformation forms one of the central tenets of their spirituality, and their music, both traditional and newly created, serves to accent and illustrate those ideas.

In Timaeus, Plato speaks of the musical idea of his culture, representing Ancient Greek philosophy. Like the Suya people and the traditions of Islam, Plato offers no connection to a historical account of the origin of music. However, he plainly states that music, like speech and hearing, “is adapted to the sound of the voice” and is “granted to us for the sake of harmony, which has notions akin to the revolutions of our souls”, pointing clearly to a belief that speech and music possess an intimate connection to the essence of humanity (Weiss/Taruskin, 8).

Whether we examine familiar western cultures like Ancient Greece or more unfamiliar ones like that of the Suyá peoples, we find musical and religious traditions so closely intertwined and so deeply rooted in history that nobody can remember them ever being separate. These examples and others we have examined in our readings lead me to believe that this is no coincidence, but rather an artifact of the universal and uniquely human capacities for spirituality and the understanding of speech and language. The ubiquity of music in worship is therefore explained by these transformative and powerfully emotional abilities of music to express our spirituality and illuminate texts, leading to a tradition that spans time and space from modern-day Minnesota to Ancient Greece and beyond.

Leave a Reply