The beginnings of music

The eminent British psychologist Charles Samuel Myers, CBE (1873–1946), joined an anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait and Sarawak in 1898, and his studies of musical traditions in those places resulted in several articles. Like many of his contemporaries, he suspected that the study of ethnic traditions could help to tease out universals and illuminate the origins of music.

In “The beginnings of music” (Essays and studies presented to William Ridgeway on his sixtieth birthday [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913, pp. 560–582]) Myers provides detailed descriptions of the musical traditions of the Meriam people of Murray Island, Australia, the Vedda people of Sri Lanka, and the peoples of Sarawak. The Vedda examples suggest an evolution of the scale as a synthesis of steps, the Sarawak examples suggest scalar evolution as a filling-in of larger intervals, and the Meriam examples suggest a synthesis of the two approaches.

Myers concludes that the beginnings of music depend on eight factors: (1) discrimination between tones and noises; (2) awareness of differences in pitch, volume, duration, and quality; (3) awareness of absolute pitch; (4) recognition and use of small, approximately equal intervals; (5) recognition and use of larger consonant intervals, and awareness of their relationships to smaller ones; (6) melodic phrasing; (7) rhythmic phrasing; and (8) musical meaning.

The article was reprinted in Music, words and voice: A reader, edited by Martin Clayton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008, pp. 21–23). Above, the Murray Island courthouse and community hall in a photograph from the 1898 expedition that Myers joined.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Science

2 responses to “The beginnings of music

  1. Pingback: Psychology and early ethnomusicology | Bibliolore

  2. Pingback: Herskovits and Freud | Bibliolore

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