So Easy a Caveman Can Do It

So Easy a Caveman Can Do It

No, this is not another obnoxious Geico car insurance ad. I just started reading a book which, from having thus far read only the first two chapters, seems quite fascinating, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origin of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (Harvard University Press, 2006) by Steven Mithen, Professor of Early Prehistory at Reading University in England.

While a self-professed non-musician (“I can neither sing in tune nor clap in rhythm. I am unable to play any musical instrument […] I’ve tried…and it is a deeply unpleasant experience for all involved.”), Mithen argues persuasively that proto-Homo sapiens already had well-developed musical abilities. (“Without music, the prehistoric past is just too quiet to be ignored.”) Here’s a real zinger, and mind you I’m still only on Chapter Two:

In traditional societies, song is often far more pervasive in every day life, and hence infant acquisition of musical knowledge may be far easier than it is in Western society.

Whereas, in the contemporary post-industrialized world…

[T]he majority of people will be familiar with a variety of musical styles, but will be far more limited when it comes to producing rather than listening. Few can compose a musical score and many (myself included) cannot hold a tune. Yet this again may be a product of current Western society rather than of the human condition at large: it may reflect the relative unimportance of music in Western educational systems and the rather elitist and formalized attitudes toward music that have arisen in consequence.

So, have we as a society evolved so much that we’ve managed to become too smart for music? Or is contemporary society’s overall neglect of music and music making as central components of life proof that we in fact are devolving?

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12 thoughts on “So Easy a Caveman Can Do It

  1. Kyle Gann

    I have attended Native American powwows and attempted to take down Sioux and Hopi drumming patterns and songs in notation, often clapping along quietly trying to capture the exact rhythms, and frustrated at my inability to fall into the correct beat divisions. Meanwhile, I always notice that five-year-old Sioux and Hopi kids are drumming along and singing in nonchalant unison with the adults.

  2. pgblu

    Considering the staggering atrocities covered up by the Western conception of ‘evolution’, the loss of highly refined musical sensibilities seems not a very devastating setback, though it is an apt reminder that evolution is no zero-sum game, and poignant metaphor for all the other things that advanced societies have allowed to atrophy.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing it up. I’ll go sulk in a tub.

  3. Colin Holter

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment:

    There are more musicians in the world today than there ever have been, even as a share of the total population. The possibility that the sum total of global per-person musicality (higher, of course, than it was in 1820 BCE [or CE]) is less evenly concentrated than it used to be doesn’t bother me at all. I’m no BMI Student Composer Award winner, but I guarantee I’m a better musician than any Neanderthal. Plus they were cannibals.

  4. scottj

    The question of how societies channel people’s first encounter with music, as listeners or participants, is fascinating. But Frank’s last questions evoke a ubiquitous misconception about the nature of evolution, and thus answering them won’t help us. Nothing evolves “a lot” or a little, nor does anything devolve. Things evolve to fit their surroundings, period. This may entail the loss of one characteristic or the other, but that’s not devolution. If fewer people produce music, fewer children will acquire the skills. Our ancestors had tails, but we stopped using them. Will general music-making shrink in the presence of recordings? Yup. Everybody can get at really good versions of singing and playing. Does that change social relationships, and will something be lost? Yup.

    By way of overview: Neanderthals were not proto-Homo Sapiens; they were a separate branch of hominids that went extinct because a new wave of African expats did better in the cold environment that evolution had locked Neanderthals into. Point being: evolution doesn’t operate in single lines of ancestry that go up or down. It throws out multiple variations which either thrive or don’t. The image of a single line of ever-increasing complexity (or, heaven forfend, regressive collapse) is at the heart of 20th century High Modernism’s epic, oversimplified misunderstanding of the nature of musical “progress” — an image of “evolution” which completely ignores the environment, the fact that different musics are suited to different uses, and the pleasures of creating cultural hybrids. A similar intellectual oversimplification, based on self-interest, led to 19th & 20th century racialist theories, which seems to be what pgblu is referring to with his “staggering atrocities” comment. But childish misinterpretations of evolutionary forces, whether by those who can change the world, or those of us who talk mainly amongst ourselves, have nothing to do with the realities of evolution. They are just reductive appropriations of a complex and nuanced view of life.

  5. JKG

    Fine young cannibal…
    Very interesting post – you know, Vico had a lot to say about the demise of a culture, whereby the end of a civilization always obsessed about its comfort and technological saavy. He was the one to say, “If we listen to Descartes, we may as well let machines run the world.” When science ruled the earth after WWII, there was indeed a time when anything subjective or mystical was just too hopelessly ridiculous to countenance by anyone reasonable. That has changed back (for the better), yet unfortunately there still exists some vestiges of an elitist view music can be objectively known (witness Stockhausen and his many female groupies). What would it mean to say that those who specialize in music which alienates others on purpose are actually less human by dint of their “artistic” choices???

  6. glennfreeman

    the brain can conceptualize sounds when it so chooses, as a result of conditioning. over time, and depending on outside factors, there is a possibility similar organized groupings of sounds, and also new groupings, will be conceptualized differently than previously may have occurred.

  7. dalgas

    Colin wrote: I’m no BMI Student Composer Award winner, but I guarantee I’m a better musician than any Neanderthal.

    No, just a different musician from him. Whatever you’re considering as “better” lies in your frame of reference, not his, don’t you think? Your own valued elements might be “worse”, or at the very least irrelevant, to his own frame.

    Steve Layton

  8. Colin Holter

    I see your point, but imagine for a moment a list of every criterion for evaluating musicianship that people, homo sapiens or neanderthal, have ever applied to one another. It’s conceivable that the neanderthal might have a few check marks in his column that I don’t. However, I feel secure in the belief that I’d have more check marks across the board. So would you and Frank and probably even JKG.

    On the other hand, if the question is how well we’d be able to accomplish the musical tasks demanded by a neanderthal society, I can’t claim that I’d necessarily be able to survive

  9. Colin Holter


    . . . survive, especially since they might eat me. If you look at the matter that way, however, you have to ask two more questions: First, would the neanderthal be able to accomplish commonplace musical tasks today? No way. Second, does the accomplishment of today’s musical tasks inherently possess more value than the accomplishment of neanderthal musical tasks? Without knowing anything about neanderthal musical culture, it’s hard to say, but I’d tentatively suggest that it probably does.

    I mean, I assume it does. Right?

  10. dalgas

    But accumulation of criteria or proliferation of options are kind of bad guides to “better”. If it was so, the I suppose you’d automatically be a better musician than Stravinsky or Feldman, given that you’re still alive slightly later than they are. Of course, you may be quite a bit better than a Neanderthal when it comes to playing a piano concerto or creating a MAX/DSP patch; but that’s a useless and deceptive measure.

    “Better” is never simply a quantity, but rather a quality. (And in art that quality isn’t really the type tied to mere technological improvement, either.)

    Steve Layton

  11. philmusic

    “Or is contemporary society’s overall neglect of music and music making as central components of life proof that we in fact are devolving?”

    If you look at “Musical America,” year 1941, I think you would be amazed at the incredible power and reach of local American music clubs (a few, a very few, of which survive today).
    Local amateur Choirs, bands, and choruses were everywhere and thriving back then. They had a social function that I think has been replaced by more passive entertainments. Or perhaps it was the creation of the interstate highway system and the unintended community disinvolvement.

    Anyway, I agree that music education is sorely neglected in America today. That said, assertions about other cultures old or new which use the terms; perhaps, may be, it may etc. “may” stir up controversy but also remain speculations.

    Phil’s Page

  12. csahar

    SJohnny –

    I think you have hit it the mark about this discussion. What I find fascinating about your post poiting out our misunderstanding of evolution — that it is a progression uncoupled to our environment — may be one of the ideas that has lead to our degradation of our biological environment.

    But back to topic

    This defective understanding of evolution leads to a hero worship I cannot stand in music across all styles – “Miles Davis was the greatest or amazing genius” “Bach is the greatest composer of Western classical music” or worse
    “Paul McCartney, a musical icon of our time.” All of it is meaningless and reflects the critical assessment of a mayfly.

    The way I view musical history is some groups of composers or schools of music arise like gigantic trees in a forest — diminishing the sunlight and limiting the growth of its competing neighbors, but when they fall they provide the nutrients for a larger group of trees to grow, of which a small portion will tower and repeat the cycle.

    As for the example of American Idian music, if you ask these same people to participate in singing Byrd’s 4 part vocal work or to sing lyrics of a jazz standar with the correct “swing”, they would feel like idiots too.

    I do agree that some music technology at present has reduced such active music making as singing and playing an instrument as a continuous lifetime activity. These are skills which will be sorely in need when the electricity runs out or very,very low. In fact, when we have had blackouts in New York City, many impromptu parties welcome the acoustic guitarist, pianist or a good song leader.


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