The music of we primates: Nada Brahmam

D Balasubramanian

In this wide-ranging article eminent scientist Prof Balasubramanian shows us through one example how all knowledge is interconnected, that fields that seem as disparate as biology and history and music all must speak to one another if we are to understand any phenomenon in its entirety. This piece on musical instruments, drawn from his fortnightly column Speaking of Science, The Hindu, shows us how evidence needs to be interpreted from a variety of perspectives if it is to help us piece together the puzzle of life. Sound (or physics) is produced through bits of material to create harmonic patterns (mathematics) that we perceive as pleasing or not (psychology, culture) and this can in turn affect our physiological responses (finally, biology!). How the materials of music have evolved over time (archaeology) tell us something about how early man lived. Such an investigation can also be done through other fields of art – painting, sculpture, architecture, tool making. What does each of these have to do with biological knowledge and how do they in turn contribute to our understanding of different facets of biology? You can use this article in a high school classroom as a stimulus for a discussion on some of these questions, or to get the students to come up with their own questions.

Which is the world’s oldest musical instrument? The claims are many and contentious. One offers the honour to a drum, another to the veena, the third to the harp and several others to the flute. Scriptures, myths and legends do not help, since, as a sceptical scientist once remarked: “In god we trust, the rest must have data”. Biodegradable materials like wood, skin and gut do not survive even centuries. Metal strings too are recent; metallurgy of this kind does not even take us back to the Iron Age.

Bones and ivory
But bones and ivory, made essentially of inorganic material, pass the test of time. Thus, when Drs. Nicholas Conard, H. Jenson and Friedrich Seeberger of Germany reported the discovery of three flutes in a cave near Ulm, Germany, they were claimed to be the oldest man-made musical instruments. Dating the deposits where the flutes were found suggests the flutes to be anywhere between 30,000 and 37,000 years old.

This puts the period to be the upper Paleolithic Era of the last Ice Age. This was also the period when both the Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens (or modern humans of our kind) coexisted in Europe. The flutes are made of ivory – not of the elephant but of its long extinct relative, the woolly mammoth.

The craftsmanship of these flutes was not trivial. The crooked mammoth tusk was not hollow as bird bones are. It had to be split, the two halves hollowed out, and glued together airtight. And the holes had to be drilled in at the appropriate places to produce music. The technology involved in all these, given the period and the extant tools, is to be admired. What was the kind of music the flutes played? Dr. Seeberger made a replica in elderwood and played it.

He found the tones quite harmonic and followed the pentatonic scale that we use in India. Interested readers can go to the site, and click on the box that allows you to hear a music sample. I did that and found the music to be vaguely reminiscent of the upper register of the raga Bhinna Shadja.

What struck me, though, is the similarity between this and the piece of music that came out of a set of intact, 9000-year-old flutes (made from the bones of the crane) found in Jiahu, China.

Hear this music at www. /Flute7.wav, or at www.eriktheflutemaker. com/?pageid=7405.

Neanderthal notes
Were the German flutes crafted and played by Homo sapiens or by Neanderthals? This is an absorbing question, since the Neanderthals have not always had a good press in the Homo sapiens media. They were stockier, with bushy eyebrows, and not well-endowed in speech, language and thought to lack finer things in life.

However, research (see the book by Erik Trinkhaus and Pat Shipman) shows them to have been toolmakers of some sophistication, makers of art objects from bone and ivory, and possessed of some form of spirituality or religion.

Flute-like fragment
Whether they had music is not clear. But the finding of a flute-like fragment of the thigh bone of a young cave bear in Slovenia, with three or maybe five well-drilled artificial holes in it, dating to the middle Paleolithic period (50,000-35,000 years ago) is suggestive. Neanderthals peopled the area at that time, and visited the cave occasionally.

Drs. Drago Kunej and Ivan Turk of the Slovenia Academy of Sciences discuss this flute in scholarly detail in a chapter in the book The Origins of Music (Eds. N L Wallin, B Merker & S Brown, MIT Press, 2001). Indeed, Geoffrey Miller of University College, London writes in the same book that this discovery suggests that not only aerophones (drone pipes) are reasonably ancient but Neanderthals made music, and perhaps even used clap sticks for rhythm.

This raises two points. One is the origin of music in humans. Is it a biological heritage that we are endowed with? In that case, do our ancestors – at least the primates and great apes – have proto-music in them?

Since all biology is history, we might be able to look at the origins of music through biology. The other point is about a possible universality of music. Charles Darwin posed the dual question in 1871: “Producing musical notes … must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which man is endowed. They are present, though in a very rude and as it appears almost latent condition, in men of all races, even the most savage…

“Whether or not the half-human progenitors of man possessed, like the before-mentioned gibbon, the capacity of producing and no doubt of appreciating, musical notes, we have every reason to believe that man possessed these faculties at a very remote period, for singing and music are extremely ancient arts.”

Biological heritage
Regarding the idea of music-making as a biological heritage, Dr. Dean Falk of the State University of New York writes in the book cited above, making some interesting points. First, he points out that music and language are neurologically intertwined They appear to have evolved together as brain size increased during the last few million years in the genus homo. Our close cousins of this period, namely the gorilla and the chimpanzee, too seem to have some form of proto-music.

Gorillian chants
While the anatomy of their vocal tracts does not seem to have permitted their acquisition of facile vocal expression (beyond grants and hoots), they seem to manage to hoot and beat together. Two or more male gorillas have been known to vocalise together in a manner that foreshadows human singing without words.

Dr. Schaller, who has researched on this, playfully calls this the Gorillian chants, a forerunner of the Gregorian Chants of medieval Europe.

And the primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall writes that chimpanzees engage in choral pant-hoots and drumming displays. These are non-referential or abstract items, not relative to any specific information transfer but just for fun! Falk speculates that our ancestor, the Australopithecus, who had vocal tract anatomy and cerebral cortex similar to the chimps, too might have engaged in calls and drumbeats in social and non-referential contests.

It appears that our musical prowess might well have this heritage. Voice is then the oldest instrument. But sophistication in musical ability and experience has had to await the increase in the size and the lateral partitioning of the brain into the two hemispheres.

The palaeo-neurologist Dr. Harry Jerison of UCLA argues in his chapter in the book that musical experience is related to the lateralisation of the brain, which is not seen in other mammals, but only in us and in songbirds. Incidentally, other than us it is only some songbirds that seem to create tunes and sing just for the pleasure of it.

Universality of music
Turn now to the universality of human music. Be it the flute of Neanderthals, the German flute of the upper Paleolithic, the Jiahu Chinese or others — the scale and the octave are identical.

The Neanderthal flute plays ga, ma, pa, dha, the mammoth ivory flute plays Bhinna Shadja and the Jiahu plays Mohanam. As the musicologist Dr. Robert Fink of Saskatchewan asks – have “natural forces” pushed the diatonic scale into existence? This makes me wonder whether this is not what our ancients meant when talking of Nada brahmam.

This article was first published in The Hindu, 13 January, 2005. It has been reprinted here with permission from the author.

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