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the improvisor

the international journal on free improvisation


the improvisor festival ~

& brief report: "the singing Neanderthals"

by Doug Carroll



Thanks to all of you, especially LaDonna,  for making those two weeks in Birmingham some of the happiest times of my life.  Meeting with old friends, making new ones, and creating some exquisite art made the trip a fantastic adventure.  Plus I got some  great recordings at the Zoo--Laughing Cookaburras and the mating calls of Crested Screamers were superb. 

I'm reading "The Singing Neanderthals, The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body" by Steven Mithen.  The book is based on the widely held belief that early human species were able to produce music before they acquired the ability for language.  The author cites research from psychology, anthropology, linguistics and musicology.  "Baby talk" or a prosodic (musical) manner of speaking to infants is how adults teach them to speak.  He states that although there are similarities, music basically communicates emotion and language communicates information.

Evolutionarily speaking, we were able to produce music before language, and language is based on certain aspects of music like rhythm, rise and fall of pitch, varying loudness, etc.  I'm thinking language is a particular type of music, informational music, if you will.  If that is true, then music, as the root of language, becomes the root of all cultural  activities based on language. 

But it raises the questions:  What is music? Do animals make music?   Some say music is only in the domain of humans who possess the intention of creating art, but this is narrow and does not satisfy.  I prefer the Cagean approach which acknowledges the potential of any sound being musical.   In fact, living creatures need not be involved when music is made--e.g. a babbling brook, the ocean surf, a strong, fresh wind may all be heard as "pure music."  This makes what we're doing a type of "human music," a specialized music that involves instruments and voices and uses, or abandons, certain musical traditions.  Improvised music goes back to the original source, the communication of emotion.  The emotion has meaning.  It is something we can feel.

Peace, love, joy,