Sunday, July 12, 2009

Evolution and the Singer/Songwriter

Preparing my notes for a class on Music and Environment in the Fall, I find myself thinking again about the deep importance of music in human society and human psychology. Researchers in the new field of evolutionary musicology now believe that music is intertwined with language, arising out of a mother's vocalizations to her newborn. As the primitive child grew, other, similar vocalizations would come in handy for socialization and coordination within groups. Both for newborns and for adults, certain sounds elicit certain emotions and reactions. At that point in human history, music and language are the same thing.

So I'm wondering, what would it mean to live without music? This is a topic I'll return to in subsequent posts and along the way I'm particularly interested in hearing stories and reactions from readers. I'll begin with a personal example of my own.

As a composer, for many years I had neglected my song writing--songs with original lyrics in various popular styles, for voice usually accompanied by guitar or piano. In that singer/songwriter style, I hash out the music and the lyrics more or less at the same time, as I'm improvising. The style focuses an awful lot of brain power on emotional and intellectual levels, as I'm puzzling over poetry, melody, rhythm patterns and song structures--harmonic patterns, forms and relations of material across large distances--all at the same time. And, at the same time, I'm trying to realize a full blown performance, involving the kind of ritualized motion found in dance. I'm forcing any ideas I have into the vessel of my own performing style, abilities and limitations.

The song doesn't have to stay in that jar--I could choose to arrange it later for some other combination. But it's important to me that I can play it and gain satisfaction from it immediately. I think that gives it a sense of spontaneity and it also helps maintain a sense of style between songs, even as I'm experimenting with different influences. I know what I like to play, so I form my ides into those types of musical patterns.

Back in February of 2008, I suddenly started writing songs again. About 10 years had gone by since the last song. I had written many things in that decade. But to me, composition on paper isn't necessarily the all-engaging exercise that songwriting is.

Immediately, with the first song, I felt changed, refreshed. The sense of creation, of immediacy, was there again. Casting an effective magic spell might feel that way: all of sudden, a power flows through you and out of you to create something that wasn't there before. A song can take a few minutes, a few hours or even a few weeks to complete. When I'm done, no matter how long it has taken, I'm left with a feeling of magical satisfaction.

Imagine turning that off for a decade. Seems perverse, doesn't it? Yet, that's exactly what I did. Don't know why. Returning to it felt like regaining the use of a withered limb.

The musical experience from a creative, performing perspective may not be the same as it is from a listeners' perspective. I'm interested in hearing how music, and the absence of music, affects nonmusicians in particular. Add your comments or write me at


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