A Complete History of Music in Ten Lessons
Updated: Mar 29
Welcome to Lesson 1 of 'A Complete History of Music in 10 Lessons'. This course is aimed at music lovers, amateur instrumentalists and simply the musically curious. It doesn't require a great deal of theoretical knowledge about music (if at some point any of you feel confused, I am considering some additional Zoom classes to answer your questions) and is not meant to bombard you with facts. Rather I am hoping it will be stimulating and entertaining at a time when we could all use some uplifting diversion. When you see a statement or question in 'bold' you might make a note of it so you can air your thoughts in a Zoom class.
So, to begin... What is music? How did it originate? These are questions you may or may not have considered. And the answers are not set in stone. My own definition is that music is organised sound (although many experimental musicians might disagree with me). And we can never really know how it originated. Were our prehistoric ancestors beguiled by birdsong or did they discover pulse one day while beating one stick against another? To be discussed.
The earliest music we know anything about in the Western world is the music of the Greeks. 'Mousike' (art of the Muses) was a word that meant not only music but poetry and even dance and theatre. The Greeks saw the two main disciplines to be acquired as physical sport and Mousike.
Who was Pythagoras and what relevance does he have to our understanding of music? You probably first encountered this 5th c BC philosopher and mathematician in primary school and later may have learnt that he was an astronomer. But as music for the Greeks was an inextricable part of all learning, Pythagoras was a major contributor to our understanding of music. It was he who discovered the intervals in the musical scale by noting the relative pitches of different string lengths. He realised that if you plucked a string and then halved the length of that string (2/1) and plucked that new shorter length, the second note was exactly an octave higher than the first (think of the first two notes of Somewhere Over the Rainbow). He then went on to divide the string in thirds (3/2) which created the interval of a 5th (the beginning of Twinkle Twinkle), fourths, thirds etc, eventually identifying all the notes of the scale (the Do Re Mi etc sequence) as mathematical ratios. (To clarify, the musical term interval describes the distance between 2 notes, as opposed to its normal meaning associated with time). In his musings on astronomy, Pythagoras posited that the planets move according to similar ratios and therefore resonate to produce inaudible music - the music of the spheres - a moving and inspiring idea. Listen to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time episode (at around the 20 minute mark) which discusses Pythagoras's musical theories:
And for a fascinating discussion of the music of the spheres:
More than 1000 years later the Catholic Church developed a musical accompaniment to prayer that remains equally moving and inspiring: Gregorian Chant.
What are the characteristics of this chant and what makes it so moving?
From fragments of notated music created by the Greeks, we know that melody and lyric was thought of as one, that music was usually played on a lyre and that the sung text doubled the notes played by the lyre. In other words, harmony (different notes sounded at the same time) was not a feature of this music. Nor is harmony a feature of chant. Chant (or Plainchant as it is called) is therefore an example of monophony.
By the 9th and 10th centuries, plainchant had developed a more structured format somewhat erroneously referred to as Gregorian Chant after Pope Gregory I who had lived several centuries earlier. It was a chanted version of the Latin text of the liturgy where a choir of men and boys sung the same tones at the same time in a monophonic style.
Another close relationship between the music of the Greeks and the chant of the 9th c Roman Catholic Church is the use of modes. Any of you who have learnt to play jazz or rock guitar, have no doubt learnt about these modes. These series of musical scales passed from the Greeks to the early Christian Church and later became known as the Church Modes.
If you sing the Do Re Mi scale, the major scale, that Julie Andrews taught us (!) you hear something extremely familiar and satisfying. It is the basis of much of the music you know. You can count the tones and find there are 8 steps in the scale, the first and last note being an octave from one another. You may also be aware that the penultimate tone, the leading tone, seems to propel itself into the final tone. It is deeply unsatisfying to stop singing before reaching the octave. The interval between the leading tone and the final note of the scale which is called the tonic is a semitone, the smallest interval in Western music. (Note that many non-Western musical systems make use of much smaller intervals).
But many of the Church modes do not end with a semitone and therefore don't suggest that satisfying inevitable reaching to the tonic. These modes (with lovely Greek names: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian - roll them on your tongue or enjoy them the way you enjoy the shipping news! :)) all have, according to Plato, a different influence on our moods and behaviours. What a lovely thought. For instance, Plato thought the Dorian mode created a feeling of sincerity.
So what do these modes sound like? The major scale - Do Re Mi etc - achieves its characteristic sound by a pattern of whole tones (equal to 2 semitones) and semitones -
w w s w w w s. But if we start on Re, rather than Do, and sing up all the steps without altering the original pattern, we will hear a different scale entirely, the Dorian mode.
One of the enchanting elements of Chant is that it is built from fragments of a given mode rather than the usual major or minor scale (the major scale is the ionian mode by the way).
Listen to this short chant a few times:
Do you notice any interesting and unusual feature of it? How does it affect your mood?
It may be apparent to you that only a limited number of tones are used, that there is a format of call and response, and that there is a great deal of repetition. You may have heard of Minimalism - a 20th century genre of music that gave birth to all kinds of electronic spin offs. The most common feature of Plainchant and Minimalism is a sort of hallucinatory repetition. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Minimalism's early exponents had travelled to India and learnt ancient composition techniques not too dissimilar to those which were evolving in the Western world in the early centuries. And it is interesting to note that this ancient Indian music was also spiritually motivated.
The mesmerising quality of the repetition and the use of modes was a strong component of Christian worship. Without understanding the beautiful Latin text, one is still taken to a beautiful and somehow unearthly place.
So there is your first Music History lesson. I hope you enjoy it. Next lesson we'll look at how music came to be notated, how monophony evolved into counterpoint and some really fascinating compositional techniques. See you soon!
Some musical terms to review:
Semitone, Whole tone