Book reviews

Michael Spitzer – ‘The Musical Human’

Michael Spitzer – The Musical Human
(Bloomsbury, 2021. Book review by Peter Jones)

Listeners to BBC Radio 4 may have heard Simon McBurney reading extracts from this book over recent days: it was chosen as the station’s Book of the Week. The Musical Human is a wildly ambitious attempt to cover the entire evolution of music, taking the story from pre-history right up to the present day and beyond. Over 400 densely-packed pages, it ranges far and wide across the world, through every form of life from insects to humans, and every human culture from Neanderthals to us. So ambitious is the book’s scope that author Michael Spitzer has subtitled it A History of Life on Earth.

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There’s not much about jazz (Spitzer is a Beethoven expert from Liverpool University), but The Musical Human is crammed with all kinds of facts relating to music. Did you know, for instance, that “animals intensely dislike human music”? Or that “sound travels five times faster through water than through air”? Or that bagpipes were originally a middle eastern instrument, and not taken up by the Scots until the 11th century? There are so many facts and so many theories in The Musical Human, it fair makes your head spin.

This is frustrating, as a reader, because Spitzer has a lot of interesting ideas: one that I wish he had developed further is that performing music and dance “symbolises and enacts the harmony of society” as a whole. In other words, the true value of music is its ability to bind people together, to celebrate and participate in the myths we hold in common. Many African cultures assume that everyone is musical, because everyone takes part in singing, dancing and drumming. “The natural state of human music is to sing or play together”, as Spitzer puts it. He contrasts this with what he sees as “the fate of music across the world, especially in the West… a decay from participation to passive listening.” In other words, as soon as you invent the idea of a musician, you are creating an elite and excluding everyone else. Traditionally, music was handed down to future generations orally. Not any more. So what went wrong? Well, music got written down, that’s what, so now you need specialist training to be able to sing and play. These days Western music is handed down in scores – lines and symbols on sheets of paper. It bothers him that Western music history is really a history of these scores, not of people. “The natural site for music was in the body; suddenly music was enshrined on the page, like a fairy-tale princess whisked out of her cradle and imprisoned in a picture.” The jazz singer Jon Hendricks made a similar point when he pointed out that the great operatic arias of Verdi were taken from the folk songs of Neapolitan fishermen, none of whom could read a note of music.

So far so good. There’s also a lot in here about where music came from in the first place. Curiously, our ape cousins don’t have the physical equipment to sing or talk; instead their communication is via physical gestures, so we didn’t inherit music from them. Insects make sounds to communicate, but you can’t call them songs; we say that birds sing, but the sound is very limited and never changes, so it isn’t song in the human sense; whales, on the other hand, do sing, because their songs change and evolve over time.

It’s when we get closer to human beings that the quest for the origins of music becomes a trifle desperate. Spitzer’s problem is that there’s no actual evidence, so instead he relies on a welter of speculation. For example, we know that our ape-like ancestors made hand axes by chipping stones; therefore the repetitive stone-bashing rhythm “might have evolved into music” as a kind of game. Hmmm. What he is reluctant to acknowledge is that all we have left from pre-history is rocks and a few bone flutes; everything else crumbled into dust long ago. OK, what about the Neanderthals? Did they have music? Yes, he assures us, “all told, Neanderthal communication was musical.” But how on earth does he know? Well, they went hunting, and after a good hunt, they must surely have gathered for a knees-up. “The celebratory ritual dance, which would have followed the butchering and consumption of the meat… might have contained memories of earlier dances. Was this the beginning of musical memory and tradition?” Well, maybe, maybe not.

Sometimes he comes out with blanket statements, particularly in areas he appears unfamiliar with:

“Blues, jazz and rock in North America lack the rhythmic complexity we think of as central to African music because North American plantations drew most of their slaves from Islamic West Africa.”

“Jazz improvisation is indebted to the tradition of Islamic vocal improvisation in North Africa.”

“The music of South America is rich in polymetres and marimbas because most of their slaves originated south of West Africa.”

In short, “it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t swing, said Duke Ellington.”

Er, I’m not sure Duke put it quite like that. But no matter. How about rock and roll? “Pop and rock… happened because bored teenagers messed about with guitars in their bedrooms.” Really? Take that, Louis Jordan! Back in your box, Ike Turner!

OK, it’s all too easy to find fault in a book that casts its net this wide. There are some genuinely startling and convincing insights in The Musical Human which, by the way, is extremely well researched. Spitzer clearly has principles: he maintains a solid defence of indigenous music, and takes pot shots at the whole idea of “world music”, because he sees it as a form of colonialism. Apparently the term originated as a marketing ploy hatched by music executives in a London pub in the summer of 1987: “world music” is a term to help businessmen sell music that doesn’t fit into established genres. It bothers Spitzer that peoples from developing countries, such as Pygmies, are getting ripped off because they probably aren’t getting paid for their contributions to “world music”. He also points out that what we think of as “Western” classical music is currently in the process of migrating eastwards: “Southeast Asia has become the heartland of Western music. As classical music sinks in the West, its lifeboats are China, Japan and Korea.”

I do have a problem with the way the book is written. Spitzer tries to cover everything, but he can’t possibly do justice to it all, and ends up flitting from topic to topic like a butterfly. He is also over-fond of words like archaeoacoustician, magnetoencephalography, pareidolia and syntactocentric, but he doesn’t always explain what they mean. And the book is full of statements like this: “Tonality exhibits analogous self-similarity.”

Right at the end, after hundreds of pages of intellectualism, he calls music “the most emotional of the arts”. Now that’s a very interesting idea, but he doesn’t develop it. Maybe we’ll have to wait for that book to be written. In the meantime, if you want to read a serious recent history of music, I recommend Ted Gioia’s Music – A Subversive History (Basic Books, 2019).

Peter Jones is the author of This is Hip: the Life of Mark Murphy (Equinox, 2018) and This is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz (Equinox 2020).

1 reply »

  1. There´s been an alternative to this, which contains all the facts but avoids the biases Michael Spitzer obviously has fallen into:
    Philip Ball: The Music Instinct. how music works and why we can´t do without it, 2010

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