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Voice and Instrument at the Origins of Music
Current Musicology (2014)
  • Jonathan De Souza, Western University
Archaeologists have found bone flutes dating from the Upper Paleolithic era. Yet many writers on music and evolution claim that singing preceded instruments, that the earliest music involved unmediated vocal or bodily expression. This echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophical reflections on human and musical origins. In this essay, I critically examine such claims, juxtaposing Rousseau and twenty-first-century authors. Though centered on musical prehistory, this investigation more generally explores voice-instrument relations and their implications for a philosophy of musical technics. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality imagines a double origin for humanity, in which natural man—who had no need for society, language, or technology—was corrupted by a fall into artifice. Philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler, drawing on paleoanthropology, responds that the technical mediation supposedly arising from this second origin was in fact essential for human evolution. Technics, in this view, makes human culture possible. Rousseau’s musical polemics recapitulate his anthropological speculations: song has its own double origin, in which the natural voice was corrupted by instruments. Extending Stiegler’s critique, I argue that music is always already technical and that vocal skill would emerge alongside instrumental play. Anthropological and psychological research points to a distinctly human capacity for mimesis and shared intentionality, which would support gestural and protolinguistic communication, complex tool use, the perception and production of rhythm, and more. This common grounding for technics, language, and music suggests that the ability to sing or dance would not precede the ability to create music with objects, whether found or made.
Publication Date
Spring 2014
Citation Information
Jonathan De Souza. "Voice and Instrument at the Origins of Music" Current Musicology Vol. 97 (2014) p. 21 - 36
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