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The oldest song in the world (bbc.com)
47 points by MiriamWeiner on May 8, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 21 comments



This is very cool. But calling it the "oldest song" is a bit of a stretch. Maybe one could call it the "oldest song in history", since it is the oldest song we have found written down, but certainly not the oldest song of all time.

At least according to a Netflix documentary on India, there are some brahmins outside Kerala that have been chanting the same song since before the invention of speech. The claim is that the chant makes no sense in any linguistic or even musical tradition and is more closely related to birdsong, indicating a pre-oral genesis.

I think this particular example is a bit far-fetched, but it's not outside the realm of possibility for an older, oral-tradition song to have survived, in some form, to the present day.


> At least according to a Netflix documentary on India, there are some brahmins outside Kerala that have been chanting the same song since before the invention of speech. The claim is that the chant makes no sense in any linguistic or even musical tradition and is more closely related to birdsong, indicating a pre-oral genesis.

That's Michael Wood's documentary about India if I recall correctly. However, the implication of that segment was not that it represents a pre-speech musical pattern, but rather that contains uninterpretable elements that might be onomanopaeic. The first modern humans to arrive in India arrived speaking languages as fully developed as any we have today, as they diverged from the same fully verbal Africans as everyone else in the world.

EDIT: Here is an answer from the series' website where Wood himself admits that they sacrificed clarity for drama's sake in their description: http://www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia/ask/answers_2.html#q3

What makes the Kerala birdsong chanting unusual is that it is systematic despite having no obvious denotative meaning, unlike the rest of Vedic hymns which directly rendered in the Vedic language [1].

Also, it only occurs in Kerala. Vedic recitation elsewhere in India does not include the birdsong element - rather it contains only the Vedic language hymns.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedic_Sanskrit


This comment reminds me of siberian/slavic shaman music, the whole musical genre is about mimicking different animal sounds. Very strange.

https://youtu.be/YeAp1fPt8Eg?t=31


That’s not completely true. There are wordless melodies associated with Samavedic recitation all over India. For instance my Guruji knew a particular set and we are Gujarati Brahmanas. However in Kerala they have a specific Shakha of the Sama Veda (“branch” i.e. school of recitation) which is unique.

The idea that any of this is “pre-speech” sacrifices clarity to the point of utter misinformation.


That's a fair point. After all many Vedic recitations are replete with syllables whose purpose is strictly musical/mystical and without concrete meaning, the most famous being of course "AUM", but also the sequence "shrim, hrim, klim, glaum, gam".

If you peruse the book that Michael Wood cites in that comment, you'll find many other Vedic examples of meaningless musical particles like "ha bu" and "bham bham".

Conversely, in the Indian pakhawaj drum composition recitation system (of much more recent vintage than Vedic chanting), there is a form called Paran where the opposite takes place: The semantically meaningless, but rhythmically sophisticated patterns of drum syllables are overlayed and interspersed with phonologically and rhythmically similar words drawn from Sanskrit, usually descriptions of a deity. The words in this case play second fiddle to the structure of the musical composition. Here is an example:

https://youtu.be/hJg4NOCKTZI?t=443

The Michael Wood documentary, while overall pretty decent, unnecessarily exoticizes it in the example of the Kerala Brahmins, but you see very similar phenomena (melodic meaningless syllables) in popular and folk music around the world today, from India to Motown. In fact, there's a vocal technique from Jazz called scat-singing, that exclusively uses meaningless syllables:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scat_singing


Thanks -- yes it was the Michael Wood documentary I was thinking of. I was always a bit skeptical about that claim; this is some great background. I appreciated the candid explanation by Wood - there is definitely something curious/mysterious about those hymns, regardless of origin.


> they diverged from the same fully verbal Africans as everyone else in the world

As far as I understand, it's believed that humans had developed articulated speech before the first out-of-Africa migration because it's assumed that our capacity for articulated speech 1) largely preceded or at least co-evolved with our physiology for speech and 2) preceded or at least co-evolved with our extraordinary social behaviors--extraordinary cooperation and coordination beyond kin groups, unlike anything else in the animal kingdom. But there's no solid evidence for this presumption about the order of events.

There's a very compelling hypothesis that says that humans developed the physiology for non-verbal speech (i.e. singing, chanting) and developed a highly cooperative and complex social structure before verbal speech. That is, coordinated behavior and singing physiology (choral singing) co-evolved, trailed by higher-order thought and finally articulated speech. Slightly more radical, a corollary hypothesis is that the last piece of the puzzle, articulated speech, back-migrated from East Asia.

See "Who Asked the First Question: The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech" by Joseph Jordania.

Most compelling to me is that it's the first model I've seen that can explain the emergence of human social cooperation within the confines of the traditional Darwinian genetic model. Specifically, it solves the free-rider problem as in this model those who weren't genetically inclined to cooperate were immediately killed by predators.

The TL;DR of the hypothesis is that when humans descended onto the savannah a method of hunting, scavenging, and defense emerged that relied on coordinated rhythmic dancing and vocalization to intimidate predators. Those who couldn't or didn't physically and psychologically coordinate, instinctively, with the group were, much like a young or sick herd animal, more likely to be killed, especially given that their novel hunting and scavenging behaviors regularly put them in direct conflict with predators. There was no easy way avoid this selective pressure--either to fake it or silently hide in the group--beyond adopting the genetic traits that ungirded instinctive cooperation and selflessness.

The corollary hypothesis can be relatively easily tested (but hasn't, yet) and is based on the observation that articulation problems, such as stuttering, often disappear when singing, suggesting that articulated speech is relatively recent as compared to even highly complex vocalization. Furthermore, initial data suggests that articulation issues are most prevalent in Africa and Europe, and least prevalent in East Asia. Europeans and Africans are quite genetically close, while East Asians are the most distant. Similarly, choral singing is least prevalent (today and in recent history) in East Asia, which would be consistent if the emergence of articulated speech diminished the utility of choral singing in supporting cooperative behavior.


> Europeans and Africans are quite genetically close, while East Asians are the most distant.

This is not true per the latest genetic understanding of modern human migration. All non-African populations diverged from each-other more recently than their shared common ancestor did from their ancestral African population. See:

https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/

Note the branch leaving Africa that is shared by both Asian and European populations.

> Furthermore, initial data suggests that articulation issues are most prevalent in Africa and Europe, and least prevalent in East Asia. Europeans and Africans are quite genetically close, while East Asians are the most distant. Similarly, choral singing is least prevalent (today and in recent history) in East Asia, which would be consistent if the emergence of articulated speech diminished the utility of choral singing in supporting cooperative behavior.

This seems like a strong claim of causality that requires some citation. I'd be very careful before attributing differences in cultures' musical style to anything like genetics. People sing in groups in unison all over the world. It's just that the most widely known traditional musical styles of East Asia (and the middle east and South Asia also) tend to focus primarily on melody with harmonies being emergent or incidental.

Also, the traditional Asian music we think of today is a very recent development on the timescale of human evolution, so its differences shouldn't really be attributed to anything more than cultural development.


> All non-African populations diverged from each-other more recently than their shared common ancestor did from their ancestral African population

That's a much weaker claim than earlier, more specific out-of-Africa theories that claim there was a very simple, very linear migration without any possibility of genetic back flow. And that's ignoring the fact that it ignores archaic humans. Despite being backed up with supposedly irrefutable genetic models, in recent years the dominant out-of-Africa hypothesis has become weaker as it's had to contend with, e.g., proof of Neanderthals and more recently Denosovans interbreeding that directly contradicted the predictions of previous models.

I'm not any kind of trained scientist, but I have studied enough to know that while the dominant models (the specific ones--Jordania is not contending that humans didn't emerge from Africa) absolutely pose a signifiant hurdle for Jordania's hypothesis, they don't rule it out and, in fact, since he began constructing the model some 30 years ago (formal publication of the theory with a comprehensive presentation was about 10 years ago, I think) the dominant models have become increasingly more accommodating.

Regarding Asian music, Jordania is an ethnomusicologist. The bulk of his paper, book, and other papers discuss his model from the perspective of ethnomusicology. It's strongest in its discussion of, e.g., phonology. It's weakest from the perspective of accepted anthropologic genetic models of evolutionary development. But as I said what makes it most compelling to me is how it solves (at least in the abstract) the free-rider problem squarely within the confines of traditional, well-proven genetic theory, through an intuitively simple and obvious (in retrospect) survival adaptation that knits together several inexplicable human behaviors. That's hugely significant given, AFAIK, no other theory of human evolutionary development can make that claim. There'll all predicated on some unknown or unproven extension to standard genetic models (e.g. group selection). Of course, such elegance alone isn't proof of anything. But he does provide a cogent argument with substantial evidence, albeit predominantly deriving from the field of ethnomusicology. And as I said, genetic anthropology has slowly become more favorable, or at least less antagonistic.

I think scientists draw too many and overly specific conclusions about evolutionary development from models of genetic drift, etc, which is why we see the backtracking as the field adjusts to facts that would never be predicted by or outright contradict those conclusions.[1] In any event, even in Jordania's model all the physiological traits and most of the psychological pieces could have been (and presumably were) already present even at the first migration out of Africa. His argument about back-migration of the allele for articulated speech isn't essential to the model in terms of the order of events. It's just the most easily tested aspect and is emphasized partly because of how he arrived at the model--as an ethnomusicologist following the trail of evidence he was most familiar with. I can easily see the disparity in, e.g., stuttering disappearing with better data; certainly he admits the paucity of comprehensive studies.

It's worth at least skimming his original thesis paper or the book, available on Amazon Kindle. It's admittedly radical and not well known, but IMO substantive and rather fascinating. I've read the whole paper (in piecemeal fashion) but am not an able defender given my lack of expertise.


Here's a more recent and much more concise presentation of Jordania's theory: http://www.josephjordania.com/files/8-Jelena-article-2015-in...


Definitely. Music obviously predates our species entirely. I mean birds? I guess it depends on how you want to define music, like if it needs intent of some kind. Which would be impossible to prove in that case.


Song of Theseus?


Human remains go back in Africa 300,000 years and they're suggesting the oldest song is around 3,400 years old?

Did I miss something? Are they suggesting the first song was also written? ... that there weren't songs before they started writing them?

I think they mean the oldest musical notation.


The title is terrible, and was probably changed by a clueless editor at BBC.

If you read the actual article though, 2 paragraphs in:

”Inscribed on it were lyrics, and underneath them is what researchers believe is the earliest example of musical notation anywhere in the world.”


Sometimes it feels like editors write headlines with an explicit goal of riling people up. Specifically riling me up.


That's exactly what they are doing. It's not even a secret or anything.


The song itself (rendered by a singer in the video on the page) reminds of a lot of non-western music, in particular the distinctive minor harmonic 7th that is so common from southern and Eastern Europe through the Middle East to South Asia. I've also heard Jewish cantors in synagogues using it.

Someone once described this very general style of modal music to me as "Alexandrian" music, because variations on it appear in many places where Alexander the Great's army went.

Of course, the musical style probably far predates Alexander, as Alexander was himself following routes established long before his time.


The tune in the first video at about 1:14 is indeed used in Jewish synogogues. Particularly those of Middle Eastern / North African Jewish communities.

As this video demonstrates: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lGh2hfk8NvY


How are they sure about the notes of the melody itself? The Greeks used Pythagorean tuning, which is based on mathematical fractions, allowing us to know the exact ratios of the notes to each other. How would they get similar precision from pre-Greek notations?



... or is it just a tribute?




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