Look Who’s Talking – A Brief History of Music

Near the town of Montignac in southwestern France are the Lascaux Caves where intact drawings of animals adorn the walls. Those drawings date back to the Paleolithic Age – about 17,300 years, give or take. In addition to these famous drawings, there were other man-made creations discovered in those caves including a whistle/flute made from the hollowed-out bone of a large bird with finger holes carved into it which enabled the player to create varying tones. And while this wasn’t the oldest man-made instrument discovered by archeologists – that distinction goes to a more than 40,000-year-old delicate flute carved from the wing of a griffon vulture also discovered in southern France. What sets the Lascaux instrument apart is that its finger holes respond to the tonal relationship known as the diatonic scale which is the basis for essentially all of Western civilization’s music to this very day.

Leaping forward in time to the cradle of Western civilization – ancient Greece – around 450 B.C., one of that era’s great philosophers, Socrates, wrote, “beware of a change to a strange new form of music.” Apparently music has been an indigenous part of our culture since humanity’s earliest known history, providing an avenue for expression and communication with power and overlooked influence.

Every culture creates its own art, often reflecting divergent stains and that is clearly the case with music.  But no country’s music embraces more divergence than America which, of course, reflects this nation’s immigrant population. Though much has been made of the idea that the U.S.A. is the world’s Great Melting Pot, we too often fail to appreciate the importance and potency of our diverse heritages. An argument can be made that the dominance of Western Culture worldwide arises from the echoes of what is familiar to other cultures from which those immigrants came.  That dominance is well established – at least one book has been published positing the very valid theory that it wasn’t the Berlin Wall and NATO that ultimately led to the fall of the U.S.S.R., but, rather it was rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans that did the trick.

While music has always been a meaningful counterpart of this county’s unique cultural heritage, it was with the advent of that uniquely American musical expression that our music became the worlds. Born in the mid-1950s under the aegis of Chuck Berry’s brilliant creativity and popularized by the truly iconic Elvis Presley, America’s music entered its Golden Age and became the world’s soundtrack. It was truly revolutionary on levels not always fully understood and appreciated. In future columns, we’ll take a deeper look into that revolution to what it has wrought and how it has shaped our lives.

Bill Shapiro

Bill Shapiro is the creator and host of "Cyprus Avenue" which premiered on KCUR-FM in October of 1978. The weekly radio show has aired on over 50 stations in the United States. He is the author of "The CD Rock and Roll Library," 1988, and "The Rock and Roll Review" 1991, both published by Andrews & McMeel. Bill is a native of Kansas City, Missouri, and a tax and estate planner since 1962. He received his law degree from the University of Michigan.

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