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Descent of Man [ 1871]

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Author Topic: Descent of Man [ 1871]  (Read 2889 times)
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« Reply #180 on: February 10, 2009, 01:26:01 pm »

This gibbon is not the only species in the genus which sings, for my
son, Francis Darwin, attentively listened in the Zoological Gardens to
H. leuciscus whilst singing a cadence of three notes, in true
musical intervals and with a clear musical tone. It is a more
surprising fact that certain rodents utter musical sounds. Singing
mice have often been mentioned and exhibited, but imposture has
commonly been suspected. We have, however, at last a clear account
by a well-known observer, the Rev. S. Lockwood,* of the musical powers
of an American species, the Hesperomys cognatus, belonging to a
genus distinct from that of the English mouse. This little animal
was kept in confinement, and the performance was repeatedly heard.
In one of the two chief songs, "the last bar would frequently be
prolonged to two or three; and she would sometimes change from C sharp
and D, to C natural and D, then warble on these two notes awhile,
and wind up with a quick chirp on C sharp and D. The distinctness
between the semitones was very marked, and easily appreciable to a
good ear." Mr. Lockwood gives both songs in musical notation; and adds
that though this little mouse "had no ear for time, yet she would keep
to the key of B (two flats) and strictly in a major key." ... "Her
soft clear voice falls an octave with all the precision possible; then
at the wind up, it rises again into a very quick trill on C sharp
and D."

  * American Naturalist, 1871, p. 761.

  A critic has asked how the ears of man, and he ought to have added
of other animals, could have been adapted by selection so as to
distinguish musical notes. But this question shows some confusion on
the subject; a noise is the sensation resulting from the
co-existence of several aerial "simple vibrations" of various periods,
each of which intermits so frequently that its separate existence
cannot be perceived. It is only in the want of continuity of such
vibrations, and in their want of harmony inter se, that a noise
differs from a musical note. Thus, an ear to be capable of
discriminating noises- and the high importance of this power to all
animals is admitted by every one- must be sensitive to musical
notes. We have evidence of this capacity even low down in the animal
scale; thus, crustaceans are provided with auditory hairs of different
lengths, which have been seen to vibrate when the proper musical notes
are struck.* As stated in a previous chapter, similar observations
have been made on the hairs of the antennae of gnats. It has been
positively asserted by good observers that spiders are attracted by
music. It is also well known that some dogs howl when hearing
particular tones.*(2) Seals apparently appreciate music, and their
fondness for it "was well known to the ancients, and is often taken
advantage of by the hunters at the present day."*(3)

  * Helmholtz, Theorie Phys. de la Musique, 1868, p. 187.
  *(2) Several accounts have been published to this effect. Mr.
Peach writes to me that an old dog of his howls when B flat is sounded
on the flute, and to no other note. I may add another instance of a
dog always whining, when one note on a concertina, which was out of
tune, was played.
  *(3) Mr. R. Brown, in Proc. Zool. Soc., 1868, p. 410.

  Therefore, as far as the mere perception of musical notes is
concerned, there seems no special difficulty in the case of man or
of any other animal. Helmholtz has explained on physiological
principles why concords are agreeable, and discords disagreeable to
the human ear; but we are little concerned with these, as music in
harmony is a late invention. We are more concerned with melody, and
here again, according to Helmholtz, it is intelligible why the notes
of our musical scale are used. The ear analyses all sounds into
their component "simple vibrations," although we are not conscious
of this analysis. In a musical note the lowest in pitch of these is
generally predominant, and the others which are less marked are the
octave, the twelfth, the second octave, &c., all harmonies of the
fundamental predominant note; any two notes of our scale have many
of these harmonic over-tones in common. It seems pretty clear then,
that if an animal always wished to sing precisely the same song, he
would guide himself by sounding those notes in succession, which
possess many overtones in common- that is, he would choose for his
song, notes which belong to our musical scale.
  But if it be further asked why musical tones in a certain order
and rhythm give man and other animals pleasure, we can no more give
the reason than for the pleasantness of certain tastes and smells.
That they do give pleasure of some kind to animals, we may infer
from their being produced during the season of courtship by many
insects, spiders, fishes, amphibians, and birds; for unless the
females were able to appreciate such sounds and were excited or
charmed by them, the persevering efforts of the males, and the complex
structures often possessed by them alone, would be useless; and this
it is impossible to believe.
  Human song is generally admitted to be the basis or origin of
instrumental music. As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of
producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in
reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the
most mysterious with which he is endowed. They are present, though
in a very rude condition, in men of all races, even the most savage;
but so different is the taste of the several races, that our music
gives no pleasure to savages, and their music is to us in most cases
hideous and unmeaning. Dr. Seemann, in some interesting remarks on
this subject,* "doubt whether even amongst the nations of western
Europe, intimately connected as they are by close and frequent
intercourse, the music of the one is interpreted in the same sense
by the others. By travelling eastwards we find that there is certainly
a different language of music. Songs of joy and dance-accompaniments
are no longer, as with us, in the major keys, but always in the
minor." Whether or not the half-human progenitors of man possessed,
like the singing gibbons, the capacity of producing, and therefore
no doubt of appreciating, musical notes, we know that man possessed
these faculties at a very remote period. M. Lartet has described two
flutes made out of the bones and horns of the reindeer, found in caves
together with flint tools and the remains of extinct animals. The arts
of singing and of dancing are also very ancient, and are now practised
by all or nearly all the lowest races of man. Poetry, which may be
considered as the offspring of song, is likewise so ancient, that many
persons have felt astonished that it should have arisen during the
earliest ages of which we have any record.

  * Journal of Anthropological Society, Oct., 1870, p. clv. See also
the several later chapters in Sir John Lubbock's Prehistoric Times,
2nd ed., 1869, which contain an admirable account of the habits of

  We see that the musical faculties, which are not wholly deficient in
any race, are capable of prompt and high development, for Hottentots
and Negroes have become excellent musicians, although in their
native countries they rarely practise anything that we should consider
music. Schweinfurth, however, was pleased with some of the simple
melodies which he heard in the interior of Africa. But there is
nothing anomalous in the musical faculties lying dormant in man:
some species of birds which never naturally sing, can without much
difficulty be taught to do so; thus a house-sparrow has learnt the
song of a linnet. As these two species are closely allied, and
belong to the order of Insessores, which includes nearly all the
singing-birds in the world, it is possible that a progenitor of the
sparrow may have been a songster. It is more remarkable that
parrots, belonging to a group distinct from the Insessores, and having
differently constructed vocal organs, can be taught not only to speak,
but to pipe or whistle tunes invented by man, so that they must have
some musical capacity. Nevertheless it would be very rash to assume
that parrots are descended from some ancient form which was a
songster. Many cases could be advanced of organs and instincts
originally adapted for one purpose, having been utilised for some
distinct purpose.* Hence the capacity for high musical development
which the savage races of man possess, may be due either to the
practice by our semi-human progenitors of some rude form of music,
or simply to their having acquired the proper vocal organs for a
different purpose. But in this latter ease we must assume, as in the
above instance of parrots, and as seems to occur with many animals,
that they already possessed some sense of melody.

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