Friday, March 5, 2010


Darwin (my hero) suggested that language evolved from "rhythmic chants." I'm not too sure that I agree with him on this, but recent developments lend this idea some credibility. For instance, one might ask what the absolute essential ingredient to music is. Well, rap music (for purposes of this discussion, I will consider it music) has pared music down to two ingredients: rhythm and lyrics, and since I can't understand the lyrics (nor have any wish to), that leaves rhythm, which my musician son tells me can actually be quite sophisticated.
So, one could make a case that the one thing music has to have is rhythm. What next, then? I'm thinking melody. Then harmony? Then lyrics?
There are of course counterexamples to much of this. Gregorian chants, for instance, have lyrics but only the most basic melody and rhythms, and no harmony at all.
Which leads me to nonsense songs: those popular songs in which the lyrics are either silly ("Yummy, yummy, yummy; I've got love in my tummy"), or literally without sense (Does anybody remember the song -- spelling approximate -- "Hut sut rawl sittin' on a rilliraw"?). In these songs, what ever pleasure we get from them comes largely from the melody and rhythm.
Other songs might include "Purple People Eater," "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," "Mairzy Doats," and almost any camp song you can think of.
Certainly we get pleasure from the combination of rhythm and melody. If, though, we consider such things as sporting event cheers (rhythm and lyrics but no melody), and much of poetry (ditto rhythm, lyrics, no melody), we see that the one constant thread is rhythm.
Son of a gun. Maybe Darwin had it right all along.


Becky Stauffer said...

You touched on one of my favorite themes today and I love thinking about what you said. I always think of rhythm as the most basic of music and it is found all around us (like rain falling or railroad cars at a crossing).

But I really wanted to tell you something I learned today about Darwin. He (and The Beagle) were offshore in Chile during a very devastating earthquake. He rowed to shore and first noticed a horrible stench. Discovering the dying bodies of marine life all around that required twice daily bathing from the tides but had been somehow left high and dry after the quake. Darwin deduced that since the ocean did not become lower, the land must have risen a couple of feet due to the quake. Whereupon he looked at the Andes mountains many thousands of feet high, and realized those mountains were surely formed from earthquakes a couple feet at a time. He further then deduced that the earth must be millions of years old in order to create mountains of that height a few feet at a time. This explained why Lord Byron discovered fossils of sea animals in the highest places of the Andes. (I believe it was Lord Byron.) This was revolutionary thinking for his time. Nothing surprising about that.

A geologist on NPR today related this story and said Darwin was a great contributor to the science of geology despite his greater fame in biology. He pointed out how Darwin used facts at hand and logic rather than sophisticated instrumentation that would come much later.

Had you read or hear of this before?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
On both your houses said...

I did read the story in "The Voyage of the Beagle," which is a delightful book; Darwin knew how to write. By the way, I just realized that one of my favorite songs, the Beatles' "Come Together," is very nearly purest nonsense. It has syntax but no meaning. And boy does it have rhythm.

Becky Stauffer said...

Do you remember in the 60's when they (the establishment) said that beat behind rock music was a communist plot? I doubted that, but there's no doubt some rhythms and riffs affect us. I always liked the drum work at the start of Heard It Through the Grapevine.