Glastonbury Music Festival got me thinking… Where does singing and dancing come from?
‘Music makes the people come together’ as the great songstress once said. And it certainly does. Whether listening to a festival or singing in a church choir or even at a football match, the effect is powerful; emotional; spiritual.
Songs punctuate our lives. There are songs we fell in love to; songs we broke up to. From the birth of children, to weddings and funerals; songs stir memories. Dance is powerful too, invoking the same ecstatic trance state in hundreds even thousands of strangers – and that’s without drugs.
But where did it all start? If we have Java Man, Rhodesian Man, Boxgrove Man and Neanderthal Man, are we Song and Dance Man?
The roots of music may lie with chimpanzees. When threatened a troop starts howling and rhythmically banging the ground or hollow logs. Before long the noises synchronise, becoming one; signalling togetherness: while also jacking up the adrenaline level. Chimps are our nearest relatives with about 96% of the same genes, but the last time chimpanzees and humans shared an ancestor was over 7 million years ago.
Mothers and babies hint that music is in the genes. Listen to yourself with an infant. Your voice becomes soft, melodic and rhythmic – in fact sing-song. And we instinctively echo the rhythm with gentle rocking motions. An unborn baby can hear 20 weeks before birth… long before other animals. It might help sensitise us to language.
Music may have developed by imitating natural sounds and rhythms. Shamans still do this when conjuring the spirit world. Apart from drumming on hollow logs, making stone tools produces distinctive sounds and rhythms. Perhaps the different noises were used to teach youngsters tool-making.
From deep history there are all sorts of possible musical instruments: from musical stones to hollow bones with holes in them. There are things that might be whistles; rasps; clappers; bull-roarers. But the first complete musical instrument we have is a 41,000 year old bone flute.
The first evidence of dancing comes from 9,000 year old rock paintings, but its origin may also lie in the mists of time. Chimpanzees balance themselves when walking upright with a delicate mincing gait. Perhaps it was the same for us. The more agile we were walking upright, the better we seemed as a mate. Whatever, we definitely have an instinctive sense of rhythm. And dancing is still a great way to show off.
Like singing, dancing cements groups together – producing a shared experience at a deep fundamental level. It releases endorphins; our bodies’ feel good chemicals. They not only make groups feel as one, but also play a part in sexual arousal.
In religious rituals, dancing puts people into trances that are seen as a gateway to the spirit world. When combined with drugs and alcohol (and there were always lots of psychoactive herbs and fungi around) sensory overload produces an ecstatic state – seen by the ancients as being possessed by a god.
The Maenads, women followers of the wine god Dionysus, worked themselves up so much they ripped small animals limb from limb and devoured them raw. I suppose after that, missing the toilet when you spew your guts is really quite forgivable.
I started off asking if Homo Sapiens was Song & Dance Man, but all things considered, singing and dancing started long before man.