The Singing Body*

Birds sing. There is no other way to say it. They make a harmonious sound, with rhythm, structure, and they repeat those phrases. Many animals use pitch and tone to express themselves. For instance, frogs blow air out of a special sack calling for a mate. Crocodiles, sensing a nearby female, bellow internally. They do this with such force it causes the water around them to ripple exquisitely. Elephants make a similar sound – a note so low humans can’t hear it, but elephants 4km away can. Insects have many kinds of songs.

Like much of human culture, our singing has become formalised and complex, but much of what singing means to humans means the same to other animals – especially intelligent ones. These things would include: Self expression, claiming territory, sexual selection, enforcing social bonds, working up to a fight, and so on.

At what point singing becomes music is a different matter – and I think many of my examples would fail that test. All of them? I’m not so sure. When humans make melodious sounds to a child sleeping, accompanied by instruments or not, this human singing is music. Whales also deliver a great example. Their songs are long and complex – there is phrasing. It must surely be music to them; as it is to people who sleep with the recording playing in the background.

Animals use sound to warn others to stay out of their territory and also to attract a mate.
Crows are highly intelligent birds that have a complex language system. They make at least twenty-five different sounds, which include growling, squawking, squealing, cooing, and rattling. They use these different calls to identify themselves and communicate with other birds. They also have an emergency call to have other crows come quickly to help.

For a bird, singing can be draining. It is both energetically expensive and alerts predators. So then why do birds sing? Evidence suggests that in part, it is to proclaim and defend their territories
. Studies have also shown that songs play a crucial role in attracting and impressing potential mates and may signal the overall health of the singer. As in humans, singing in birds is often a chance to show off.

heir repertoires include songs and calls

Why are some bird sounds referred to as songs and others as calls? Typically a song is defined as a relatively structured vocalization produced while attracting a mate or defending a territory. Calls tend to be shorter, less rhythmic sounds used to communicate a nearby threat or an individual’s location. Each species and individual has a variety of songs and calls used in different contexts that together make up its repertoire
. While the distinction between calls and songs is not always clear, it can be quite ear opening to explore the full repertoires of your favorite songbirds.

Hear a bird singing? It’s probably a male

Chances are when you hear a bird singing it’s a male. The majority of female songbirds in temperate zones use shorter, simpler calls
while the males produce the longer and more complex vocalizations we think of as song
. The story is different in the tropics where females commonly sing, and many species engage in duetting

MUSIC and CULTURE

“… Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there,” writes Daniel Levitin “….weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep and college students studying with music as a background….” He continues to note that, ….music is and was [always] part of the fabric of everyday life. Only relatively recently in our own culture, five hundred years or so ago, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated. Concert halls, dedicated to the performance of music, arose only in the last several centuries. Understanding why we like music and what draws us to it is therefore a window on the essence of human nature….” (This is Your Brain on Music, 2006)

music as communication
We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one. We integrate all of these and ‘construct’ music in our minds using many different parts of the brain. And to this largely unconscious structural appreciation of music is added an often intense and profound emotional reaction to music.”

What is music?
Moby] One of the really fascinating things about music is that technically- in a very literal way- it doesn’t exist. A painting, a sculpture or a photograph can physically exist, while music is just air hitting the eardrum in a slightly different way than it would randomly. If you were a space alien trying to define music- you would define it as humans manipulating the way in which air molecules hit someone’s eardrum.
Somehow that air- which has almost no substance whatsoever- when moved and when made to hit the eardrum in tiny subtle ways- can make people dance, cry, have sex, move across country, go to war and more. It’s remarkable that something so subtle can illicit profound emotional reactions in people.

Music provides us with a strange self-generated celebration of the human condition in the face of a universe that is ancient and vast beyond our understanding.

music goes beyond the words and sentences of our language
Music transcends the limits of language. The English lexicon is vast, but still is limited. Music comes in to fill the gap. It looks at the way we can’t express ourselves through the spoken or written word and makes up for the lack.

WHY HUMANS SING

No doubt people have always sung — people everywhere, at all times and in all cultures. Young people, old people, children. Even babies sing. Happy people, sad people, people in crisis, people in prison, people about to die, people about to give birth. All aspects of human culture involves singing from religious rites to rites of passage, acts of debauchery to acts of devotion. People sing to their children, to their spouses, to their pets, in the shower, in church, at baseball games, in concerts, when no one is listening, and for no particular reason. People sing because it makes them feel good. People sing because it’s fun.

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Singing is an integral part of cultural identity. Indeed, a culture can often be identified by its song literature. Bruce Richman, states in the journal, Contemporary Anthropology: „… group singing gives … a strong, direct feeling of social cohesion and solidarity.“ Every culture has a body of folk song which identifies the culture as strongly as the language, dress, food, and social customs.

Ethnic cultures not withstanding, micro-cultures also identify themselves with song: clubs, fraternities and sororities, unions, religious groups… People sing because it helps them feel like an accepted member of a group.

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Singing is part of human biology:

…different fields of science provide evidence that music has deep biological roots, from the organization of the brain. If music is a biological imperative, then its importance in human life is considerably greater than is commonly thought. As research in music expands, we can expect the findings to greatly enlarge our understanding of the roles of music in human development and behavior, and perhaps to provide new insights into our nature. [See Music: Cultural Add-On or Biological Imperative? by Norman Weinberger]

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Singing helps people understand who they are.

Singing can help people experience a transcendent state of mind. „Transcendent“ has several meanings including:

1. extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience
2. being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge (Kantian philosophy)
3. being beyond comprehension

(from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online)

Many religious traditions have used vocalizations as a means of achieving a transcendent state of mind. States of ecstasy are also often achieved through practicing (participating) in some kind of musical activity — usually singing, chanting, intonation, etc. People sing because it helps them experience worship.

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2. To create identity.

Singing together creates solidarity among groups of people. It is one of the ways we forge a definable identity as a community or tribe.

3. To express emotion.

Whether singing makes us feel or feeling makes us sing, singing connects to the emotional part of our humanity, and we sing, in part, to express this aspect of ourselves.

4. To express words.

Singing words is different than speaking them. It opens up a range of expression of words not possible if they were spoken and not sung. Singing the same words differently (to different tunes, tempi, and chord structures) allow us to more tangibly see the many facets of a single statement.

5. To revisit the past.

Singing, for better and for worse when it comes to congregational song, triggers nostalgia. Singing can have the power of re-immersing ourselves in a past event or time in our lives.

6. To tell stories.

We sing to pass on the content of our history and beliefs from one generation to the next. This was especially the case in aural cultures.

N.M. Weinberger writes:

… singing is present early in life, exhibits regular developmental stages and serves bio-social roles. Thus, singing may be a biological imperative with both individual and group functions. Quite apart from issues of its biological bases, singing appears capable of promoting several cognitive processes and even motor coordination. [See Sing, Sing, Sing! — published in the Music & Science Information Computer Archive, MUSICA]

SIngen als Lernkatalysator
Karl Kimmel writes:

A song is probably the best all-around mnemonic device for facilitating a student’s recall of facts, definitions, and concepts. It is most useful when students are faced with a lot of novel material to remember or within groups of students who have difficulty remembering. A song is a mnemonic because its melody, rhythm, rhyme, imagery and other poetic devices provide a structure for the acquisition of new knowledge, an organization of this knowledge in long-term memory, and cues for retrieval of this knowledge. [See Pedagogy.]

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Dass wir dem Singen so zugewandt sind, hängt auch damit zusammen, dass wir Klänge bereits im Bauch der Mutter wahrnehmen.

Noch vor der Sprache haben wir schon Klänge vernommen. Wir sind darauf anders und früher sensibilisiert. Die Art und Weise, wie ein Säugling sich verständigt, ist dem Singen näher als dem Sprechen. Das Singen ist aber nicht nur für Babys eine besondere Form der Kommunikation. In den Bergen beispielsweise, wenn Nachrichten gleichsam vom Tal auf den Gipfel oder von Berghang zu Berghang übermittelt werden mussten, half das Jodeln.

Charles Darwin sah den Ursprung des Singens in der Partnerwahl. Wer Vögel beobachtet, wird ihm sicher Recht geben. Aber dass Singen auch beim Menschen ein Thema in der Partnerwahl zu sein scheint, dafür gibt es auch statistische Hinweise: In einem Viertel aller Heiratsanzeigen der Wochenzeitung „Die Zeit“, so hat der Musikpädagoge Heiner Gembris herausgefunden, die Musik erwähnt wird.

Singen erleichtert aber auch schwere Arbeit. Dafür sprechen beispielsweise die Gospels und Spirituals afroamerikanischer Sklaven. Sie waren ein Sinnbild des gemeinsamen Leidens, ein gesanglicher Ausdruck der Schicksalsgemeinschaft. Das gilt nicht nur für Sklaven, das gilt auch in Fußballstadien. Was sind Fangesänge anderes als der Ausdruck einer Schicksalsgemeinschaft? (sk)

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– singing words makes a different meaning – widens the spectrum