“Human ancestors shared the ground and living space with African lions for at least a couple of million years. Imagine the choir where all the individual members are forced (literally under the fear of death!) to be in perfect unity with the other members of the choir. And imagine the “rehearsals” of this choir occurred almost every day, and continued without stopping for any holidays or school breaks from one generation to another. And another. And another. For more than a million years. And all these millions of years the rehearsals continue under the watchful eyes of hungry lions, and the prize for good synchronous singing is life. I do conduct a couple of choirs. We usually rehearse once a week, trying to get a harmonic and rhythmic unity, and sometimes it is not easy for me to gain everyone’s attention… Well, no more dreaming… I guess, if we could hear the “choir” of our hominid ancestors, the resulting rhythmic (and melodic) precision of our ancestors by the time they mastered stone tools and were ready to move out of Africa, must have been astounding.”

These are the words of Joseph Jordania, Georgian (the country, not my state) ethnomusicologist who has studied the origins of choral music since the 1980s. You can find his book, here: Who Asked the First Question? It’s more than possible that humans sang and danced to save their lives, living in the open with big, fast predators competing for rule of the savannah. A whole troupe singing and stomping in unison is intimidating, if they are all facing you, or closing in to take your recent kill. But that is just one of the fascinating ideas presented in Who Asked the First Question?

Who Asked the First Question? is a 400+ page review of the history and prehistory of choral singing around the world. You are probably even less interested in all the details than I was, so as we are in this holiday season of concerts and Christmas programs, I want to share with you a few highlights of Jordania’s conclusions and hypotheses. You may be surprised at their relevance to religious life. I’ll start with a summary of the highlights for those who don’t want to read the excerpts. I’ll let you go to his book if you wonder about justifications for Jordania’s claims. Here goes:

  • Humans used to all sing and dance together for survival. There were no performers and listeners.
  • Singing was how humans communicated–through pitch languages–for hundreds of thousands of years before articulated speech began to be the norm.
  • Questions were, and are, asked through pitch, even when we are babies and don’t yet understand or speak words.
  • Asking questions requires recognizing that other beings may have complex minds and important knowledge that we lack.
  • Asking questions is what allowed the cultural evolution that has made humanity so successful.

Now before I give you some relatively disjointed quotes to ponder and perhaps search more understanding of, I want to share a few thoughts that occurred to me as I read.

I love to sing and dance with people with a sometimes embarrassing intensity. With my interest in the arts on top of my professional scientific interests, I’ve been accused a couple of times of being a “Renaissance man.” This isn’t quite right. I’m really a throwback to the time when singing and dancing with my group was essential for survival. If I don’t sing and dance, I am not happy. When I do sing and dance with people, I experience all the powerful high evolution designed humans to feel for a million years. It’s all of you listeners and watchers out there that are the more evolved beings–adapted to the life of articulated speech rather than lion dances to keep predators at bay.

And as my last word, ward choir may be the strongest motivator for my activity in church. If you’ve read many of my past posts, you will know that I believe a lot of Mormon truth claims, but choir is why I go every Sunday. Is it the Spirit? Is it an evolutionary throwback? It doesn’t really matter to me. I love to sing of God and Zion. I love to aspire to goodness and to create something beautiful (at least to uncritical ears) with brothers and sisters who may share little in common with me beyond our voices and our love of music. Choir is my salvation, and music may really be just what we need to unify humanity. If Gods are evolved humans, heavenly choirs may be more than just evocative imagery. Merry Christmas to all! You are welcome to come caroling to my house any time of year.


Now for some excerpts from Jordania for those who are curious for a little more.

Here are a few observations about the human ability to ask questions:

“Even today all human infants of all races and language families start asking their first questions using the questions intonation only.”

“Questioning is the grammatical category that can be formulated on the one-word stage of language development, without the use of syntax, just with the help of the ancient vocal medium– pitch.”

“children start using correctly pronounced question intonation and asking their first simple questions at the babbling period of their development”

“Question intonation is arguably the biggest universal of human languages and communication. All languages of the world without exception, tonal, non-tonal, intonational and accented– use the rising “question intonation” for the “yes-no” questions, very popular in human communication”

“Sarah’s failure to ask questions was “due to its inability to recognize deficiencies in its own knowledge.””

So to summarize:

  • Questioning is universally tonal–we can tell if someone is asking a question by the pitch of their voice, and even babies recognize it and do it before they can speak.
  • We ask questions if realize that other beings have important knowledge that we lack. Otherwise, we don’t ask questions.

Back to Jordania:

“The strength of human intelligence seems to be in the uniting of individual brains into the “mental web” of our shared knowledge, and the ability to ask and answer questions seems to be the crucial element of this unique mental cooperation.”

“asking questions is not a matter of constructing syntactic structures (questions do not need any syntactic structures), but it is a matter of cognitive abilities.”

If this seems cryptic, Jordania is emphasizing observations that numerous apes have been taught to speak, but none of them ask questions. Questioning isn’t about having question words, it is about understanding that other beings have complex minds and may know important things that we don’t. So when did all this start? And how did it lead to us, today? Here is Jordania’s own summary of his major arguments

“Starting point is the archaic Homo sapiens society, where the speech has not yet been established as a leading medium of human language (this population is also known as Homo erectus). Plenty of social activities in this society are based on singing: everyday communication, ritual singing, establishment and maintaining social bonds, avoiding conflicts, defending themselves from predators and obtaining food. Everyone participates in musical activities and there is no division of society on the performers and the listeners. Struggle for survival favors individuals with a good musical ear, good sound production and good sense of rhythm. Most (or even all) members of the society have perfect pitch.

“Articulated speech enters human social life as a much more efficient medium of language. More elaborate ideas are communicated through the new medium (speech). Singing is marginalized from several of its important functions –everyday communication (almost completely), establishing and maintaining social bonds and avoiding conflicts (partially). Ritual singing, and possibly defensive and food-obtaining functions are maintained. Since the emergence of articulated speech struggle for survival within human groups favors individuals with good articulation. Musical ear and good sound production starts to decline. Number of individuals with perfect pitch is declining. Members of human societies are communicating via articulated speech, although the rate of speech pathologies (like stuttering) is very high.

“As the process of the decline of good musical ear and good sound production goes on, some members of society stop participating in singing activities. Number of people who do not participate in singing is growing as the time goes by. People with good articulations are becoming leaders and are socially more accepted. The prevalence of stuttering is further decreasing. People with good musical ear sing and entertain those who can hear and appreciate musical sounds, but cannot sing in tune themselves. Those who do not sing, form a new group of society –group of listeners. Division on society on performers and listeners is born. Elements of professionalism appear.

“People still sing in groups (particularly in rituals, where mass participation is believed to have a magic power), but as the decline of precise sound production, good musical ear and the sense of rhythm goes on, it is increasingly difficult to sing as well-coordinated and tight group. People gradually abandon singing different parts and start following the main melody. Unison and heterophonic texture is on rise. Polyphonic elements are survived only in the cadencial sections of songs.

“In this process of losing parts of polyphonic songs, new monophonic versions of polyphonic songs are born, where in the single melodic line the elements of different parts are united. This phenomenon can be observed very often (even today) when a polyphonic culture tries to person from sing alone, without co-singers.

“In the process of the decline of musical ear and well-coordinated group polyphonic singing traditions, new type of musical instrument –double (triple, quadruple) blown instruments are on the rise. Some processes that were traditionally accompanied by group singing are now accompanied by individual singing. Some goes without singing at all. So e m goes with the instrumental accompaniment.

“Individuals with good musical ear are appreciated in society as good singers and musicians. They become semi-professionals who are still involved in animal husbandry or agricultural processes but have some additional income from their musical activity as well. As time goes by, some talented individuals manage to lead a life as full-time musicians.

“As the process goes on, monophonic singing becomes the only form of singing. Polyphonic elements in cadences are also lost. Double blown instruments stay formally double, but turn into unison instruments with the same length of the pipes and same number of holes. Full-time musicians start developing musical instruments, making them more virtuoso, start going beyond the sounds and try to create a theory of music. Tractates about music are born. Performances of highly trained performers are listened by the rest of the population. Competition between full-time musicians is on rise. The social model “one performer –many listeners”is in full swing, although some processes (like ritual singing, or agricultural works) might be still accompanied by group (unison or heterophonic) singing. Long process of evolution favoring individuals with good articulation causes further reduction of the number of individuals with stuttering and other speech-related pathologies.

“As human society becomes increasingly politicized, moral and religious norms im play an portant part in musical life as well. Politicians discuss controlling musical tastes of their citizens (e.g. Plato in Ancient Greece or communist ideologists in Soviet Union), they ban some types of music and try to fundamentally transform musical culture of whole peoples (like in USSR), most religions control musical activity and ban earlier “barbaric”forms of music (like early Christianity), and some religions ban music almost completely as a sin (Islam). On the other hand, in some cases polyphonic singing may become a symbol of national identity and receive a strong political and social boost (like in Corsica, Bulgaria, Lithuania, or Georgia). To complete this historical reconstruction of the disappearance of the ancient tradition of polyphonic singing, I would suggest that different contemporary human populations are in different stages of this process, mostly depending on the chronology of the origins of the articulated speech among their ancestors. Among East Asian, Australian Aboriginal and most of the Native American populations this process of losing the tradition of vocal polyphony is mostly completed, and there are no major traces of the tradition of vocal polyphony left (except still surviving tradition of group singing –social polyphony, mostly in antiphonal and responsorial forms). Among European, small part of Native American and possibly Polynesian populations the process of disappearing of polyphonic traditions is going now. Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be the only region where the process of the disappearance of vocal polyphony did not have a major impact so far (at least, actively).”

“This rhythmical unity of the group and the feel of the united strength was a major factor in hominid survival, allowing our ancestors to decrease the size of their teeth, pushed them to increase the hominid group size, and lead to more complex interactions between the group members and more demands on social intelligence.”

“If we use these differences wisely, without turning blind eye on human differences on one hand, and without turning these differences into ethnically or racially hot discussions on the other hand, we can draw plenty of positive feedback, for example, about the better distribution of the humanitarian aid and specific medical help to some regions that need this help to the most. Human populations have been living in different environments for many tens and hundreds of thousands of years. In this long process our ancestors adapted their eye, skin and hair color, gained genetic defense against local diseases, found ways to survive in drastically different environments. Our diversity is our treasure, the true testament of the strength of human spirit and culture.”

Jonathan lives in rural Georgia with his wife and three boys, teaching Chemistry and enjoying the good people of his community. He studied Molecular Biology at Brigham Young University, and Biophysics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jonathan is passionate about fatherhood, teaching and learning, Mormonism, and dance (he's much better at the first three), and dabbles in home repairs, various crafts, poetry, music, gardening, and Transhumanism. He has enjoyed many years working in Primary, with Young Adults and Ward Missions in various capacities. He currently enjoys serving in his ward and community however he is able. He posts on whatever interests him at the moment at http://jonathan.metacannon.net/

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