The Forgotten Crime

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The Sumerians

So What?

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The Rediscovery

The intent of music

How would one go about restoring this mysterious and dangerous tritone to a modern scale? And how about the other notes of the scale? How would you know exactly which pitches to use?

The answer has to do with the intention of the composer or musician. If the intent is to entertain, to tell a story or express a sentiment with lyrics, or to write TV or movie music, then it’s enough French horn to start with a standard instrument - a piano or guitar, usually - and begin composing. This is what nearly every composer and songwriter does here in the West. It’s the usual and habitual way of writing music, and hardly anyone thinks twice about it. After all, all the notes are right there "in" the instruments. The composer’s job is to select which notes to use and in what order and with which rhythms. Music has been written like this for several centuries. The instruments and styles of music have changed, but the notes haven’t.

But what if the composer’s intention wasn’t just to entertain? What if he or she wanted to, for example, widen or even alter - at least while the music was being played - the consciousness of the listeners? Or what if the goal was, say, specifically to use that tritone, the devil’s interval, to evoke a spiritual experience of some kind?

To begin with, that tritone interval isn’t on a piano, a guitar, or any other modern Western instrument. Yes, the two notes, in our example C and F#, are there, but are these actually the same pitches (or more to the point, the same relative pitches) that were supposedly so heretical?

It isn’t the same interval, and the reason has to do with how we tune our instruments. There are normally twelve notes in every octave these days. (Other cultures, for example, had/have five or seven notes per octave.) That means, for example, on a piano one can start with Middle C and count twelve keys before the next C A note is not a pitchis encountered, either going up or down the keyboard. There are thousands of ways to select the twelve notes within an octave - Indian raga music alone is said to have over 5600 different tunings, and this music only uses seven notes in an octave, instead of twelve. It isn’t the note names that differ in different tunings, but different pitches (the highness or lowness of the note’s sound) that are emitted when particular keys are struck or fretted strings are plucked. What makes a tuning unique is that the intervals among the notes in an octave are different.

Guitarists use the word "tuning" to mean what notes (pitches) sound when the Electric guitar open, unfretted strings are played. There is standard tuning, an open E tuning, often used when playing slide guitar, a D tuning, and several more. But on this website we are using the word "tuning" in a completely different sense. For a guitarist to really play in a different tuning, the fret spacing up the guitar’s neck would have to be changed: some frets would be closer together, some farther apart. By contrast, a sitar, the "lead" instrument in Indian music, is built with movable frets. The desired tuning is achieved when the frets are spaced in the exact way that determines (defines) that tuning.

So what’s the big deal? Why should the intervals between notes make any difference? Notes are notes, right?

What makes a difference is the effect the Guy blown away by loud music intervals have on listeners: physical, mental, emotional and more subtle effects. Something of what we are getting at here is apparent in music written for movies. The music sets up and intensifies the emotional responses of the audience the director is trying to create. Perhaps the most famous example is the theme music to Jaws, but all movies exploit music to create mood. The next time you rent a mystery, action or suspense movie, try watching the most dramatic scenes with the sound turned off. They are noticeably less mysterious and dramatic. Many action sequences just seem silly without music.

So movie soundtrack music is one clear example where specific music is composed to create specific emotional responses in listeners. And whereas nowadays this music is intended to enhance a story (the plot of the movie), or even to lead us through the story, in times past different music was used to accompany other stories, rituals and ceremonies. So we can begin to see that specific music in the right settings might be very powerful, and that this power can be directed by the musicians and storytellers.

Alternate tunings

The big deal with different tunings is that not only can emotions and feelings be created, but one’s whole conscious inner landscape can be affected. Here are some examples:

It is not that music in various tunings causes any of this. Rather, an inner space is opened into which one’s consciousness can enter. It is roughly analogous to a darkened room where a light suddenly goes on. Things that were already there can be seen more clearly. Also, perhaps, the light is warming and comfortable. The music is the light; what is newly seen is what was there all along.

The Mesopotamian tunings

The tunings I’ve been concerned with (and have written an album in) came from ancient Mesopotamia. There is much to say about the earliest civilization in this area that we have any record of – the Sumerians – who were living in cities with a complex social structure and complex culture by 3500 BCE.

But here is a mystery in itself that has interested me for years: These seven Mesopotamian tunings are mathematically very sophisticated (which I discuss in detail in the Ancient Music and Mesopotamian Temperament sections of this site). What were the Sumerians doing with them over 5500 years ago? From whom did they get them? There is no clear historical record of earlier civilizations on the planet except perhaps in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan. (The dynastic Egyptian civilizations didn’t start for 500 years after the Sumerians.)

Perhaps the Sumerians invented them, along with the mathematics necessary to express them in writing. Who were the Sumerians?They certainly seem to have invented a great many other things. But the heart of the mystery is this: The Sumerian civilization, written language, mathematics, agriculture, law, accounting, shipping, astronomy, and medicine (they practiced brain surgery, for example) – it all seems to have sprung up at once, almost overnight. There is no record of the slow growth of their civilization that one would expect.

The second aspect of the mystery is that we don’t know where the Sumerians as a people came from. They do not seem to have been related to the surrounding ethnic or cultural groups. This is a difficult question to answer at the dawn of recorded history, but we have only been aware of the whole Sumerian civilization for less than 100 years, so there are certainly more discoveries to be made.

Finally, it is strange to note that the subsequent Mesopotamian civilization – the Babylonians and Assyrians – were successively less sophisticated than the earlier Sumerians. Why should this have been? It would seem that later peoples would have built upon, expanded and developed the ideas and techniques of the earlier peoples of the same region, but exactly the opposite was the case. (This same pattern of decay also happened during successive Egyptian dynasties.)

It was exactly as if the earliest knowledge was gradually lost over two millennia, despite extensive written records on dozens of subjects – which are still extant in the form of thousands of clay tablets, although many of them have yet to be translated due to lack of scholarly manpower. Is it possible, as some have speculated, that Sumer (and Egypt) sprang from an earlier civilization for which we have no record? Was this the shadowy Atlantis that Plato mentioned, that was destroyed by a flood or some other kind of disaster? Or was it the Dravidians who lived in the Indus Valley for centuries, at least, before the Sumerians? Whichever civilization it was just begs the question, which gets larger the farther back in time we go: Where did the originators of these tunings get the mathematical tools needed to devise them? It seems we must give up any lingering notion that these any of these people were merely primitive potters and toolmakers. They were mathematically sophisticated with complex civilizations we do not yet understand. And perhaps we have things to learn and rediscover from them.

We may never know just where the tunings came from, but we are extremely fortunate to have the Sumerian records, which include these seven musical tunings. And to have the broad cultural knowledge that what came later in time was not necessarily more developed or more correct than what came later. One major piece of evidence for this is are these tunings, which still – 5500 years later – still have a remarkable effect on us.

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