Civilization and Music

Civilization and Music

By G. S. Norwood

Civilization and music go hand-in-hand. Human civilization does not exist without music.

I’m not saying that Music creates Civilization.  I’m saying that music has been an important part of every known human culture, as far back as we know human cultures to exist.  Archaeologists have found primitive musical instruments dating back 40,000 years, and some evidence suggests civilization and music date back 400,000 years.

This flute, made from the wing bone of a giant vulture, is the oldest known musical instrument.
This 35,000-year-old flute is among the oldest musical instruments known. (photo by H.Jensen/University of Tubingen, via ABC Science).

It’s a pretty safe bet that, almost from the dawn of humanity itself, we’ve been humming, whistling, singing, clapping, and pounding on things in a rhythmic manner.  Chances are, when we gathered together in tribes, we also made music together, since the endorphin rush is much stronger when you play with a group.

Warren C. Norwood plays with members of the Brazos Valley Dulcimer Friends, somewhere near Tin Top and Weatherford, TX.
The endorphin rush is stronger when you play with a group: Warren C. Norwood plays with members of the Brazos Valley Dulcimer Friends. (photo by G. S. Norwood).

Over the millennia, we got better.  We identified notes, organized them into scales, figured out melodies, then figured out how to write those melodies down so other people could play them on all the instruments that were rapidly evolving from those early bone flutes and log drums. 

All Bets are Off

The next thing we knew, we had J. S. Bach, and after that all bets were off.  Music was everywhere, morphing into hymns and cantatas and bawdy operas, and rock and roll.

With the advance of technology, we invented ways to record music, but that never replaced the joy of getting together with your church choir, your garage band, or your pickin’ buddies and playing—for yourselves, but best of all, for other people. 

Science fiction authors Warren C. Norwood and Steven Gould sing a filksong at AggieCon in 1988.
There is nothing like a live performance: Warren C. Norwood and Steve Gould sing “Vampires in the Sun,” (filk based on “Ghost Riders in the Sky“) at AggieCon, 1988. (photo by Dale Denton)

Recorded music is fine, but a live concert is the best!

Only now, in this present moment of Covid-19 and social isolation, live concerts are forbidden. 

Does this mean the end of civilization?  Or at least the end of civilization as we know it? My day job is Director of Concert Operations for the Dallas Winds. When the coronavirus hit Dallas, we had to reschedule the last two concerts of our season.  Our traditional July 4 concert, if it happens at all, will likely happen in a very different form.  Although we are making plans for next season, nobody knows when we will be able to perform as a group again.

The flute section of the Dallas Winds plays at a concert in 2019.
Support your favorite music ensembles: The Dallas Winds in concert, 2019 (photo by Cora Allen/Dallas Winds)

Worries for the Future

We’re not the only ones worried about the future of civilization and music. 

When it’s finally safe to go back out in public, and gather in groups of more than ten, will our audiences come back?  Or will they stay home and listen to our YouTube videos and recordings

All I can say is, music is important.  Live music is important.  Live performances in front of live audiences are important.  Some of the most amazing, spiritual, life-altering experiences I’ve ever known happened in the midst of an enthusiastic audience at a live concert.

Learn to play music yourself. Teach your children. In this montage, Warren and G. S. play a ukelele and a harp respectively; at right, Warren gives his then-toddler nephew Tyrell Gephardt a lesson on the mountain dulcimer.
Learn to play an instrument yourself: at left, G. S. Norwood and Warren C. Norwood play harp and ukulele. (photo by Margaret Norwood Donnelly). Teach your children to play music, too! At right, Warren C. Norwood teaches nephew Tyrell Gephardt to play the mountain dulcimer. 1988 (photo by G. S. Norwood)

But music doesn’t happen without you.  If you love it, support it.  Chip in when your favorite musician plays an online concert with a tip jar.  Send a contribution to your local wind symphony or community band.  Teach your children to play an instrument while you’re all at home together.  Learn to play one yourself.

And come back to the concert hall when we all get out of isolation.

Music = Civilization, and Civilization = Music.  Don’t let either of them die.

Come back to the concert hall when we all get out of isolation! The Dallas Winds puts on a lively concert. Here’s the one where we set the world record for most piccolos playing The Stars and Stripes Forever at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, July 4, 2016 (2 minutes long: not to be missed!).


Many thanks to ABC Science and H.Jensen/University of Tubingen, for the photo of the ancient flute. Many thanks to the Dallas Winds for the photos of their flute section and 4th of July session, and for the videos from their YouTube channel. The photo of the Dallas Winds Flute Section was taken by Cora Allen, of Cora Allen Photography. All other photos in this post are from the personal collection of G. S. Norwood.

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