Thursday, February 17, 2011


In Civilization IV, music appears much later in the technological tree than it appeared historically. Evidence suggests that music developed during the aesthetic ‘revolution’ experienced by ancient man, some forty to fifty thousand years ago. Artifacts found at this period begin to show features which are less than practical – tools which are inscribed with symbols, or made smooth to a degree that earlier tools were not. Anthropologists are not certain why this occurred – whether it was compulsion brought on by mystical belief, or a biological development in the human forebrain, or one of a hundred other theories.

I find myself accepting the premise of art sociologist Camille Paglia, who advanced the theory that early humans were naturally terrified by their environment, but learned to adopt a mental state that can only be described as denial. We experience this denial through the reinterpretation of nature as something that is ‘beautiful,’ despite its potential to destroy us.

A range of mountains, from a distance, appears beautiful. As our eyes wander over the crags and desolate high places, we do not have in our minds what it would be like to be among those mountains, naked, and therefore exposed to possible death. Similarly, we see fire as a profoundly beautiful thing, despite the danger it potentially offers should it get loose. The autumn leaves turning color are rarely described as a vast panorama of decay and death. There are many examples, and in each we ascribe characteristics of pleasure to events which are highly dangerous to our wellbeing.

Imagine an intelligent animal’s reaction to the leaves changing color, who does see them for what they represent: the coming winter, with its periods of starvation and numbing cold, the toes that members of the tribe might lose on particularly icy days, and long periods of darkness and inactivity. Prior to the discovery of fire these periods would have been horrible – and yet we have good reason to believe that prehistoric humans who did not have fire possessed a brain large enough to comprehend the difficulties brought on by periods of cold, or drought, or heavy rains.

The rise of culture begins with that aesthetic development prior to 50 millennia ago. Could it be that certain tribes developed an attitude of no fear, embracing the horror and turning it emotionally and mentally into something that we could feasibly yearn for, in order to make nature comprehensible ... which of course it isn’t. Seeing it as something beautiful deludes us into thinking that it is comprehensible, however, which in turns gives us the bravery we need to march out into it on a dangerously cold day and find, for the first time perhaps, that food on the hoof is available in the winter as well as the summer.

This delusion that gives us bravery when in fact we ought to be terrified of leaving the cave seems to occur at approximately the same time as nature is represented in artwork, and at the same time that music is thought to have come into existence. Sound and rhythm react positively to the construction of the brain, actually making it seem as though time is passing by more swiftly – a tremendous aid to long nights when there is little else to do. Music seems to put nature into order, and this is a theme that is applied to music repeatedly through the development of the art.

Plato’s perception (as described by Aristotle) was that the universe was constructed of crystal spheres which possessed ‘perfect’ tones, and which fixed the planets in space. Pythagoras recognized a mathematical truth in the development of the diatonic scale, showing that the measurement of strings produced structured sound (diatonic instruments have been found dating from 45,000 years ago). Music as a ‘technology’ – where it appears in the tech tree of Civ IV, reflects the complex Gregorian chants which became all the rage in the 8th century. Step by step, music has been constructed and deconstructed in continued efforts to understand how best to apply it to the human ear, which reacts to music with drug-like results coming from the release of serotonins.

We hear music, we feel a sense of wellbeing, which in turn we relate to order in the universe, which deludes us into thinking that we can do whatever we want and that we have nothing to fear. In this way, the discovery of rhythmic music may be the solid reason why any of us are capable of talking now, and not huddling in a cave as another fifty thousand years pass. Remember, many hundreds of thousands of years passed for human beings before music was discovered, with very little change between millennia. Arguably, music is the touching off point for every other technology.

Of course, prehistoric humans would not have known of any of this ... self-awareness is not part of the delusion. In fact, it must be noted that self-awareness is the method by which we break the illusion. But that’s another post.

I don’t know about the gentle reader, but I personally find that Tolkien’s need to include ‘music’ in his books to be the greatest hindrance to my liking him. I never find anyone who feels that bad poetry placed in italics inside a text can stand in for music in my head as I’m reading. Music is necessarily depicted in its form as music. This is a huge reason why it does not figure very well in D&D. Oh yes, a player will play a bard and say they make music and effects will occur, rolled for and accounted against the enemy’s strength. But music – honest, real music – is eschewed vigorously. And where it is not eschewed, it is ridiculed.

The development of music throughout the 20th century – specifically, the recording of music – has served to convince the majority of the western world that singing and playing is something that is better left to only the talented portions of our society. Thus, if we even think of actually breaking into song, or even sing-song poetry, during a game, we can expect to receive a drubbing from our friends, along with cries to “Stop, please stop!” and many small cheesy missiles thrown. D&D in the 19th century, when everyone sang for pleasure whether they had a voice or not (except the upper classes, who could afford to pay experts), would have been filled with players singing. The start of a journey on the road would have initiated a carol around the table which the players would have joyously taken part ... it would have been, I dare say, one of the best parts of playing D&D.

This would certainly have been the action of actual adventurers striking out on the road for far places. We know that ship crews did it, as did navies, as did voyageurs and missionaries. Throughout the history of adventure, singing and music have always been a weapon employed by the adventurers – for the very reasons I describe above: it promotes bravery; it reconciles human fear with the dangers presented by nature; it passes the long passages of time between ports of call.

But it is not enough for the brave D&Der out for an evening of dragon slaughterage. We are too casual about music, too jaded, too critical to enjoy sharing strains with our colleagues. We’re too self-conscious of our failings, even those of us with a voice that would have shone in a small European village a half millennia ago. If you sing for your friends, your voice better be that of Freddie Mercury or Christina Aguilera – too powerful to elicit anything but respect.

No doubt the gentle reader was certain I’d end this post talking about bards. That was a little obvious. Instead I invited the DMs and players reading this to ask two questions of their players: 1) do they believe that medieval personages took part in music on a daily, regular basis; and 2) would everyone agree to try it, if you provided the music.

I don’t think the answer will much surprise anyone.

But when was the last time that a DM described you entering a drinking establishment with the words, “As you enter, everyone is singing together...”?


Blaine H. said...

I for one dislike the idea that people are not allowed to sing openly. People look at you funny for singing out loud. People are not used to it.

If you do catch someone singing out loud, they get really skittish. They get freaked out if you join in on the song with them. After all, if you know the words... why not?

I think it is okay... even if my voice isn't the best. I know the words to a good deal of songs and think it is fun... usually when alone. But since I work a job with no radios allowed, you have to sing to break up the monotony. It becomes something of a task to learn a new song a week so that it isn't just the same song you sing quietly for 5+ hours at a time.

Yet it is true... people do look odd at the idea that anyone would do it outside of a karaoke bar.

I already know the answer for my group of players... for the most part no, they don't believe people sing... and only two out 8 players would sing along with me if I provide the music.

Then again, those two are gregarious people who like to sing out loud anyways and will sing anything. Too bad everyone looks at us as odd.

So yes, to me... everyone sings all the time in my games... too bad no one else believes it. And yes, I have had most working class taverns in my games break out into song... but i know I am a rarity.

Most GMs I am under prefer the quiet sullen bars with a paid professional bard providing atmosphere music.

Ragnorakk said...

Too true on the 'stigma' against singing these days. I grew up with some several 'old world' relatives that sang like crazy, good voice or bad - it was a connection thing, not an attempt to be the best performer.

I'm reminded of Milan Kundera talking about the ubiquity of music (read: muzak mostly) killing the ability to appreciate the many roles that music can serve.

The Jovial Priest said...

I've often thought that humans are hard wired (culturally or biological) to participatory music. That is songs one can join in easily and sing. There is something enourmously pleasureable about participatory music over and above listening to music. It brings you closer to other people, which is probably it's evolutionary role. These days one can only gets this in churches or the final familar slow song in a live concert. The one when everyone turns their mobile/cell phones on (in place of cigarette lighters a generation ago) and sway together... better if you are there than describing it.

biopunk said...

1) do they believe that medieval personages took part in music on a daily, regular basis?

I don't believe it was, in the playing-of-an-instrument sense, but definitely in terms of singing songs.

Aside from those in religious orders, if the work was repetitive and allowed for a rhythm to be developed (like sowing, hoeing, rowing or grinding or chopping) I can easily believe that it was common.

Song would also likely be a way of providing instruction on how to do something properly or especially time dependent*, like cooking or churning butter, in an illiterate population.

2) would everyone agree to try it, if you provided the music?


(Much like teaching children to recite the 'ABCs' or 'Happy Birthday Song' when learning how long to wash their hands...)

Alexis said...

It is interesting, biopunk, how you equate song/music to "children's activity."

That's the 20th century's legacy, too.

Oddbit said...

This is true with some uncommon exceptions I'm sure. For instance, I have a co-worker who sings songs and I join in sometimes, however in all honesty, I rarely instigate such things. And the office I work in is unlikely to join.

Lately in my online games I felt is was relevant to add some song to my characters. This is a bit out of the normal, but mostly me trying different ways of growing in my character development. (I like it by the way.) My barbarian preferred drinking songs and battle songs of coarse, and my gypsy rogue has his own... And I've just joined a musically themed game. However, I have my doubts any of these will extend to a RL scenario. I don't think the entire party would be to enthusiastic about it.

biopunk said...


Not equating.

I am missing the second asterisk referring to my example of teaching children how long to do something without the ability to tell time, so I can see the confusion.

Alexis said...

Yes, that does make it clearer. Thank you, biopunk.