Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Second Babel Tower: Symphonic Music and the Collapse of the European Cultural Unity

This is Europe

This is not Europe

This is a reflection on how the breakdown of the Medieval cultural unity in Europe resulted in many different effects, from witch hunts to classical music. It came to me from putting together various elements of various talks heard at the excellent meeting "Colloqui di Martina Franca" held in Apulia in May 2019. H/t Boian Videnoff and Giovanni Semeraro.

The study of the patterns of world conflicts leads to fascinating results, showing the statistical patterns that make wars a sort of natural phenomenon, beyond human control. But there is something in the data that defies statistical analysis. Look at this figure, showing fatalities normalized to the world's population: (data from Martelloni, Di Patti and Bardi, 2019)

Note how there seem to exist two sections in this graph: one is relatively quiet, from 1400 to ca. 1600, the other is stormy: a series of terrible wars starting with the 30-years war that remained the largest in history, in relative terms, until it was surpassed by the 2nd world war. And not only the age of wars started in the mid-17th century, it was also the start of a wave of violence against women: tens of thousands of them, typically poor and illiterate, were tortured and burned alive under the accusation of witchcraft. The data are strongly euro-centered, so there was some kind of a radical change in Europe around mid-1600s. But what was it? And why did it happen?

It is a long story that can be seen in many ways and that shows many facets. In this post, I thought I could focus on how the great transition of the mid 17th century was reflected in a specific area of European culture: music. When Europe lost Latin as a shared communication tool, it was a new Babel Tower: Europeans couldn't understand each other any longer except within the boundaries of their national states. Not surprisingly, people who don't understand each other tend to resort to war to sort out conflicts. But Europeans also tried to replace Latin with some non-verbal tools: one was music. It is a long story that needs to be told from the beginning.

Did you ever realize how strange is the existence of symphonic (or "classical") music? Purely instrumental music is very rare in history and in geographical regions other than Western Europe and its cultural offspring. In most cases, music is purely vocal and instruments are only an optional tool to accompany and enhance the human voice. Instrumental music is even considered sinful in itself by many Islamic scholars.

That's indeed the rule for what we know about the history of European Music. During the Middle Ages, the main genre was Gregorian music: purely vocal. Note how a Gregorian chant is focused on words: listeners are supposed to understand what's being said. Then, the Renaissance came and it was the age of polyphony where the harmony takes precedence -- it is beautiful, but words overlap and the sense of the text is soon lost.

The trend toward polyphony continued in the 1700s when instrumental music became more and more common. It became the norm during the 1800s with the golden age of classical music: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and many others. Symphonic music continued to be popular well in the 1900s, think of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924). But, in time, it faded away. Today, orchestral symphonies are still written and performed, but they are not anymore a popular form of art. We seem to have gone back to a kind of music that focuses on voice and words: the rap. (for a nice version of a rap relevant to the title of this blog and also sung by a physicist, see this link)

What generated this cycle? Mainly, it was the Babel of languages that Europe had become that pushed Europeans to try to develop new forms of communication. Music is a language, not the same kind of language that uses words, it is a tool used mainly to convey emotions rather than facts and data. It can be used to create social bonds or to intimidate an adversary (in the latter case, it is termed AVID - audio-visual intimidating display).

Actually, as argued by Joseph Jordania, music may be the origin of language and polyphonic music is much older than the monophonic kind we are used to, nowadays. Gradually, with the development of word-based languages, monophonic music became prevalent. But, in some peculiar conditions, when the word-based communication breaks down, the Babel Tower effect takes place: to understand each other we must revert to different tools. Polyphonic music, classical symphonies, the haka, they are all forms of emotion-based forms of communication. They are not necessarily inferior to the word-based kind, they bypass words to reach directly the heart of people. And there is no doubt that the haka was conceived as a way to reduce violence as much as possible. But music can't convey the same richness of meaning that words can provide.

So, Beethoven's third symphony is commonly termed the "Heroic." It is hard to pin down what exactly that means, but most people would agree that there is something heroic in that music. There is no Moon in Beethoven's "moonlight sonata" but somehow the music seems to evoke the moonlight. And Beethoven's fifth symphony is the one perhaps closest to the Maori's haka, even though there is much more in Beethoven's fifth than pure intimidation (that's true also for the haka, which is a sophisticated art form in itself -- not polyphonic, though! H/t Elena Piani) (*).

The evolution of Western European culture makes a lot of sense on the basis of these considerations. The Middle Ages were a period of cultural unity in Western Europe. Latin was gradually lost with the Renaissance and this generated new forms of music-based communication. In time, these forms were made unnecessary by the triumph of English as worldwide lingua franca. It may be the reason for the relative lull in the frequency and the intensity of wars during the past 50 years or so, as noted by Steven Pinker in his "The Better Angels of Our Nature:" (2011). It is also the reason for the age of the Rap, in which we are living.

Today, the evolution continues. Maybe English itself will be made obsolete by tools such as Google translate. Maybe we'll use only emojis :-). Maybe we'll develop new methods of communication which, today, we can't even imagine. But there remains a basic fascination in singing together, especially for polyphonic music. It is an art that has been mostly abandoned, today, except in some special religious contexts. But it won't die so easily and if you ever had a chance to sing in a polyphonic choir you understand what I mean. It is music that bypasses your brain to touch your heart. An example, below, the Benedictus as performed by singers of the Taizé Community.

This post was generated by a meeting in Martina Franca that I attended last week. I heard first a talk by the AI scientist Giovanni Semeraro. It made me think of how words are the fundamental unit of communication in languages, but also made me wonder if it were possible to communicate without words. Then, it was the turn of Boian Videnoff's talk on complexity in music and - bang! - a hit of serendipity. European wars, symphonic music, polyphonic music, and Gregorian chants, everything clicked together -- there was a meaning in the gradual evolution of different musical genres! A final point: why did Europe lose Latin? I think there are reasons, but that's a discussion for another post. 

Upon rethinking the matter over, I think the haka IS polyphonic. It is an integrated mix of words, gestures, facial expressions, and dance. A stunningly sophisticated art form. 



  1. a really thought-expanding piece, thanks, Ugo.

  2. Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" has been thoroughly & rightly debunked/exposed as an unscholarly & ideologically self serving piece of junk. Better efforts on war, I would suggest are Ian Morris's "War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots" & "War and Peace and War" by Peter Turchin.

    I'm not learned or too familiar with most music other than mid 20th century & onward from the Anglo sphere, but your main topic triggered a recollection of a related article from last year that has a couple of interesting videos of 'recreations', by music academics, of ancient Western music.

    Ancient Greek music: now we finally know what it sounded like

    "Meanwhile, an exciting conclusion may be drawn. The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian plainsong of the 9th century AD. But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music has demonstrated that ancient Greek music should be recognised as the root of the European musical tradition."

    1. Steven Pinker was clearly wrong in extrapolating the trends of the past 30-40 years to the foreseeable future. But if you look at this time scale, it is true that the world saw a period of peace. How long will it last, it is another question. Thanks for the link, very interesting!

    2. Stephen Pinker is only right if one assumes that Russians aren't human. Otherwise the number of lives ruined and cut short in the aftermath of the Cold War was comparable to World War II.

  3. It's not easy to tell the roots of anything, but the roots of "civilized" music may go back to the sumerian culture.
    By choosing the musical origo in greece culture, Ugo may have abandoned the real long perspective back in human culture.

  4. Very interesting indeed - connecting military conflicts with the breakdown of commmunication between cultures and the rise of classical music!

    It is true that instrumental music has an advantage of being free of words and taking the emotional message without translation... The same way the communication based on musical pitches (like the whistle and drum languages in SS Africa) can be used when communcation between different tribes is needed - as the music is earlier than articulated speech, their words are often different, but have the same tonal struture (ancient roots are the same)...

    And indeed, I believe that polyphonic music plaid a crucial role in human prehistory, and even today singing in a very big choir it is one of the most rewarding and emotionally uplifting things...

    And the last comment - avoiding direct and all-out violence is one of the great strategies for survival, developed by the forces of natural selection via ritualized fights and aposematic display (both in the animal world and humans see Haka, or the military parades and testing the nuclear weapons)... Thank you Ugo!

  5. Thank you so much for the detailed article.Thanks again.

  6. Polyphony is dead except in religion? Hmm... Try taking a perfectly typical city bus ride in Russia for a typical counterexample:

    I think the Inquisition and the witch hunts were all responses to widespread devil-worship and nihilism that often erupt whenever incompatible ethnic groups are thrust together. The 30 years' war and all the other wars having to do with Reformation all look like wars of attrition fought to resolve these incompatibilities so that stable nation-states could be formed. And I think the flowering of music and visual arts that started with the Renaissance had to do with the work of a couple of dozen geniuses.

    1. Chinese understood that many centuries ago. That's why they built the wall. The wall was only partly successful as defense but it does not invalidate the basic truth that too much strangers are worse than plague. But when Englishmen came they were much worse than Mongols. When you calculate all the evils that Western Europeans and Anglo-Saxons brought to the world you see that they are the champions of evil.

      Nikolai Danilevsky explicitly said (in his "Russia and Europe") that the countries occupied by Turks were lucky. It's much worse to be occupied by the Westerners.

  7. Not only that European cultural identity is lost but individual national cultural identities too. After bombing of Serbia I decided not to renew my passport again. What would I do in country like France? (I do not have money to travel to Russia.) I am not that perverse to go to France just to see how country that participated in bombing of Serbia is getting what it deserves:



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)