“How Can I Keep From Singing?”

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St. Paul Choir
St. Paul Catholic Church Choir Performing At The Grotto In Portland Photo by Lynda Atto

American Baptist Minister Robert Wadsworth Lowry (1869) wrote the the hymn quoted in the headline for this article. It pretty much sums up my feelings concerning singing. I have discussed my love for singing in a church choir multiple times in this column so it is not that much of a stretch of the imagination to ask the question “When did humans actually start singing? ”

Sheet Music
Sheet Music “How Can I Keep From Singing”” | Image by decaturmusic.weebly.com

First of all we should have a definition of singing. For that I went to Merriam-Webster.com the famous dictionary company. Here are the definitions given for the word sing : “intransitive verb 1a: to produce musical tones by means of the voice 1b: to utter words in musical tones and with musical inflections and modulations 1c: to deliver songs as a trained of professional singer 2: to make a shrill wining or whistling sound 3a: to relate or celebrate something in verse 3b: to compose poetry 3c: to create through words a feeling or sense of song // prose that sings 4: to produce musical or harmonious sounds // birds singing 6: to make a cry: CALL 7: to give information or evidence.”

The pretty much defines singing, but when did humans actually begin singing? According an article on BBC.com titled “Did early humans, or even animals, invent music?” musical instruments date back some 40-thousand years, but that singing actually began with primitive man. Quoting “The human voice may have gained its full vocal range at least 530,000 years ago, suggesting several species of extinct human – including Neanderthals – had the potential to sing.”

Hyoid Bone
The Human Hyoid Bone | Image by britanica.com
Neanderthal
Neanderthal Man | Image by newsscientist.com

If you read murder mysteries or watch them on television you have heard of the hyoid bone in the neck of humans. Many plots have used the fact that if the hyoid bone, the only bone in the human body not connected to anything else, was broken to prove the victim was strangled. Quoting again “…. some think its shape changed when our voice moved down our throat to take up a position that allows us to talk and sing. Archaeologists have now found a small number of these fragile hyoids belonging to Neanderthals and to another, earlier human species called Homo heidlebergensis: they have the same shape as the modern human hyoid.”

Ian Morley
Professor Ian Morley Oxford | Photo by bioantheol.ac.uk

Some scientists have suggested that animals were actually the first creatures to sing and that humans may have started a rudimentary form of singing even before they began to use language to communicate with each other. As mentioned earlier, musical instruments only trace back some 40,000 years, but Professor Ian Morley from the University of Oxford, England says “…. many traditional instruments are made from perishable materials that rot away relatively quickly. This means it may be very difficult to find the earliest objects used for making music, let alone establish whether Neanderthals made use of them.”

Medieval Music
Medieval Monks Singing | Image by dharmaliturgy.net

What about choral singing. Do we know when people formally started singing in groups? From Britannica.com “Although choirs existed throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, their role was restricted to unison singing of plainchant. Polyphony was the exclusive preserve of soloists. This state of affairs was gradually modified for several reasons. Early forms of musical notation were not precise enough to allow choral performance of even the simplest two-part polyphony. As time went on, improved accuracy in notating pitch and time values permitted some degree of experiment in choral performance.” Here is the definition of polyphony from Dictionary.com “The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other.”

St. Paul Catholic Church Choir Performing At The Grotto In Portland

So, whether you sing in a choir, sing with a rock band, or just sing in the shower by all means enjoy every minute of this great gift to humanity.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

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