We have no idea of course. There are some documented songs that are very old. The best documented and often quoted as the 'oldest song in the world' is the Hurrian Hymn which was discovered in Syria inscribed onto a clay tablet and is nearly 3500 years old according to some sources. You can hear a recreation of it here. More recently there is the Sumerian 'Hymn to Creation' which goes back to 800 BC and then a wealth of Egyptian, Greek and Judaic tunes from 600 BC onwards. In terms of an old song that is still being sung today we should probably look to the Hindu orature which was passed down the generations from 1000 BC before being formalised.
As far as the oral tradition goes however, it is impossible to say how far back our folk tunes go, how many variations and misheard recreations have evolved through the centuries and who may have been the originator. Our species goes back over 30,000 years and our brains have evolved little in that time so any capacity for music we may have now was shared by our ancient ancestors.
I spend much of my professional life listening to people improvise tunes and it is fascinating how some melodies seem to persist. Are these tunes echoes of an ancient, pre-linguistic communication or more simply, fragments of shared melodies from modern day western musical culture? In one of our more experimental sessions we facilitate a group of people to sing together in the dark with no pre-conceived tune or accompaniment. In these sessions which can be very tribal in their feel, certain hooks, melodies and rhythms also seem to emerge with unerring regularity. You can hear the results of some of our experiments on our 'Singong' podcasts here.
I like to think that if we could listen in to the improvised singing sessions around fires 30,000 years ago that we would recognise fragments or even whole sections and that what sounded pleasing to those humans would still sound pleasing to us now. So next time you are whistling a random tune, or humming distractedly while washing up - just think - you could be unconsciously recreating a song from the earliest days of homo sapiens.
I fantasise about walking out onto the street and throwing a large hoop around 12 random people and bringing them into a musical improv comedy class. Once people are in the room we can work with their insecurities and perfectly valid defences around a situation that many people find stressful. Getting people into the room is a different matter and over the years I have been playing and facilitating musical improv comedy, or musical improv theatre I have heard many of the same defensive phrases thrown at me like flashbangs - designed to temporarily blind me so they can run away or kill me. Here are the most common.
1. I could never do that.
This is a totally understandable reaction for an audience member who has just witnessed musical improv comedy on stage. However, in all the time I have been playing for and facilitating, I have never come across anybody who managed to fail when they gave it a try. Failing is simply not an available option. How can you get a tune wrong that does not exist? How can you get lyrics wrong when you are writing them? I guess the only way to actually fail is simply to refuse to join in at all but that would be like saying I lost a game of chess simply because I didn't sit down to play.
2. You have to be able to sing, and I can't.
Again, this is the go to defense for anyone who is terrified by the thought of singing in front of other people. Personally I far prefer to work with people who have not got trained voices. It is easier to put up defences if you have a wonderfully trained voice. A huge vibrato soprano voice is not at all useful in the vast majority of improvised songs. Your own voice is the gateway to your personality and this is where the gold lies.
3. I'm not funny
This may very well be true in the 'sitting-in-a-pub-bantering-with-my-loud-and-funny-mates' environment. I am the same, watching opportunities for one liners go past like trains while other people hop on and off freely. Humour in improv however arises from being natural, truthful and surprising yourself. No jokes required, just the courage to step forward and be you.
4. I'm not quick-witted enough.
One of the joys of singing to an accompaniment, once you get over the fear, is that the music provides a lot of space. More than a non-musical improv scene. Songs are packed full of repetition, silence, gibbereish (ooohs and la la las) and extreme poetic license, so much so that I generally do not understand what the lyrics to a song mean. The one that just popped into my head goes:
Black velvet and that little boy's smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that'll bring you to your knees
Black velvet if you please
I love that song but as far as I'm concerned it is about a piece of black velvet. I know it isn't about that but I don't care - I love the music, the emotion and the memories of where I was when I would listen to it.
5. I could never do that
You could. You can. You should.
6. The very thought scares the life out of me.
That is what makes musical improv comedy such a powerful, immersive and life-affirming activity. In the right setting where you feel safe and supported by those around you of course. Conquering our fears is one of the most empowering and motivational experiences in life and yet it is rare that we get the chance to do it without an element of danger. You can't get injured doing musical improv comedy! Well okay, we have had a grazed foot during a rap battle but that aside - it is very safe. It is a unique opportunity to confront that which scares us, defeat it and turn it into a positive experience, even one we would do again.
7. I'm busy.
Yeah, of course you are. That's fine. Naturally you do not want to waste your time doing something your can't do and is terrifying. That is why we should spend our time doing things we are perfectly comfortable with and that we are very good at...
If all of those 7 responses welled up in you then you are the person we are looking for! You are in the hoop I have just thrown in the street and I am now dragging you into a room to face your demons. Except I'm sorry to disappoint you, but they wont be there.
It's Spring and we're in a busy writing period again. When thinking about the importance of choruses in improvised songs, I came across this fascinating article by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis from the university of Arkansas all about the science of music and repetition.
It turns out repetition IS music. So next time you're worried about your 4 x the same line improvised chorus being a bit boring and repetitive just remember that scientifically speaking you are actually being more musical than your fellow improvisers with their crazy chorus structures.
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.