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Timeline: The Present Is The Key To The Past

Learn about ancient musicians and societies in the new book by Vermont author Lewis M. Homes.
Lewis M. Holmes
Used with permission
Learn about ancient musicians and societies in the new book by Vermont author Lewis M. Homes.

We’ve spent over a dozen episodes exploring ancient musicians. We’ve covered more than four millennia of time, traveling from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to medieval Europe and Japan. In the fourth chapter of the book The Mystery of Music, Vermont author, Lewis Holmes, makes an intriguing observation; the role of music and musicians in society throughout known history hasn’t changed… period.


In the mid-20th century, ethno-musicologist Alan P. Merriam suggested that there are ten functions of music within any given society. Music can convey emotion or aesthetic enjoyment. Music entertains and communicates; it can symbolize something else. Music evokes a physical response and is useful for promoting social norms, religious ritual, cultural stability and societal integration. Lewis Holmes adds one category of economic impact to this list.

Rather than breaking down these categories one by one, I think it is more interesting to note that these levels of musical utility were meant to define music of today, from the 19th century to the present. However, Lewis Holmes has demonstrated through his research that these functions hold true, not just for the present, but for the distant past.

In science there is a concept known as uniformitarianism or the “doctrine of uniformity.” Basically it’s the idea that since the laws of nature are unchanging, you can observe the present to make inferences about the past. It’s a useful concept when considering geology, astronomy, evolution and physics; however, no one yet has applied this principal to historical ethno-musicology.

Holmes boldly states that if we wish to understand the music of the past, we can start by looking at the present roles of music and musical expression, "musical uniformitarianism."

Compare the role of music today with the role of music in the distant past. The similarities are striking. Music expresses, conveys, entertains, informs, evokes, unites and integrates regardless of the millennium in which it was created. Perhaps this uniformity points to the source of universal musicality. In the last chapter of Holmes’ book he states this evidence supports the view “that human musicality is a genetically determined trait, rather than a characteristic that is transmitted culturally from generation to generation.”

I’m in agreement with Lewis; however, more research needs to be done. There are wide gaps in our knowledge of music’s role in human history. There is much that we don’t know. But, I am continually intrigued by this parting thought. We are often told that we must learn from the past or we are doomed to repeat it. But, isn’t it interesting to think that we already have been repeating the past over and over and if we can observe and understand the present, we might learn so much more where we’ve come from.

Learn more in the book The Mystery of Music by Lewis Holmes.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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