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History of Songwriting
To thoroughly understand the history of songwriting, it's necessary to understand the history of music. Factors like cultural change and the invention of new instruments or technologies can influence the way in which songs are written. Still, anytime a new kind of music comes around, composers or songwriters are mostly responsible. So, the history of music is the history of songwriting and vice versa.
Origins of music
No one knows where the first song came from. Did Neolithic man sing around the first campfire? Did Adam croon a tune to Eve in the Garden of Eden? We may never know. Some musicologists believe that rhythmic chanting, possibly with percussive accompaniment from weapons, may have been the first form of song. Prehistoric Rap? Well, sort of… maybe. The frustrating thing is that the means of recording or writing down music didn't come along until long after music was invented. At some point, ancient people discovered that blowing across a hollow tube, like an animal bone or reed, produced a pleasing tone and that a string under tension (like a hunting bow) sounded pretty cool. The rest, as they say, is history. Artifacts believed to be 20,000-year-old musical instruments have been uncovered at an archeological site in the Ukraine. The instruments were fashioned from wooly mammoth bones (you won't find those at your local music store!) Among the earliest known instruments are prehistoric flutes and drums and a 5,000-year-old predecessor of the harp.
The First Song, the First Songwriter
Most songs and songwriters of the pre-renaissance world have been forever obscured by time. Even after the development of writing and musical notation, songs were mostly passed down from one generation to the next by rote and modified to suit the changing needs of the listener without reference or regard to the original songwriter. We have no idea where the first song originated, who wrote it, what instrument was used, if there were lyrics, or what culture fostered it's conception. What we can be sure of is that the first song was written by someone … the first songwriter. He or she probably had no idea of the importance or what was occurring, only that something wonderful was happening. That feeling is one common not only to ancient and modern songwriters but also professionals and the amateurs, Rock stars, Classical composers, Music Row hitmakers and all the other lucky souls who write songs for fun or profit.
The first music probably happened in a tribal setting. Early tribes used drums and horns to communicate across long distances. By setting music in the context of a language and encouraging the development of a musical vocabulary, this practical use did much to hasten the early development of music. Ancient people also used music for religious rites, festivals and as a form of oral history
Roman writers, Cicero among them, were perhaps the first to leave a written record of the use of music for purely entertainment or artistic purposes. Ancient Roman manuscripts give us the first known descriptions of events where music was made simply for the sake of making music, separate from worship, educational, work-related, or ceremonial uses.
Worksongs, Chanties, Marching Songs
One of the earliest song forms, 'Worksongs' are sung to relieve the boredom of repetitive labor and provide a rhythm to keep a work crew in synch. One of the basic forms of Worksong is the field song or field holler. Field songs were sung by farmers, serfs, and slaves while tending crops.
Another Worksong variant, the 'Chanty' is a song sung by sailors aboard a ship. To prepare a large vessel to sail, steer, drop anchor for the night or make the ship safe from an oncoming storm, requires large crews of people to work together in precise coordination. The sea chanty provides a rhythm to keep things running smoothly at times when a mistake could mean disaster for the whole crew.
Marching songs from yet another subgenre of Worksongs. By establishing a beat, marching songs help people walk as an organized group. This helps the group to move more quickly and at a uniform speed. By setting a pace, marching songs allow for precise timing in processions and parades. One of the most famous marching songs is undoubtedly Yankee Doodle, a marching song sung by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Worksongs are usually written by the ordinary working people who use them, mostly amateur songwriters with no musical training. From these humble beginnings have sprung a wealth of past and present musical forms: Worksongs influenced most later musical forms. Today, historians find Worksongs to a rich resource of information about the people and times from which they originate. In many cultures, Worksongs are still a part of everyday life.
Knowledge on ancient music is fragmentary and information on ancient songwriters even more so. Some ideas, like flutes and harps, seem to have developed independently in different parts of the world. Others, like Pythagoras's discovery of the mathematical relationships of musical intervals, appear to have originated in one place and spread from there. The picture we have of musical history is still changing, as new information is unearthed and old information reexamined in light of new facts and theories. The little we do know suggests that creators of music in the ancient world were often highly regarded, at times revered and, in some cases, possibly even paid.
Perhaps the earliest known polyphonic music (music with different notes being played at the same time) is on a set of clay tablets found in Syria and believed to be almost 3,500 years old. The tablets contain lyrics and music for a song, including accompaniment, melody, harmony structure, and even tuning instructions for the ancient harp used to accompany the singers. Until the discovery of these tablets, most historians believed that all music composed before about 400 A.D. was monophonic (having only one melodic line with no harmony or counterpoint).