The following article appeared in The GAMAC Wire blog on November 3, 2017
Shall I compare GAMAC to an autumn day? We are bright and very colorful. With our Chorale’s first concert of the season titled “…That Is the Question”- Wisdom from the Great Poets & Others coming up on November 3, 2017, poetry with its philosophical quandaries are on our minds. Are music and poetry similar concepts? Which came first? Why?
For anyone who toted the mammoth The Norton Anthology of English Literature around in high school, the connection between music and poetry should come as no big surprise. Even some of the terminology is the same. Meter, for instance, refers to the recurring patterns and accents which create a “beat” in both music and poetry. Notes and measures form these patterns in music while accented syllables have the same pulse in poems. Rhythm is created by the sound of words in much the same way as musical notes flow. Ballad is a term used to describe both poems and songs which tell stories of sentimental bent and style. Even our beloved Shakespeare’s nickname, “The Bard,” should be considered with its medieval Scottish Gaelic derivation from a rather derogatory term for traveling poets and musicians!
Music seems to have come first. In fact, some of the world’s oldest poems evolved from folk songs and oral histories centuries before the written word. The oldest surviving written poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, from Mesopotamia was written in the Sumerian language around 2100 BC. Recounting tales with startling similarities to the Old Testament stories of Adam & Eve, Noah’s Ark, and the Book of Daniel, the epic is believed to have begun in song some 300-500 years prior to the use of cuneiform writing. Homer’s Iliad is also based on folk music from 1194 BC which was written down approximately 500 years later. Not surprisingly, The Iliad returned to its musical roots later with Greek performers known as rhapsodes singing it accompanied by drums and lyres at festivals and religious events a few centuries later. With a name meaning “to sew songs together,” the rhapsodes were very deft at blending music and poetry. There is even archaeological evidence to support that they performed The Iliad, Odyssey, and many other epic poems competitively throughout Greece! The Mesopotamians and ancient Greeks were not the first or last to combine music and verse, however. Every culture in every corner of the globe had its own style from the beginning.
There is actually a scientific explanation for why humans put music and words together and it’s surprisingly easy to grasp. In a 2013 interview in the Wall Street Journal, Washington University Psychology professor, Dr. Henry Roediger explained that, “The hippocampus and frontal cortex are two areas in the brain associated with memory and they process millions of pieces of information every day. Getting the information into those areas is relatively easy. What is difficult is pulling data out efficiently. Music provides a rhythm, a rhyme and often, alliteration. All that structure is the key to unlocking information stored in the brain with music acting as a cue.” Rhythm, meter, and rhyme have a role to play in the way our brains function. They help us organize information while music can trigger the recall.
Poetry and songs have allowed us to share the commonalities of human experience with each other for thousands of years. Our greatest joys, deepest sorrows, loves, and disappointments are all wrapped up in those meters and measures. This human need to express, question, and comprehend through creativity is both mystical and instinctual. It’s how our stories survive and evolve.