Ever since the first people sat around their campfires, we have told stories. People tell tales to explain events and to justify their actions. We see how one thing led to another, and wonder what might happen next. We learn about how we should behave in a similar situation. We use stories to understand the world.
But before myth, there was music. Before words, rhythm bound groups together. Making music was the first shared ritual. At the start, just simple repetitive beats. Hand slapping into hand, feet pounding on bare ground. Then sounds raised in song. Rhythms reflecting the cycles of nature, percussion pulses like the heart of the group.
Music and stories work because they both use sequence. We see patterns in things – shapes in tealeaves, faces in the clouds – it’s called pareidolia. Perceiving patterns is how we learn from experience: we form a causal narrative sequence of events, ie a story. Sharing stories is how we communicate our learning to others. This is because humans are storytelling animals: our brains are hardwired for narrative. Stories let us relate to people, convey a message, promote a cause: if you want to change your life or change the world, do it with a story.
Myth and music have much in common. They each use classic elements woven into new compositions. They both depend on harmony and counterpoint, synchrony and balance. Recurring themes echo and contrast with each other. A melody repeats but in a different key. The hero and the villain often have much in common. Music and myth follow rules, yet work best when they play with our expectations. They are linear compositions which lift us above the sequential constraints of everyday life. And like jazz, we make up a lot of life as we go along.
Myths are some of the best stories ever told. They have stood the test of time, surviving to be re-told generation after generation. Tales of heroes and clever girls, treasure and monsters capture our imagination. Our modern world doesn’t contain many dragons, but metaphorical monsters still exist: stories show you a way to go on. Myths and fairytales tell us to be brave and teach us to tackle life’s problems. Whether you’re a princess or an urchin, a lot of courage and a measure of good sense will see you through.
Meanwhile, music reminds us to be creative. When we remember to play, we know that we can constantly create new realities. The point of a symphony isn’t to get to the final chord, it’s to dance whilst the music plays. The universe is composed of a symphony of energies: life is a dance to that cosmic sound.
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