“From Physics Comes Beauty”

In Slovenia, there is a flute in a museum that came from a cave of Neanderthals. The flute is 50,000 years old and was carved from a bear’s bone. The Neanderthals were not our ancestors but more like cousins of homo sapiens. They were their own species. Nonetheless, there was some cross-breeding before they became extinct. The result is that modern humans carry two percent of Neanderthal DNA. Perhaps it is for that reason we identify some of those who disagree with us as evolutionary throwbacks.

Another 50,000-year-old flute was found in a cave in Southwestern Germany, also made of a bone. It was tuned to a musical scale, precisely like the Neanderthal flute found in Slovenia.

A textbook from my early schooling pictured Neanderthal as looking as much like an ape as a human. Since those school days, anthropologists and other scientists have learned much about Neanderthals. Anatomical artists can now give us a more accurate picture of their appearance. And more cultural artifacts have been found that show the Neanderthals had some appreciation of esthetic things – such as the flute. 

We might intuitively imagine that the Neanderthal flute played notes and melodies that would be unintelligible today. That would not be the case. The Slovenians made a model of their Neanderthal flute. A musician used it to play a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. It is available on the Internet – from an instrument of 50,000 years ago!

How can this be? How can the sounds of a musical instrument from 50,000 years ago play the musical scale we use today? The answer is in physics, the laws of which are universal, even for the Neanderthals.

An orchestra tunes itself to the note called A, which is 440 vibrations per second. If we double the vibrations to 880, we still have the same note, only an octave higher. In ascending succession, the notes that follow the A are B, C, D, E, F, G, and then A again. (There is no H note in our scales.) That is the scale of A. Any piece written with that scale is in the key of A. Scales can begin with any note, C, for example. 

When two or more notes are played simultaneously and sound pleasant, that’s because they are harmonious. The notes C, E, and G, played simultaneously, are a triad chord. C is the tonic, E is the third, and G is the fifth. But why those three notes?  

Even though the Neanderthals knew to play the notes of a musical scale, they did not know why. It was an ancient Greek who first scientifically studied musical sound. Pythagoras discovered that when they plucked a string on one of their musical instruments to play, say, the note C, many more notes were sounded simultaneously. In this case, we hear C, called the fundamental or first note. But other notes are ringing at the same time. We can show this by silently pressing down on the key for G on the piano so the string is free and then thumping C below it. We will clearly hear the G string even though we didn’t sound it with the piano key. These additional notes above the fundamental C are called harmonics or overtones. They fade in prominence as we go up the overtone series. The strongest ones are the octave, the note eight steps higher above the fundamental C. Next, comes the fifth, G. The third most noticeable overtone is E. Those are the most harmonious notes of the scale. When sounded together; they make the triad of C, E, and G. They are the most harmonious combination because they are the strongest in the overtone series. The triad chord is the basis of western music. 

The first five overtones constitute the pentatonic scale, from the Greek words pente for five and tonos for musical pitch. They’re easy on the piano – just play the five black keys, and you have a pentatonic scale. 

It was no accident that the Greeks, a speculative people, were the first to analyze musical sound and discover the physics of overtones. Music was everywhere for the Greeks, for every kind of celebration and every mood. Philosophers thought music was necessary for their study and assigned certain sounds to mean various things. 

Modern Jazz players favor the pentatonic scale for improvisation because any note will be more harmonious with the other notes. A wrong note using the diatonic scale would be dissonant and easily recognized by listeners as a “wrong note.” Based on the first five overtones, the pentatonic scale is pleasant to the ears and safer for improvisation.

The pentatonic scale derived from overtones is used in Africa, Asia, by native Americans, and everybody else. It is prominent in jazz, gospel, blues, and folk music worldwide. Composers use the pentatonic scale to imitate foreign musical sounds, such as Japanese music. They all use the same notes but in a style that we identify as Japanese, Chinese, German, Greek, or wherever the music is from. Examples of songs written in the pentatonic scale are “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Amazing Grace,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” and countless others. The laws of physics are universal. That is why the pentatonic scale is universal on every continent. All the peoples of the world discovered it independently.

Each instrument, including the human voice, produces overtones. But the strength of each overtone in the series varies among instruments. Overtones allow us to know it is a human voice, a trumpet, a violin, or a piano.

Boy sopranos have far fewer overtones than an adult female voice, giving them a bell-like quality. For that reason, they are loved for certain styles of music, such as the cantatas by J.S. Bach. But they would be entirely unsuitable for any opera roles other than what was specifically written for a child’s voice.

Pure sound, that is, the fundamental, can be produced electronically. A fundamental, without the overtones, sounds somewhat other-worldly. A sound engineer can take various pure sounds or fundamentals and combine them in the same pattern as they occur for a trumpet, saxophone, organ, and anything else. The electronically produced sound will be remarkably close to the actual trumpet or oboe, even though those instruments are nowhere in sight. You may have heard this from a portable electronic keyboard that musicians can bring to the garden or stage. They plug it in and push a button, and voilà! – a trumpet. Then another button, and behold the French horn! They are changing the relative strength of each note in the overtone series to match the instrumental sound they want. The Neanderthal people doubtless would be proud of what we’ve done with their bone flute. 


July 2022 Issue

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Fred Mittag
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