Turn down for this: the oldest surviving piece of music ever found, played on lyre. It’s called the Hurrian Hymn no.6, and it was composed by an unknown Amorite musician in approximately 1500BC.
Check it out, it’s the sound of the summer (or the Sumer?). But you can’t actually listen to it. You can only listen to your brain’s interpretation of it.
One of the world’s less discussed weird facts is that people perceive sensory input differently, hence there’s no one version of “Who Let the Dogs Out”, there’s seven billion versions, all of them slightly different. Yet we all talk as if we experienced the same song.
You are not hearing Hurrian Hymn no.6 as you were supposed to hear it. None of us are. Play it as accurately as possible. Rebuild the exact instrument. Clone the long-dead musician, and have him play it for us. We’re still lacking Amorite ears, and that’s critical.
This music was meant to be heard by people 3500 years ago who were immersed in the sounds of the Levant. We’re comparing it to the soundscape of the 21st century. When the melodies enter your ear, they’re not striking a blank canvas – they’re striking a canvas that’s polluted and stained by years or decades of various sounds. And the canvas was probably different for all of us to start with.
It’s not all cultural. Dogma says that the hearing range of humans is 200Hz to 20kHz, but that’s just a “hook to hang your hat on”. There is lots of variation, both between individuals and between population groups. It seems that blacks hear better than whites. Who knows what other differences are out there? Do Danes have a higher noise floor than Xhosa? Do East Asians hear the third harmonic better than Pacific Islanders? And these are populations that exist together in the same time period – what can we say about Amorites living 3500 years ago?
In the movie Back to the Future, there’s a scene where Marty McFly (a kid from 1985 who’s been transported to 1955) plays “Johnny B Goode” with a distorted electric guitar, and for some reason his predates-Leave it to Beaver audience is really getting into it, instead of going “what is that godawful racket?”
Guitar distortion came of age by things literally breaking – first The Kings of Rhythm’s legendary malfunctioning amp on “Rocket 88”, then Link Wray poking holes in speaker cones to create a buzzing effect. I doubt it sounded nice the first time people heard it. Maybe the second or third time. But the first time, it would have provoked a “what the fuck” reaction.
Marty McFly thought he was back in the past, but really he was still in the future. It’s not enough for his guitar to have an anachronistic Bigsby tremolo. He had an audience with 1980s musical tastes, too. It seems absurd to make a mistake like that, but we do it all the time. My advice: stop asking people for advice. Stop asking them to recommend books and movies, too. Other people hear with different ears and see with different eyes than you do.
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s ten people around, does it make a sound?
Answer: no. It makes ten sounds. And no two are the same.