We have been searching for centuries for the answer to the question of what makes man unique compared to other animals, and no one has yet managed to find the right key. Each field inevitably sweeps for its house: some insist on speech and others on laughter, others on the ability to think or the ability to make tools, even the ability to invent gods or be aware of death. Music has also been pointed out as a distinctive human glory, but Michael Spitzer, professor of musicology at the University of Liverpool, destroys that argument in his dizzying essay ‘The Infinite Rhythm’ (Ariel, 2023) to find another more refined one: man It is the most musical creature of a nature abundant in sounds, it owes much of its evolution to it and has made music the richest of its languages.

Man expresses himself in different ways, with body gestures or with his voice – a grunt can be used to communicate as much as a language – and for a long time it was believed that music had begun as a particular synthesis of both forms, created by hitting the hands against the body or emitting notes from the larynx. But for Spitzer, music is another language, not necessarily prior to speech – in addition, he maintains that there is human music and animal music, and that ours descends from the telluric sounds emitted by insects and birds – and at the same time different, complex and crucial to understanding the chain of miracles that make man a unique creature.

On several pages of the book, Spitzer refers to an observation by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who has always denied music any central role in human evolution. Pinker calls it “auditory cheesecake”, and Spitzer dedicates more than 500 pages of analysis to demonstrate the opposite, that music is the most human of languages ​​since there is no advanced civilization or known primitive community that has not had it, while even today there are languages ​​without literature, or directly without writing. The question is not if the human being is musical, but from when and until when, and in that observation is where ‘The infinite rhythm’ acquires its grandiose magnitude when it comes to resituating the historical, philosophical, anthropological and aesthetic principles of the study of This matter, which may seem minor to science, but which is central to our existence.

‘The Infinite Rhythm’ belongs to that category of books whose importance lies in addressing an apparently consensual subject and offering a slightly lateral point of view, so little studied that it ends up being new, so that it modifies our global understanding of history. In the strictly musical field, it is an essay close to ‘Music. A subversive story’, by Ted Gioia (Turner, 2020). Gioia affirmed that the evolution of music was linked to violence and the desire of power to control it and thus limit its transformative power, from prehistory to the current predatory industry of advanced capitalism, while Spitzer conceives an evolution of music prior to the existence of man, multiplied after his mastery and refinement in a myriad of expressions over millions of years – Western, or classical, music would therefore be one among many -, and which has a post-human, even interplanetary future , because we have already taught machines to do it.

This opening of the arc of analysis is what also connects ‘The Infinite Rhythm’ with essays such as ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, by Jared Diamond – the global history of humanity explained from the technical and scientific superiority of some civilizations. on others -, or ‘The Dawn of Everything’, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, which in turn reviews Diamond’s theses, demonstrating the complexity of human groups even before the Neolithic revolution. For Spitzer, this is an important approach to studying the subject: one of the thesis he develops is that, as the years go by, and especially so far this century, we are becoming less musical because, although the complexity increases of music as a structure and the level of individual consumption, also diminishes our most deeply human connection to it.

In other words, we now have millions of files floating on the Internet, always available for us to listen to on demand, but there are fewer and fewer people who know how to play instruments or who, spontaneously, sing in a group, who leave the bubble. from private listening to return to what music always was, an expression of the community closely linked to the rituals of life. At the same time, from this enormous variety, we mostly choose one type of music, Western, and not necessarily classical, but popular: a minimal fraction of the global legacy that has been preserved by adding all possible traditions and approaches. The book, which is divided into three large blocks, dedicates the first to this reflection: man is what he is, among other things, because he is a musical animal, and it has been proven that music positively affects the development of intelligence and abilities. emotions, but increasingly our relationship with it is passive.

It is easy to recognize yourself in this thesis: How many people who say they listen to “everything” really always listen to the same thing, and how many people who call themselves musical, the most they know how to ring is the doorbell? Have we gone from producers to mere consumers? As for the quality standard, have we identified it in figures like Mozart or Beethoven, without taking into account the musical wealth of the world, which tends to forget that we know more and more about the music of antiquity and that it has two great historical traditions, opposite? to the Western, in Chinese music and in Indian classical music? The most notable characteristic of the musical human being in the 21st century is that he is unaware of the richness of the thing, even when he has it closer at hand.

In the second section of the book, Spitzer manages to summarize the complete history of human music as a chain of events that begins in Africa, when the first homos came down from the trees – walking raises the trunk, slenderizes the neck and evolves the larynx; that’s why apes don’t sing (yet) -, and which culminates with the triumph of Western music thanks to its secret weapons, counterpoint and notation. Compared to Indian music – orally transmitted, which does not change over time, nor has any notion of the idea of ​​evolution because it rotates in hypnotic circles – or Chinese music – metallic and beautiful in tone, focused on color and not structure -, European music is openly transmitted, reviewable and with a clear sense of progress, which brings it closer to our cult of science: Western music, dependent on mathematical relationships between notes, is also another form of engineering.

Upon reaching the third block, ‘The infinite rhythm’ completes the alternative vision of human music by denying it, in the future, precisely that adjective: if originally man’s music comes from crickets and among mammals it only competes with that of whales, in the future we will have to get used to accepting that it will also be the machines. The musical human being is beginning to be post-human: algorithms influence what we listen to, pop stars will be holograms like the Japanese animation Hatsune Miku and artificial intelligence applications are already beginning to leave their small mark, which will be incalculable in the decades to come. And with this perspective, he raises the question from the beginning: what will make us human when music escapes our control? Perhaps it is, taking Harari’s idea, the fact that, having incorporated machines into music, and making them coexist with us, we have also completed another part of our collective transition from animals to gods. And that Bach is nothing more than an episode between two great revolutions, that of the first hominid to use the voice and the first musical artificial intelligence on Mars.