Friday, February 01, 2002

The Ur-Song

Carl Jung believed that we are born, not just with our physical bodies, but also with a collective consciousness. He suggested this collective consciousness was composed of “the residues of ancestral life… (whose) origins can only be explained from assuming them to be deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.”

How else to explain, for instance, universally accepted sounds, terms, symbols, etc– for ‘Mother’?

Along these same lines there are those who believe that part of this collective consciousness includes or contains what has been called an ‘Ur-Song’, that is: A basic, fundamental and universal sequence of notes, forming a melody; and so named because of the Mesopotamian City of Ur, regarded as the first civilization.

Some academics think of melodies as symbols, and indeed a motif can heighten dramatic intent via deft symbolic use. So, it's not a great leap to consider that that this Ur-Song while itself not literally a symbol –not a graphic one, anyway– is nevertheless equivalent to a symbol, –or in fact it is a musical or sonic symbol– and therefore worthy of semiotic analysis.

FYI: Semiotics, is the study of sign processes, or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. (Wikipedia)

So what does the Ur-song sound like you ask? There are several theories, with one being that it is simply a descending minor third. Sometimes I’m inclined to think that it is the bass line from Pachelbel’s Canon, –the sequence having become so ubiquitous that I now recognize its integration into many pop compositions (do sol la mi fa do fa sol). However, most of the articles I’ve read indicate that the Ur-Song is more probably sung as: ‘sol sol mi la sol mi’. But you probably know it better as 'nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah' or 'Na-nana-nah-na nah nah', a common children's taunt sung upon said to be sung upon the universal melody.

Indeed, it’s heard on every playground around the world. Of course, the lyrics and exact rhythm change depending on the culture and language, but the tune is always the same.

In his book, The Secret Power of Music, David Tame describes this phenomenon:

“…in all lands, children from the age of eighteen months to two and a half years have been found to spontaneously sing melodic fragments with the intervals of second, minor third, and major third.”

Even Leonard Bernstein described a belief in the legitimacy of the Ur-song.

As it happens, I’m also a true believer:

When I was two years old –and living in San Juan de Marcos, Peru– my parents recall this incident: Upon seeing a motorcyclist having troubles with his bike, I spontaneously sang out, “Ha ha ha la moto”, and the words were carried upon the following melody: ‘sol sol mi la sol mi’ –what else but the Ur-song!

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Click on any link below to read the entire Mystic Audio Series:

1. Glossolalia: Speaking In Tongues
2. The Ur-Song
3. Theta Waves, Mantras & The Lord's Prayer
4. Atomic Rhythms
5. Thai Drum Samples For Sesame Workshop

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