There is a question that get’s banded around a lot: ‘What’s the best song of all time?’ Now that is an impossible question to answer for a number of reasons. Firstly, chief amongst these reasons is that nobody can ever listen to every song ever written, no matter how hard they tried, because it would take longer than most of the population of the planet have left to live. Secondly, you can’t do it anyway and there’s a good reason for this. In statistical terms we only have access to a small percentage of those songs.
The truth is that many of the songs that have been composed across all of history have just been forgotten, mostly due to the fact that they weren’t written down and either passed down orally or not at all. Music and singing is a human constant. Every civilisation and every culture on the planet has some form of musical tradition- From the Aborigines of Australia right across the globe to the Eskimo people of the Arctic. Every country and every tribal group there has ever been (In terms of Homo-Sapiens anyway) is reputed to have had music and singing of some sort, and that includes Paleolithic hunter gatherers, Neolithic tree farmers, Iron Age tribesmen, Romans, Greeks, Assyrians…. All of them. And thinking about how big history is and how much music there must have been in all of it… LOADS! And think of all those songs that kids compose every day and promptly forget them. They all count as music.
But what do we actually know of all that music? Well actually, although we don’t have the music we can still say a fair bit about it.
Take Roman music. The very idea might surprise a lot of people. After all, it’s not something that immediately springs to mind when you think of the Romans. It doesn’t feature in films all that often, except for loud militaristic trumpets and the only hint we have about it in popular culture is that Nero supposedly fiddled whilst Rome burned. The Romans didn’t have fiddles (Nero was probably fiddling with himself!) but they did have music. In fact they were obsessed with it and used it for every occasion from a sacrifice to a party. They even had music playing during gladiatorial combats. It wasn’t one type either. Supposedly they had religious, triumphalist and downright bawdy music to boot. The best part of this is that the music spread like wildfire across the empire, meaning it was endemic.
But the problem is they didn’t write any of it down so we don’t have a clue as to what it sounded like. We know what instruments they used but not how they played them. They could have been sad, happy, slow or fast. We haven’t a clue. I found this video on a well known video sharing site and whilst they’ve used Roman instruments it sounds too much like the soundtrack to a film. Modern society influencing our perception of the past perhaps? Take a listen and see what you think…
And what of later music? What about the Vikings? You can almost guarantee that their music was notoriously drunk and bawdy. According to a 10th century observer, Ibrahim Ibn Ahmad Al-Tartushi, they sounded like mad, wild dogs and according to a contemporary Christian chronicler, Adam of Breman, their songs were so obscene that he claims it is better not to say anything about them. The standards of a 10th century Christian were much higher than today and what they considered obscene might be quite tame by today’s standards, so it’s fair to say the Viking music wasn’t all that extreme. But then again this is the Vikings so it’s still highly likely they were singing about cunnilingus or something similar. And they probably sounded like these guys as well…
But what fascinates me the most is medieval music. I’m fascinated because it was probably one of the most diverse periods for music in all of history. We know more about medieval music than we do about earlier periods but we still don’t know what most of it sounded like.
For a start there’s the monks chanting that we’re all familiar with from films and TV (Think Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and then you have the likes of the troubadours and jongleurs and minstrels who would wander around the countryside singing ballads about the latest happenings in society. It was from these travelling singers that we get the earliest Robin Hood ballads. Whilst I doubt anyone but the monks were singing the religious chants, the rest of the populace were almost certainly listening to the travelling minstrels.
Mostly they travelled between the courts and the homes of noble lords but they still came into contact with the lower dregs of the populace on a regular basis, particularly when passing through small towns and villages. No doubt some of them exchanged a warm meal and a bed for a night’s entertainment on occasion. But the fact is still there. They would have heard them on a regular basis despite the fact that the old issue is still there… We just don’t know how they sounded.
There is one more thing about medieval music, and it is perhaps the most curious point about it. It concerns feudalism specifically and the gap between the rich and poor, particularly in England where that gap was later epitomised by two very different cultures in the forms of the Norman aristocracy and the native population. The native population would have almost certainly had their own music and customs which would have been vastly different. We know for certain that they used to sing as they worked the fields. I believe I read somewhere once that what they were singing songs that a were a bit like sea shanties. I don’t know if that’s true or not but considering we have no idea what they were singing its anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, I’d love to know what they were actually singing in those fields as it would be fascinating. I’d love to go back in time and get them singing Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5.
You’ll never get that image out of you head. But as you can see, we can’t answer the question ‘what’s the best song of all time’ as we don’t know what most music sounded like. Besides which, it’s a question to which everyone has an opinion of their own so even if we did have it all it would still be impossible to answer as it’s all a matter of opinion anyway. Well… As Shakespeare almost wrote: ‘If music be the food of love then I want some more…’