On Batman, Ancient Flutes, and Paint

Last Sunday Sonny ascended a stage at his first guitar recital and carefully plucked out the Batman theme song, an accomplishment weeks in the making. His serious expression transformed to one of obvious delight upon reaching the final note, confirming that the practice sessions had been worth it. “I felt kind of embarrassed,” he explained later, “but it was fun. I love to make music.”

So does nearly every child on the planet. Even those who do not beg for violin lessons at age 3 or sing with perfect pitch at age 4 or play concertos at age 5 love to make music. Sonny and Ace’s vocal repertoires are extensive and spirited, if slightly off-key and rife with mondegreens. They puff cheerfully on recorders and harmonicas and kazoos and train whistles, gifts from people who do not live in this house. And almost nothing is disqualified as a possible percussion instrument: oatmeal canisters, rubber bands, forks, books, tongues against teeth—you name it, and it can be an agent of whatever rhythm is currently occupying their imagination.

Paleolithic children, too, probably wandered the forests singing ancient versions of “Let It Go,” humming into auroch tusks, shaking pebbles in a seashell, tapping rhythms with a rock, whistling, crooning “Your toes are stinky, stinky, stinky” melodically into their brother’s ear. These children would get along well with today’s children. They’d squawk on a grass blade and become instant friends.

And then, perhaps inspired by blowing through a hollow stem, one of these children eventually fashioned a device solely for music-making purposes. Flutes made of vulture bone were discovered in Germany in 2009. The world’s oldest known instruments, they were made by an inventive music lover who lived 40,000 years ago.

Of course brilliant artistic minds existed in the Paleolithic age. Why wouldn’t they? But 40,000 years ago, surviving was a full-time endeavor. One might predict that this genius would remain latent in deference to gathering berries, chipping an axe blade out of stone, slaughtering the wild boar, fashioning crude clothing from animal skins. But it didn’t. Ancient musical instruments and cave drawings and even specially painted concert halls show that music prevailed despite life-threatening lifestyles. This probably would not have been the case were artistic expression not such a vital part of being human. It matters.

(I wonder what Paleolithic folk, who managed to create music and art even while evading the saber-tooth tiger, would think of their descendants, some of whom, despite their comparatively cushy lives, cannot rustle up the wherewithal to preserve music and art classes for schoolchildren. Not to digress here. Just wondering.)

Recognizing this essential nature of musical expression should help answer the lingering question, “Why can’t I go anywhere without hearing the nearest kid sing ‘Let It Go’?” It should help us better appreciate the enthusiastic strumming on the ukulele and the intrepid attempts to pick out “This Land Is Your Land” on the nearest piano and see beyond the challenges inherent in guitar practice with a six-year-old.

So play on, kids. Paint on. Sing on. Don’t ever let it go.