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Creative genius and science.

Fascinating. This is the oldest piece of music known to humankind, originally engraved in cuneiform on a tablet from 1400 BCE, excavated in the early 1950s in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit. It is a hymn to the moon god's wife, Nikal. The tablets also contain detailed performance instructions for a singer accompanied by a harpist (this recording is harp-only) as well as instructions on how to tune the harp. From this evidence, Prof. Anne Kilmer and other musicologists have created this lovely piece of music:

(Found it via Tumblr, and it was never attributed to a source, but you can easily find lots of links by doing a quick search.)

Listening to this got me thinking: In the days when this was recorded in cuneiform on clay, mastery of anything was a form of magic. Only a genius could have created this piece or performed it, because they didn't have the same kind of rigorous science-based educational system. But since the advent of the scientific method and applying it to our educational system, we have learned how to partition masterpieces (art, music, stories, structures, and so on) into understandable components, analyze them, and reproduce the effect they create in the mind of the audience.

Click the image to see a page about the original cuneiform tablets.

Now anyone with sufficient interest and patience can learn the theory that once produced what we believed was actual magic, and with practice and a lot of effort can perform such a piece and maybe even come up with one that has a similar effect. It's like Hogwart's for everyone; we can all learn the magic, if we work hard enough at it. I suspect this is why creative genius today is so hard to pick out from a crowd of art - anyone can look like a genius. But it's also why we recognize true genius when we do encounter it.



( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:22 pm (UTC)
Do you have a backlink on this?
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:38 pm (UTC)
I found it via Tumblr, where most things are unattributed (the original source didn't source it). However, the link to that other page has a video with music, and a search will turn up a huge amount more info.
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:41 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:26 pm (UTC)
Chris, this music is really cool. How did you come across this?

The recording gave me the sensation of listening to a 3000-yr-old radio broadcast.
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:39 pm (UTC)
Tumblr! Place of wonders and silliness, depending how you filter it.

I know what you mean!
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
Something about this post bothers me a lot, and once I figure out what it is, I'll be back for conversation.
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:43 pm (UTC)
Maybe it's the same thing that made me side-eye it:

mastery of anything was a form of magic


Edited at 2013-01-14 06:44 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:49 pm (UTC)
Well, sure; I wasn't trying to say it's not! My point is that, now that we understand the scientific method and can consciously analyze things for how they work, anyone with sufficient motivation and passion to learn something can learn what appears to be magic to those who don't take the time.

We can still call it "magic," of course - that's what magic is, right? Something sufficiently outside our POV and understanding of how the universe works that we cannot explain it. But to the practitioner, it's a discipline.
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:53 pm (UTC)
I'm really not sure how much the scientific method applies to the creation of master works of art...

Edited at 2013-01-14 06:54 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:58 pm (UTC)
Agreed. All the practice in the world isn't going to give you genius for something, no matter how much you want it. Practice gives one competence, not inspiration.
Jan. 14th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
Inspiration + education + perspiration = potential to do great work.

If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be a teacher!
Jan. 14th, 2013 07:03 pm (UTC)
I believe you can teach the arts.

We teach them using a lot of methods; good ones include:

* Show great examples, then analyze why they work.
* Practice the techniques employed by masters of the art.
* Use peer review and expert review of works to point out what techniques work and which don't work so well.
* Keep a critical eye open to what makes great art.
* Practice, practice, practice.
* Repeat.

This is the scientific method applied to learning the arts. This is why we have workshops in the arts, courses, entire university programs. We wouldn't invest so much into educating people to become "masters" (or "doctors") of the arts unless we believed such things can be taught.

Now, can we teach genius? I don't know, but I doubt it. It would be AWESOME if we could figure out how. Anyhow, I do believe we can (especially those educated in an art-form) identify genius, and those best-educated can even explain why something is genius.

My point is that our educational system is so good since the advent of the scientific method, that applying that method to our educational system has made it more difficult for most people to tell the true masterworks from the really good stuff - because people are so much better now at it than ever, because of our teaching them how to do it.

Am I creating geniuses out of people who couldn't otherwise write? No, but I'm enabling people to be able to write in such a way that most people couldn't tell the difference. Until they encounter true genius.

Does that make more sense?
Jan. 14th, 2013 07:09 pm (UTC)
Okay, well that makes a lot more sense. The way you phrased it, above, it sounded like "Anyone can be an amazing artist! Anyone can create beautiful, original music! You just need to study!"
Jan. 14th, 2013 07:38 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:55 pm (UTC)
anyone with sufficient motivation and passion to learn something can learn what appears to be magic to those who don't take the time

Check your privilege, hon. This simply is not true worldwide. I think it's likely that, percentage-wise, there are not more humans able to devote the time, energy, and money to mastering a skill than there were when this music was written. Mastery of a skill (other than the skill that puts food on your table and a roof over your head) is, I would bet, something that is still mostly limited to those with time and means.

When you're a single mom, already making less than your male peers, raising two kids, etc. etc., you probably don't have a lot of time to devote to learning how to play the harp--no matter how much you may love it and want to pursue that knowledge.
Jan. 14th, 2013 07:05 pm (UTC)
I'm not talking about everyone, everywhere. I'm talking about the modern, Western educational system, which is firmly rooted in the scientific method. See my response to miischelle elsewhere in this thread.
Jan. 15th, 2013 10:19 pm (UTC)
I think it's likely that, percentage-wise, there are not more humans able to devote the time, energy, and money to mastering a skill than there were when this music was written. Mastery of a skill (other than the skill that puts food on your table and a roof over your head) is, I would bet, something that is still mostly limited to those with time and means.

At the time the music was written, 90% of the population in the best off regions needed to spend their time farming. Most of the remaining people still didn't have all that much free time to master a non-survival skill. Being (really) generous, maybe 3% of the population had sufficient free time. Today, lots of people have serious hobbies and time to spend on them. Depending upon what figures you look at, between half and 12% of the worlds population are now in the middle class, with the free time and disposable income that entails. The first figure seems to high, but the second is going by the exceedingly strict definition of people who make US median income or above. So, let's split the difference here and say maybe 30% of the world's population now have that sort of time and access to education. Going by really generous assumptions, we're talking about a 10-fold increase, and it's likely more like 30-fold. Yes, we need to do better, but we're living in a very different and vastly better world now than people were back in the bronze age, or even 200 years ago.
Jan. 16th, 2013 01:59 pm (UTC)
Interesting statistics! Thank you for sharing them. I stand by my original stance, though--the one against everyone having the opportunity to master a non-vital skill. Like you say, we need to do a lot better.
Jan. 14th, 2013 06:56 pm (UTC)
...and on the same level, it never was magic.

I mean - there's technical skill. Hand eye coordination. But being able to render something perfectly doesn't make it good. Like that Billy Pappas Marilyn Monroe pencil piece...

Jan. 14th, 2013 07:00 pm (UTC)
it never was magic

I think mckitterick and I are using the term "magic" to mean something mysterious and possibly unknowable to the untrained/uneducated person.

For instance, he thinks it's magic how I can turn a piece of cloth into a shirt. I think it's magic how he puts up with me.
Jan. 15th, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
I wish there were a LIKE button for this comment right here. :)
Jan. 15th, 2013 03:25 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2013 11:03 pm (UTC)
It sounds as like a direct ancestor of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

Proust & The Squid tossed about the idea that, the text of the Sumerian lullaby Ua-aua is likely the remnants/descendent of the oldest music known to man.
Jan. 14th, 2013 11:56 pm (UTC)
That's charming!
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )