A history is usually expected to be chronological and to start at the beginning. Searching for the origins of singing in turn raises the question of the impulse to sing, as without that there would have been no origin. Scientists and musicologists have offered various theories to address the questions of when and how, while different peoples around the world assume a plethora of reasons for singing and the inspiration behind what is sung, be they from mythological muses (often divine inspiration, typically conveyed in dreams) or the mundane ones around them (non- human, such as birds, as well as human teachers). Tracing a path through all this in order to offer a cohesive account is no easy task, since theories conflict and even the results of scientific research remain perforce speculative. Instead, a far more selective and concise discussion is proposed of the impulses to sing, which may help us to understand how singing manifested itself and why both impulses and manifestations may have stood the test of time (a very long period of time at that). Thus ‘why’ and ‘what’ are more fruitful lines of enquiry concerning the origins of singing than ‘when’ or ‘where’.
With an evanescent activity such as singing, which leaves no fossils or other tangible or visible evidence (and later notations convey the song rather than the singing), it is not only impossible to say exactly when or where the beginning was but also what was (and, we may venture, still is) meant by the term ‘singing’:
All over the world, from the Eskimo to the Fuegians, from the Lapps to the Bushmen, people sing and shout and bleat with voices wild or monotonous; they scream and mumble, nasalize and yodel; they squeak and howl; they rattle, clapper, and drum. Their tonal range is limited, their intervals are foreign, their forms short-winded, their inventive capacities, it seems, rather deficient, their traditional shackles all powerful. Is it permissible to call these noises music, if the word denotes the sacred art of Bach and of Mozart?