A Musical Map

Nganjiwarr Country by Tommy Carroll

For the musically inclined, creation myths don’t get much better than that of the Australian Aboriginals.

Imagine a world of nothingness, a featureless plain marked only with shallow depressions under which Great Ancients sleep.  On one particular day, the Sun decides to shine, basking this barren land with its glow.  One by one, the Ancients awake.  They stumble from their slumber and begin to sing.  With each song, the world and all it contains is literally called into being, sung into existence.  The Ancients roam the world, singing songs and creating.  After a few days, the world exists and the Ancients fall back into a perpetual sleep.

The songs of the Great Ancients are not simply musical tunes as we might think of them.  They are the Songlines, the threads which hold the very fabric of the world together.  They are a map which connect every living and non-living thing together in an impossibly intricate web.  They are the very source of existence, without which the world would still be an infinite and barren plain.

In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin explores this myth as he travels with a group of Australian Aborigines to some of their sacred dreamspots, locations where the Songlines are said to have originated.  He also explores a pet theory of his which I find fascinating.  Chatwin posits that all spoken languages may have a universal ancestor in song.  Verbal expressions in themselves, Chatwin argues, come secondary to the tonal movements of the songs that ancient peoples once sang (and still do in the case of the Australian Aborigines).  He uses the following example:

” ‘Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta, a songman who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape-recorder and then played the tape to Alan in Kaititj country? The chances were he’d recognize the melody at once–just as we would the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata–but the meaning of the worlds would escape him. All the same, he’d listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He’d perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he’d find himself in sync and be able to sing his own worlds over the nonsense.’

“Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the saltpans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’.

“Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor’s feet. Once phrase would say, ‘salt-pan’; another ‘creek-bed’, ‘spinifex, sandhill, mulga scrub, rockface and so forth. An expert songman, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge–and be able to calculate where, and how far along a songline he was.

The musical form of the song creates a universal map able to be read by anyone, regardless of the particular vocal expressions specific to their own language.

All in all, The Songlines is a fascinating book.  While I was particularly interested in the linguistic aspects that Chatwin explored, it is also a very engrossing travelogue detailing the peoples and places of Australia.



  1. It takes it back to the notion of naming things, & the power once considered in that act, the idea of creating & shaping something with words. The idea of a Shaman bringing forth existence through the spoken word. sounds like a brilliant book.
    If you haven’t read it, I think you might like After Babel by George Steiner, if you haven,t read this book & it sounds good to you, sorry to add to your addiction problems

  2. Hi. I found you through the blog hop. I just read your review of Don Quixote and it made me want to try again. I read about half of it a couple of years ago but couldn’t make myself finish it. I started reading it after hearing people say things like “It was the most influential book of my life” and “Next to the Bible, this is the book that is most precious to me.”. I started reading and kept thinking “these guys are idiots!”. I figured I must not be a good enough reader to really appreciate it. If I had KNOWN it was supposed to be funny I might have enjoyed it more. I still don’t get how it inspires and influences people though!
    Thanks for reviewing it,

  3. @Kathy – Haven’t read The Magician’s Nephew, although I did read the first three of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. I am, in general, a fan of Lewis even though I whole-heartedly disagree with him much of the time. How did this remind you of The Magician’s Nephew?
    @parrishlantern – You’ve recommended Steiner’s After Babel before…I’m going to have to get my hands on a copy. If you’re interested in the inherent power of naming, you’ll really like this book. Try to get a copy – it’s a really interesting read.
    @Dianne – Glad you found the review of Don Quixote helpful. It really was a fantastically funny book and very profound in its absurdity. Do try reading it again (if you have lots of time, because it’s most definitely not a quick read!) Thanks for stopping by!

    1. I don’t know how you feel about reading children’s stories at this point in your life, but I highly recommend the other 4 books in the Chronicles of Narnia if you ever get the chance to read them. They’re just such good stories. The Magician’s Nephew is basically a prequel to the other 6 books. I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but in it you read about the creation of Narnia. Aslan sings everything into existence. You don’t read the words to the song (in fact, if I remember right, it has no words) but the music sounds different for each thing that is created.

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