Early in the 1200’s, Genghis Khan and the Mongol army he commanded were well on their way to becoming the most feared army in history. While many Khans before him had commanded large numbers of the fierce steppe warriors, never before had they been able to sustain a lengthy war against the cities that lay to the east and south of their home territory. Part of Genghis Khan’s unprecedented success came from his leadership abilities and charisma – no Mongol leader before him had managed to unite the disparate tribes into one cohesive unit – but another part came from his intense dedication to the practical.

Genghis Khan used his massive numbers of warriors effectively and sparingly. With a mix of lightning attacks and coordinated retreats, feints and propaganda, he achieved stunning victories over armies that seemed to have every advantage. But how did the Khan manage his tightly coordinated battle plans working with an army that was almost entirely illiterate? As anyone who has played the game of telephone knows, verbal directions tend to become garbled, and garbled orders can be fatal in a battle. An army with a complex plan needs messages to spread rapidly, and above all accurately. A message must remain the same whether it’s the first repetition, or the tenth, or the hundredth.

So what did the Khan do? He had his men sing.

Many armies sing, or chant, while on the move. It’s a common way to pass the tedium of lengthy days of traveling while helping groups of soldiers bond into tighter units. Singing may help marching men keep the same rhythm, or permit complaining that would never be allowed in conversation. However, Genghis Khan put the practice to a new, and more practical use. Every man in the Mongol army learned a fixed set of melodies. They sang them as they were on the move to ensure that the songs were solidly in their memories. Then, when battle came, the officers would compose their orders in rhyme and set them to one of the standard melodies. Remembering new orders became as easy as learning a new verse for an old and familiar song, and garbling them became much harder.

In addition, any soldier in the army could act as a messenger at need, as they all knew the requisite music. The method worked so well that eventually all the laws and rules of conduct for the Mongol army were set to music, so that each man could learn them, practicing them as they went.

Today singing is still a part of mnemonics, or the art of memory. The foundation of our cultural literacy is the alphabet, most commonly taught to children in the alphabet song. But after the alphabet, most of us stop, trusting our reading and writing skills to record information permenantly. Song is rarely used to impart information, and virtually never for messages. On the rare occasions when a song is used, such as “School House Rock”, the information imparted is static, not the dynamic message sending of the Mongols. Singing is, for the most part, entertainment and enjoyment only, not vital to our survival. But perhaps it would behoove us to remember that there is a more serious side to the pairing of music and words.