Who invented music? The search for stone flutes, clay whistles and the dawn of song

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Who invented music? – Rom, 7, Las Vegas, Nevada


The short answer is: nobody knows who invented music.

No historical evidence exists to tell us exactly who sang the first song, or whistled the first tune, or made the first rhythmic sounds that resembled what we know as music today.

But researchers know it happened thousands of years ago. The first civilizations of Africa, Europe and Asia had music. At the time, many thought it was a divine creation, a gift from the gods.

Indeed, the gods and goddesses of many religions and mythologies are associated with music. Stories and works of art tell us that the African god Àyàn was a drummer; the Greek god Apollo played the lyre, a stringed instrument. In the book of Genesis, Jubal – a descendant of Adam – is identified as the father of the harp and the flute.

Scientists will probably never be able to credit one person, or even a group of people, with the invention of music. But as a musicologist – that is, someone who studies the history of music – I have seen many artifacts and evidence that can help us understand how and why the ancients played the music.

An illustration, based on ancient Greek literature, of a man weeping as another man nearby plays a harp.
Odysseus cries while listening to the songs of Demodocus, the blind musician. From ‘Stories From Homer’ by the Reverend Alfred J. Church, MA; illustrations from drawings by John Flaxman.
whitemay/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

Singing

Some scholars say that singing was the first type of musical sound. Not that people back then were crooning full songs. Instead, they made simpler vocal sounds – maybe just a few notes put together. If that’s true, maybe early humans started talking and singing around the same time.

Why did they sing? Maybe they wanted to imitate something beautiful, like birdsong. Vocal imitations of other animal sounds, however, may have been used for hunting, such as a modern duck call.

It is also possible that singing was a way of communicating with infants and toddlers, like early versions of lullabies. But again, people weren’t singing melodies or complete songs; our modern lullabies – like “Rock-a-bye Baby” – took centuries to develop.

Singing in Catholic churches throughout Europe during the Middle Ages is well documented. At first there was only one vocal melody, sung either by a soloist or by a small group of clergymen. Nuns also learned to sing in convents. Later polyphony became increasingly common – when two, three or four voices each sang different melodies, adding to the complexity of the sound.

A set of bronze bells on display.
Bianzhong, a set of bronze bells, is a Chinese musical instrument that may be over 3,000 years old. Bells were used as part of Chinese rituals and court music.
xia yuan/Open Moment/via Getty Images

Instruments

Archaeologists have helped musicologists learn more about ancient musical instruments from the artifacts they have uncovered. For example, they found flutes and whistles made of bone, pottery, and stone.

Archaeologists used a process known as carbon-14 dating to determine the age of the bone implements. All living organisms – animals, plants and humans – contain carbon 14; when they die, the amount of carbon 14 decreases, little by little, over the years, decades and centuries.

When scientists measured the amount of carbon-14 left in the flutes – made from the bones of large birds – they discovered that some of the instruments were over 30,000 years old!

In Japan, some ancient whistles and rattles, made of stone or clay, are around 6,000 years old. Thanks to their small vents, these instruments created high-pitched, high-pitched sounds. Those who use them may have thought the sounds were somehow magical, and it’s possible they played them during religious rituals. Some of these stone whistles can still make sounds.

In China, pottery bells, which may be the ancestors of bronze bells, appeared at least 4,000 years ago. In Greece, instruments like the krotola, a set of leather-bound hollow blocks, were played 2,500 years ago. The Greeks also used finger cymbals and frame drums – similar to the ones you might use in school.

Musical instruments could also be associated with different types of people. The shepherds played the syrinx, a whistle-like instrument known today as the panpipes. It was a simple implement that was easy to take to the fields. The aulos was a more sophisticated wind instrument consisting of two pipes. Because it required more skill to play aulos, you would need training from a teacher – or perhaps, if you were wealthy, you could just hire experienced musicians to play for you.

A black and white image of women playing musical instruments.
This image shows three ancient Greek women playing a musical instrument. The women on the left and right play the lyre. The one in the middle plays the aulos.
ilbusca/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

Manuscripts and works of art

In Africa, 4,000-year-old rock paintings and engravings found in Egyptian tombs show musicians playing what appear to be harps.

Greek pottery often depicts musical scenes; these images often appeared on vases and urns. The parameters, however, are often unclear. It is not always clear if the musicians were part of a festival or celebration, or if they were simply playing for their own entertainment.

Handmade medieval manuscripts also provide clues. Illustrations in ink, and sometimes in gold leaf, often show musicians playing an instrument.

Artwork of a medieval musician dressed in green and yellow clothes playing the harp.
A reproduction of a 12th-century parchment depicts a wandering minstrel playing a harp for two soldiers.
ZU_09/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

A world without music

Can you imagine living today without music? I can’t. Not only does it entertain and fascinate, but it allows us to communicate emotions. Music helps us celebrate happy events and comforts us when we are sad or in pain. Certainly, early music made its listeners feel powerful emotions, just as the music of this century and beyond will do the same. Think for a moment what 22nd century music might sound like. And who knows? Perhaps – in about 78 years – you will find out.

An oldie but goodie, first played over 3,400 years ago.

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