What Was the Earliest Music?

What Was the Earliest Music?

People talk about the break between rock ‘n roll and punk, or punk and post-punk, but they almost never talk about micro-fluctuations in musical taste circa ten thousand years ago. Music history tends to start, for the non-musicologist, with the big-deal classical composers, progressing onwards through swing, big band, rap, chillwave, etc. But where does the timeline actually start? What was, in fact, the earliest music? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.

Joshua Kumbani

PhD candidate in archaeology at University of Witswatersrand in South Africa

Oral singing is likely the earliest form of music, followed by organised sound like clapping or foot stomping. Various musical instruments could have been developed at a later stage. For example, the musical bow is regarded as one of the early musical instruments of the Khoisan in southern Africa. It is argued the musical bow was discovered during hunting: after releasing the arrow, the bow string continued vibrating, which produced some musical tones, and thus led to its adoption as an instrument.

Some of the earliest musical instruments used in the past do not convincingly look or sound like musical instruments. For example, a bullroarer, which produces a whirring sound, has been reported to have been used for musical purposes. One archaeological piece has been recovered from Matjes River site from Later Stone Age contexts, and it is also depicted in the rock art at the Doring River site in the Cederberg in South Africa. The uses of the bullroarer may have been diverse, but one of them was being used as a musical instrument. That said, I can’t imagine many people would think of the whirring sound it makes as “musical” — but “music is in the ear of the beholder,” as the scientist Jelle Atema once put it.

Naomi Weiss

Associate Professor, Classics, Harvard University

Specialists on ancient civilizations could each give you examples of music from their particular areas of expertise, but one could always go back further. My own area is ancient Greece, from roughly the eighth to the fourth centuries BCE. I could talk about bards singing in the Iliad and Odyssey, reflecting traditions stretching back into the Bronze Age. Or the images of various instruments on ancient Greek pottery — lyres, pipes, trumpets, cymbals, castanets, drums. Or the productions of classical Athenian plays, like Sophocles’ Antigone or Euripides’ Medea, which were essentially musicals, with singing and dancing choral ensembles and instrumental accompaniments. Or musical contests and the professional musicians who became famous as they toured across the ancient Greek world. Or the development of music theory in technical treatises dating back at least to the fourth century BCE. Or the scraps of Greek musical notation on papyri from Ptolomaic Egypt, a couple of which seem to provide the tunes for songs composed by Euripides a couple of centuries earlier.

None of these examples, however, gives you the “earliest” music. And if I were to present them as such, I’d end up following a common tendency in the US and Europe of framing ancient Greek culture in terms of the origins of “Western” civilisation — the origins not just of music, but of art, literature, philosophy, and democracy itself. Actually, as any Assyriologist could tell you, many early Greek musical traditions and technologies, along with the media through which they were transmitted, can be traced eastwards, back to ancient Mesopotamia. And as any Egyptologist could tell you, we have evidence of a thriving musical culture in northern Africa that predates archaic Greece by a couple thousand years.

One interesting question to ask might be: what did an ancient culture think the earliest music was? In ancient Greek mythology, music was the domain of the Muses, whose parents were Zeus and Memory. But there were other ideas about the “earliest” music. Just as today, songwriters liked to position themselves within a long line of musicians, going back not just to mythical figures like Orpheus but to more apparently historical ones like the seventh-century Terpander of Lesbos, whose songs and lyre music became especially renowned in Sparta. Lament was frequently viewed as the prototypical form of song: the writer Herodotus traces this back to Egypt, while one of Pindar’s choral songs depicts the birth of various musical forms from the mourning death-cry of the Gorgon. This is not actually so different from modern ideas about the evolution of music: the ethnomusicologist Steven Feld has suggested that musical polyphony arose out of the cross-cultural phenomenon of group wailing in performances of lament. And perhaps we should follow ancient Greek thinkers in approaching this question beyond the human entirely. The peripatetic philosopher Chamaeleon of Pontus, for example, claimed that “the ancients” discovered music by imitating birds — an idea that continued well into the Roman period.

Samuel Dorf

Associate Professor, Musicology, University of Dayton

My answer is (and you’re probably not gonna like this) I don’t know, no one knows, and, furthermore, I don’t care, and neither should you.

The earliest physical evidence we do have of human music-making are fragments of bird-bone pipes found deep in caves of the Swabian Alps made roughly 40,000 years ago. Archaeologists have laboriously recreated the pipes out of modern vulture bones fashioned with stone tools, and have learned a great deal about how they were made as well as the sonic properties that they are capable of creating, but reconstructing a tool doesn’t tell us that much about what the music sounded like. Discovering a bone pipe in a cave tells us as much about what music it produced as finding a plastic spork in an alley tells us what kind of meal it was used to enjoy. That spork could be used to scoop mashed potatoes with gravy as easily as it could skewer a maraschino cherry off of an ice cream sundae.

Similarly, a bone pipe missing the critical apparatus for making sound (a mouthpiece or reed) cannot tell us what music sounded like. It can, however, be an invitation for musicians today to imagine an ancient music using reproductions of these tools. German flutist Anna Friederike Potengowski’s 2017 album “The Edge of Time: Paleolithic Bone Flutes from France & Germany” does just this. She employs these ancient tools not to recreate the sounds of the past, but to imagine new music for new listeners using reproductions of ancient tools.

Mary Channen Caldwell

Assistant Professor, Music, University of Pennsylvania, whose research focuses on repertoires of European vocal music ca. 1100-1600

It is impossible to know when humans first produced something we might today call music. Anthropological and archaeological evidence supports the existence of music-making in the prehistoric world, with the first musical instruments dating from around 40,000 years ago, although the capacity to sing or use the body to create music dates far earlier.

What we do know about, thanks to material evidence that includes stone epitaphs, tablets, papyri, manuscripts, and more, are the earliest forms of music that were written down or recorded using symbols, letters, or numbers. A handful of examples survive from as early as 1400 BC, if not earlier (one of the earliest examples is from modern-day Iraq), although the first significant collections of notated music worldwide survive only from much later. Globally, many different musical notations developed, often independently and usually specific to the musical traditions of a given place. The western musical notation that is often, if misleadingly, considered “standard” (the musical notation employed by, for instance, Johann Sebastian Bach or Clara Schumann, and frequently the focus of music studies curricula here in the United States and elsewhere) is only one possible system for recording music, and can only reasonably be used to notate musical works that follow certain conventions of pitch, rhythm, harmony, etc.

While not the earliest form of musical notation worldwide, European musical notation has a rich and well-documented history dating back to the 9th century, rooted in the desire of medieval communities to better record musical practices for a range of purposes — devotional, political, theoretical, artistic, and pedagogical. Several musicologists have written about the advent of musical notation in Europe, exploring why and how notation developed, and how it looked, from ink squiggles inserted between lines of text, to clearly defined musical notes on staves (see here and here).

As to why musical notation developed when it did in medieval Europe, Isidore of Seville in the 7th century offers the most familiar and relatable reason in an often-quoted passage acknowledging the inherent ephemerality of sound: “…for unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down” (translated here, p. 3). Basically, music begins to disappear the moment it is produced unless we store it in our memory. Although this is not a problem for musical cultures that rely on oral transmission (in which musical knowledge is passed on from person to person), for a culture interested in the physical preservation and transmission of knowledge — as was the case for the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century — the ability to record music using written signs was a significant technological and cultural advancement. Additionally, music writing served a pedagogical function — writing down pitches made the job of teaching music easier, since students could learn and memorise melodies more quickly. At least this was the claim of 11th century music theorist Guido of Arezzo, to whom has been attributed both the musical stave and the so-called “Guidonian hand,” a learning tool for singers.

However, the earliest forms of musical notation were largely descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning it was not necessarily possible to learn a melody by reading the notation without first hearing it, nor did the notation indicate musical elements we might think of as essential, such as rhythm. Several hundred years separate the first extant examples of musical notation in Europe and the first system for notating rhythm as well as pitch. The earliest systems of notation in Europe instead retained and relied upon the role of memory — oral and written transmission of music continued side by side for centuries. Yet, the emergence of what might be termed musical literacy fostered the writing down and ultimately survival of a tremendous amount of music, including religious (largely Christian) and secular music in Latin and vernacular languages. As a result, musicologists, theorists, and performers in the 21st century can study, analyse, and perform a vast amount of music created over 1,000 years ago — the earliest (recorded) music in (European) history.

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