Some people believe music has been as significant as written and spoken language in the evolution of human civilization. It has been used as an educational tool, a form of communication, a leisurely activity and even a record of historical events. It is a universal communicator, capable of conveying emotion and intent even without words. But when did it start? What was the first melody or song? Let’s take a look into the history of one of the worlds key identifiers.
Formerly known as primitive music, this classification encompasses all music produced in cultures that had not developed any system of writing. The oldest known musical instrument is the Divje Babe Flute, which is thought to be over 41 000 years old and is made from bone. There are several possible origins for music, including attempting to mimic natural sounds and motherese, a form of communication between mothers and infants that revolves around gestures as well as patterns of rhythm and melody.
How the Divje Babe Flute might have sounded
Ancient music is the successor of prehistoric music, being found in the earliest cultures to have a system of reading and writing. Music played a significant role in Egyptian culture and they credited their god Hathor with its invention, which was used by Osiris to ‘civilize’ the world. This period of music is widely accepted to extend from about 1500BC to the fall of the Roman empire in 476AD.
As the Greek empire rose and they dominated the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, they took advantage of their position of luxury. Slave labour opened up their time for more leisurely pursuits such as music, poetry, mathematics and science. They adopted wind, percussion and string instruments from Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The lyre was the most popular instrument at the time, most likely because the god Apollo was believed to play the instrument.
Apollo playing the kithara, a member of the lyre family and ancestor to the guitar
The very word music comes from The Muses, daughters of the Greek god Zeus who were the patron goddesses of creativity and intellect. Pythagoras, a transcendent genius, made a study of music as a mathematical construct. He found a mathematical relationship between notes that were pleasant when played together then went on to produce a musical scale. This was the foundation for musical notation as we know it today.
This was a period spanning from 476AD to the late 16th century and encompassed a diverse array of music from different cultures over a very large geographical era. These cultures were all united by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church over the Western world.
During this period, plainchant was developed, which is a form of music that involves monophonic (one voice) chanting or singing without instrumental accompaniment. The most prominent variants of plainchant are known Gregorian chants.
Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) a 13th century Latin Catholic hymn about the second coming, an example of Gregorian Chant
In the early Christian church, it was believed music should serve to heighten receptivity to spiritual thoughts and reflections. The pure and unaccompanied nature of plainchant made it the sole choice for Christian music during this time.
The 9th century saw the rise of organum, the earliest form of polyphonic music. Soon after, there was a reinvention of musical notation for the first time in 500 years.
Video of organum performance
In the late 14th century, music experienced its renaissance and by the mid-15th century, a smooth polyphonic style of music had spread across Europe. This style of music could be adapted for liturgical or secular purposes as needed. The invention of printing had a massive impact on the dissemination of musical styles as copies of the same piece of music could be made with ease and distributed.
From 1600 to 1750, the Baroque era took place just as an artistic style of the same name was gaining prominence. It was characterized by elaborate musical ornamentation, more performance improvisation and new instrument playing techniques.
This period in music lasted from 1775 to 1825. Music during this time was strongly influenced by and often exhibited a strong admiration for the classical artistic and musical heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. It was a period also known as the Age of Enlightenment.
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Where the Renaissance and Baroque eras were a spectrum of many important composers, styles and trends, the choral music of the Classical era was dominated by three composers, namely Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.
You can listen to Moonlight Sonata 3rd Movement here.
The music of this period was simpler and less intense than that of the Baroque period before it, reflecting a shift in the political and intellectual culture in Europe at the time. It was concurrent with the shift of power from absolute monarchy to the middle class and the rise of science and logic over the dominant and universal philosophical power of the church.
Other popular composers of the time include Franz Schubert, Luigi Boccherini, Muzio Clementi, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, and Carl Maria von Weber.
The history of music is heavily intertwined with the evolution of religion, socio-political ideology and even intellectual pursuits such as art, literature and science. In the next half of this journey through time, we will take a look at the evolution of music in America and how that has shaped the world.
Care for the music you love and preserve the tools you use to listen to it. Hear the music you love, uninterrupted.