Defining music seems impossible.
Tracing it back to its roots is the best option.
In tracing the roots of music you should be able to answer the question ‘What is music?’
The question is: where do the roots begin?
This is just one of the questions this article explores in-depth.
We are going to be taking you on a musical journey back in time. How far back, you may ask?
How do 800,000 years back sound?
That’s right. Music can be dated back that far. And the first definition of music comes from that time, too.
For the purposes of our introduction, we are going to define music generally, with the understanding that we have of it now.
But you will discover that the definition of music may change slightly depending on the era – especially since the methods of creating music have changed!
To define music, we must first make a distinction between music and other sounds – speech, wildlife noises, the sound of cars, technology, and engines.
According to Gordon Epperson, a professor of music, music can be defined as: art concerned with combining vocal or instrumental sounds for beauty of form or emotional expression.
By this definition, we can clearly see the distinction between music and other sounds that exist.
Sure, birdsong could be viewed as music, but it does not fit with this definition. This definition insinuates that music is a human form of expression.
Taking this further, human-created music features variable pitches, compared with other sounds from nature, such as the one pitch noises made by wild animals, .
With this in mind, it seems clear that even our very early ancestors would have been able to produce music, due to their ability to produce sounds at different pitches.
Armed with this general definition, we can begin to delve deep into the rich early history of music.
We will be looking at the very first type of music from proto-humans, and journeying up to the Renaissance period to see if any of these early types of music have been influential on the music of today, and how they influenced each other.
Table of Contents
- 1 The First Note: How Did Music Begin?
- 1.1 The Late Acheulean: 800,000 – 250,000 Years Ago
- 1.2 The Late Pleistocene: Mid/Upper Paleolithic Musicality
- 1.3 Music In A hunter-Gatherer Society
- 2 The Music Of Classical Antiquity And Beyond
- 3 Evolution Of Music: Conclusion
The First Note: How Did Music Begin?
To explore the origins of music in more detail, we need to look back through prehistoric times.
The first era we need to explore is the Late Acheulean. This was around 800 to 250 kilo (thousand) years ago (abbreviated to Kya).
The Late Acheulean: 800,000 – 250,000 Years Ago
Research from fossils tells us that ancient hominins had the ability to produce sounds that we can create.
The vocal sounds associated with singing and music could be achieved by these proto-humans (specifically the Homo heidelbergensis).
These protohumans are thought to have existed between 600 and 800 kilo years ago (KYA).
It is thought that this Homo heidelbergensis had executive control of their vocal sounds.
In fact, some believe that even earlier descendants (Neanderthals) had linguistic and vocal capabilities, meaning they may have been able to produce vocal music-like sounds of different pitches.
Knowing these protohumans had the capacity for this opens the door to accepting that they had the same capabilities for producing music we know today. As time went on, these protohumans developed further.
An important factor that we must now consider is fire.
What does fire have to do with music, you may ask?
Well, fire was vital to those living in these periods. Once protohumans learned how to start and maintain a fire, it gave them warmth, light, safety, a more varied diet, and more social time.
It may not seem that they were interested in any sort of leisure time – weren’t they too busy trying to survive and hide from predators?
But it is important to remember that we descend from these people. Socialization is important to human nature. That includes those early humans.
Fires enabled these beings to eat more leisurely. They could cook food, making it easier to chew and digest, and leaving more time to interact with each other – perhaps whilst sitting around the fire!
Of course, this insinuates that there may have been some of the earliest instances of meal sharing and social eating.
We now know that social feeding and eating is extremely important in forming bonds – you only have to look back through more recent history to see that social eating features in almost every civilization.
Even the mere act of collecting firewood is likely to have been a group effort, bringing these protohumans together socially. Cooperation and coordination would have been very important.
It is plausible then, that this growing connection to other protohumans paved the way for the discovery and development of activities to do together in this social time sat by a fire, including music.
This music is likely to have been more along the lines of ‘social proto-music’ and would have likely built upon the sounds that early hominins could produce.
It seems completely plausible, then, that this period in the Late Acheulean era could certainly have seen the development of music similar to what we know today.
As our ancestors developed into more social creatures, it is likely that they began to utilize their ability to manipulate and produce sounds and turn them into music.
It could indeed be that music’s purpose “was cohesion, cohesion between parent and child, cohesion between father and mother, cohesion between one family and the next, and thus the creation of the whole organization of society” (source).
It certainly seems to have been a product of these beings becoming more social, taking on responsibilities such as gathering firewood, and of wanting to communicate through different means, since they could not communicate through language.
It is likely that another early form of music making came from prototypes of the percussion instruments we have today. As we know, it is very likely that these early humans could already ‘sing’.
By this we mean they could produce sound from their mouths in varying pitches to sound like music, just as we do when we hum. However, the widespread use of instruments came later.
The ability to manipulate sound in this way insinuates that rhythm is likely to have existed even before melody and tune as we know it today. This is what makes the idea of percussion-like instruments so widely theorized.
Making these percussion instruments with sticks, rocks, and other hard surfaces would have been possible for all of these protohumans.
It is likely that they used these items rhythmically, creating a sound that others in their group could easily follow along with. Perhaps they used this in ritualistic ceremonies, particularly amongst tribes. We know that these things occurred.
This is only supposition, but it is supposed by experts globally. Based on archaeological findings and other discovered artifacts, these percussion prototypes do seem to be a real possibility.
This becomes even more clear upon the observation of tribal communities that still exist in the world that follow the same ritualistic traditions as their ancestors, such as those found in Africa and South America, as well as Aboriginal communities in Australia.
The Late Pleistocene: Mid/Upper Paleolithic Musicality
The Late Pleistocene era (dating from 250 Kya) was an era of creation.
While creation was not continuous, and the evidence we have is focused toward the later part of the era, it is clear that creation and innovation were the names of the game for the beings of this time.
From artwork inside caves to modeled figurines and even instruments, the Pleistocene period served as a precursor for much of the arts culture we have today.
As we know, basic tools date back much earlier. But the skills needed for the creation of more specific tools and weapons came about in this era and led to the mass creation of these pieces of art and instruments.
Creating this type of art and these instruments required specific skills. Their construction would have been achieved through meticulous handcrafting, proving that these protohumans had self control and the ability to focus on the task.
The skills they possessed would have been intentional and specialized, passing them down to others in their tribe.
It is unknown when exactly the first instrument was created, but the oldest discoveries date back over 43,000 years. And other discoveries date back 35,000 years. Let’s take a look at the former first.
The Divya Babe Cave Flute
There is very little evidence of Neanderthals creating instruments. One discovery was a bone that looked like it had been modeled into an instrument found in Slovenia in 1995.
This bone flute is thought to have come from Neanderthals that lived there. It was fashioned out of the femur bone of a cave bear.
It is hard to confirm for certain whether it is definitely from this era, or indeed intended to be a musical instrument. But we know that they did fashion tools and personal decorations or ornaments out of bones, so it does not seem far-fetched.
That said, this is widely disputed, especially since no other instruments have been found from this era, and the second oldest discovery is from 10,000 after the first.
Swabian Juran Mountain Flute
In 2009, archaeologists discovered a bone flute fashioned from the bone of a bird – likely a griffon vulture – dating from around 35,000 calendar years ago.
They also found fragments of flutes made from ivory in the same location.
Whereas the Divya Babe flutes have been disputed, with many people believing it is just a gnawed-at bone, the ivory flutes (found in southwest Germany) are solid proof of musicality from this time period.
It proves that there was an established tradition of music among the early humans that began to colonize Europe.
Unlike the percussion type instruments of earlier periods, these flutes indicated more high tech tool making. By this, we mean that the making of instruments was likely done through higher-order tool use.
This is the use of tools to make other tools, rather than using your hands to fashion a tool of just one material. It is clear, purely from looking at instruments like these flutes that the skills of these beings were developing quickly.
They were becoming the humans that we are today, developing cognitive skills, as well as social skills, and an appreciation for leisure activities such as music and art.
With this in mind, it is easy to think that these bone flutes were the first flutes there were. They are the only ones we have found.
However, it is highly likely that flutes and other instruments like these were fashioned from other materials that perhaps do not lend themselves as well to preservation as vulture bones.
For example, it is possible that reeds, bamboo, wood, and other natural resources were used as well as bones, perhaps even predating the use of bones as flutes.
However, due to the delicate nature of these materials and the fact that they cannot so easily be preserved, there is no proof to inform us either way. In the same vein, we know that horns of animals were also used as instruments, having found proof of such a practice.
What is certain is that through these confirmed instruments that have been found, we gain an insight into civilizations that we otherwise know very little about.
There is much proof in support of the fact that these ancient people used the bones of dead animals – likely those hunted for meat, skins, or those who had died naturally – not just for tools but also for music making and decorative ornaments.
It is also possible that tools made for hunting were used as musical instruments too. The thought process behind this is that the materials used for each are similar, and so it is very possible that tools, weapons, and instruments could all serve a similar purpose.
To explore this in more detail, we must look at the musicality of the hunter-gatherer tribes.
Music In A hunter-Gatherer Society
Music in the time of hunter-gatherers was likely produced on tools that were also used for hunting and gathering.
As an example, take the bows of contemporary African tribes. These bows are also used as musical instruments.
Another example are spears. Spear throwing societies also use their spears for musical instruments.
The greatest modern example of a hunter-gatherer society are aboriginal people.
In Australia and Tasmania, hunter-gatherer societies often use the shafts of their spear throwers and boomerangs ands instruments, using them to clap and make percussion-like noises.
It was also the aborigines who discovered that you can clap together sticks to produce music and hit hollow logs to produce sound. This innovation likely paved the way for many instruments of today. like the xylophone.
In other hunter-gatherer communities around the world, music also played an important part.
In this section of the article, we will be taking a look at the traditions of Australian aboriginal people, different tribes in America like the Blackfoot, and the Yupik tribe of Alaska, to see their musical practices.
The music Of The Australian Aboriginal Society
Aboriginal societies have provided us with some of the most innovative instruments throughout history. The didgeridoo, is thought to date back around 10,000 years.
That said, the origin is disputed and no solid proof can be found on the exact origins. Some archaeologists have said there is only actual evidence of didgeridoos from as early as 1000 years ago.
Nevertheless, it is undeniably an excellent example of aboriginal cultures using tools that they already had. The didgeridoo, seems to be based on a hunting tool.
Before we discuss the current music of the didgeridoo in any detail, we must first look back to its origins. When the didgeridoo was first discovered, it followed a tool known as the ’emu decoy’.
The emu decoy did what it said on the tin – acted as a decoy to help people capture emus for food. They would blow into a small hole to imitate the sound of a male emu. Didgeridoos work the same way.
The emu decoy was known as the boobinj by the Aboriginal people. It was smaller than the didgeridoo, but the similarities are clear.
The design came about when it was discovered that termites had hollowed out the insides of eucalyptus plants. People discovered you could blow into these hollowed out eucalyptus tubes and produce a sound.
The didgeridoo is still used to this day and is a very important aspect of Aboriginal cultures. It has become synonymous with Australia.
Music is extremely important to the aboriginal people of Australia. So much so that the didgeridoo is seen as a sacred instrument. Aboriginal communities today still regard it very highly and play it as their ancestors did.
Women were never allowed to play the didgeridoo, leaving it up to the men. This still happens in Aboriginal cultures. However, women do help with Aboriginal music, sometimes providing vocals.
Music made with didgeridoos was used for many different reasons in Aboriginal cultures. It could be used at funerals, rituals, different celebrations, and much more. Traditionally, it was used for ceremonial dancing and recreational purposes.
It is a way of communicating their spiritual relationship with the people, spirits, and world around them. It is known by members of the Yolngu community as a yidaki and is still used to this day.
The yidaki connects to their Yolngu Laws, and is part of their physical and cultural landscape, underpinning much of what they do in their lives.
The didgeridoo is also used in conjunction with other instruments, as well as vocals. It is common, especially in the Wangga genre, to use clapsticks known as bilma or bimla to get a beat with which to play alongside.
The beat starts and then come the vocals. Lastly, the didgeridoo joins, creating a tune together.
It is important to note that Australian aboriginal societies were not the only ones in existence. In fact, Aboriginal communities can be found worldwide.
Next, we will be exploring the Yupik society in Alaska, looking at their musical practices. Later on, we must also look at some of the musical practices of Native Americans.
The Music Of The Yupik People In Alaska
Before we begin, we want to introduce the Yupik people.
It is thought that they are related to a group of people who migrated across the Bering sea some 10,000 years ago to Alaska. The Yupik are indigenous and were probably hunter-gatherers.
Due to their close proximity to the sea, a lot of their food came from sea lions, walruses, and seals. They had advanced tools such as bone weapons or those made from wood and stone.
They were social, living in large groups during the winter, and smaller groups during the summer.
Music plays a very important part in the lives of the Yupik people. As a culture, they are fond of dancing and have a traditional dance called Yup’ik dancing.
It is uncertain when the exact origins of Yup’ik dancing came about, but it is clear that it has always been a huge part of their culture. The dances were performed to traditional Yupik music. The music was played on instruments made with materials they had around them.
Drums, for example, were fashioned out of seal stomachs and played using driftwood fashioned into wooden sticks.
The seal’s stomach drums were used to make a beat, and both men and women would sing and dance along with the beat. As we saw in some of the first communities of protohumans, socializing is very important. This is certainly true of the Yup’ik community.
Their traditional dancing and singing are very important for social and spiritual reasons. Some of their songs and dances form a sort of prayer. They serve as a social gathering, entertainment, and as a form of thanksgiving.
Their songs and dances may also incorporate their traditional instruments. The qelutviaq is a one string instrument. It resembled a lute or fiddle and is played by Yukip people who reside on Nelson Island.
Music is just as important as dancing, and Yupik people make use of their drums and qelutivaq for other reasons than dancing. In fact, there are thirteen main types of music in the culture of the Yupik people.
1. Dance Songs
These are the songs used in the traditional dancing that we discussed above. They are typically played on animal skin or stomach drums, alongside vocals.
2. Shamans’ Songs
Shamnas’ Songs are trance-like pieces used to communicate with spirit beings and hunting spirits. They would often be about the moon and would be played in the hope that the community shaman would be able to communicate with these spirits and wish for good luck for the hunting season.
3. Hunting Songs
Hunting songs are often sung whilst the Yupik people make their way to a hunt. It is thought to help ensure that any prey they find will not escape. These songs are thought to have supernatural powers, connecting with spirits and the universe to ensure they secure their prey to feed the village.
4. Teasing Songs
Teasing songs use humor and satire to effectively call-out a member of the community for any misdemeanor. It is a little like a telling off but done in a lighthearted comedic way.
5. Traveling Songs
Travelling songs were sung by Yupik people while they endured long journeys to other places. They were a form of entertainment on these long journeys, helping them to pass away the hours easily without getting bored.
The songs often revolve around the weather, with one of their songs giving the wind anthropomorphic qualities, as though the wind was human.
6. Berry-Picking Songs
These songs are sung by children and women who go berry-picking in the summer months. They usually sing about the surroundings where the berries can be found.
7. Story Songs
As the name suggests, these songs tell a story. The story can differ depending on the song. The messages of some of the songs are empowering, with themes of overcoming.
This perhaps relates to the ordeals that the Yupik people have had to overcome in their lives such as being taken over by Christian missionaries. Other stories feature much darker themes full of bloodlust and death.
8. Juggling Game Songs
This song is accompanied by a juggling game that teaches coordination to children, as well as providing a form of entertainment for adults and children alike.
9. Jump-Rope Game Songs
Like children all over the world, Yupik children also enjoy jump rope. These songs are comparable to the jump rope songs sung in the States and the United Kingdom, typically in a rhyme or engaging in conversation through song.
10. Ghost Game Songs
Another game song but this time revolving around ghosts. In a song-like fashion, children take turns pretending to be a ghost while the other children sing questions at it, such as “Where are you, ghost?”
11. Bird Identification Songs
In these songs, children learn about the characteristics of local birds and how to identify them. They also learn the calls and songs of each bird, trying to imitate them so they can get to know them.
12. Fish Identification Songs
Like the bird identification songs, these fish songs teach children how to identify different fish by telling them their characteristics. They also help children become familiar with the calls of different sea animals and the sounds they make.
13. Inqum “Cooing” Songs
These songs are a favorite among young people of the Yupik communities as they serve as lullabies. They often incorporate the names of individual children and are sung to comfort them.
The first six on the list are for Yupik adults, and the latter seven types of music are for Yupik children. Each of these is an important aspect of Yupik life.
The Yupik community was observed and researched by an ethnomusicologist Thomas F Johnston who went on to write journal articles about them. It is from this research that we know so much about the importance of music to these people.
As you can see, some of the children’s songs focus on education, teaching about birds and fish. There are also songs dedicated to games and entertainment, as well as songs that tell stories and comfort children.
Some of the children’s songs are sung by adults for children as there are no rules over who can perform what, unlike Australian aboriginal cultures where women are prohibited from performing.
The songs of the Yupik cultures, while still very much alive today, date back to a time where the hunter-gatherer culture was the only way to live.
They are similar to the Australian aborigines in the sense that their music came about as a way of expressing themselves socially, communicating their values and spiritual beliefs, and as a way of establishing identity.
This exploration of music in hunter-gatherer societies has brought us up to the modern day, demonstrating the clear influence that these early forms of music still hold today.
Modern music takes clear inspiration from the music of the periods before it, developing it into something that is still recognized today.
The influence is especially notable in its religious undertones. The songs for spirit guides and beings are similar in theory to the devotional songs of the classic antiquity and Middle Ages.
The Music Of Classical Antiquity And Beyond
This section will be taking a brief glance at the music of classic antiquity, looking at Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece. Then we’ll continue on to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Ancient Greece And Ancient Rome
As society began to form into something more like the society we know today, so did the importance of social gatherings revolving around feasting and drinking. Music and other forms of entertainment, such as dancing, accompanied these feasts.
The Classical Antiquity, and even Ancient Greece and Rome are such wide spanning eras. To talk about them and their music thoroughly would warrant an epic novel.
For the purposes of this short exploration of the music of this era and how it connects to the wider picture, we will just be taking a quick glance at the era.
Ancient Romans were known for their love of extravagance. Wining and dining practically started there (not a fact, so don’t quote us on that!).
Ancient Roman celebrations could last days, with lots of entertainment to go along with the food.
In fact, Roman Banquets were described as a feast for the senses.
Of course, food and drink were important but the entertainment factor was designed to really wow the guests. There were often musical performances that involved instruments.
The flute, as we know, was one of the earliest instruments, so it featured heavily. They also used other instruments such as the lyre and water organ. In terms of singing, they often had choirs and choral pieces.
Some more wealthy people may have hired cooks who could sing as well as serve and cook the food.
In Ancient Greece, the passion for music as an accompaniment to food was just as important. The Greeks were known for lavish celebrations too, making use of the same kinds of instruments as the Ancient Romans.
The lyre often accompanied Greek lyrical poetry and was performed at feasts. They also used the harp and sistrum. Ancient Greeks honored gods and goddesses, associating many of them with music.
Pan was often portrayed with panpipes, and Apollo was thought to represent music and harmony.
The Greeks sand many types of songs, like hymns to honor the gods and goddesses or dithyrambs for celebrations and in honor of Dionysus (the god associated with wine and celebrations).
The Ancient Greeks and Romans both set the ball in motion with their shared love of dinner entertainment, solidifying forever the need for dinner party music and the importance of being entertained.
Both of the cultures also enjoyed theater performances, leading the way for the musicals and plays of today.
Music In The Middle Ages And The Renaissance
Music through the Middle Ages progressed quickly. The instruments used in the Ancient Greek and Roman eras were also used in the Middle Ages. Plus many more.
Many of them closely resemble instruments we still have today. There were lutes, flutes, lyres, harps, and even early guitar-like instruments such as the mandore and citole.
The genres of music largely revolved around religion. Gregorian chants by monks were commonplace, developing from monophonic chants to polyphonic chants with harmonies and instruments.
Another popular genre was liturgical drama and plainchants. This was a type of Gregorian chant. These were sung in polyphonic style. The best example we have of this is the Winchester Troper which is a manuscript of tropes used at Winchester Cathedral.
This was a way of singing that was popular in England during this time.
The Middle Ages also saw the rise of troubadours who sang about courtly love, women, chivalry, and war. They would sing solo, often with an instrument to accompany them.
They were a common feature in the area we now know as the Mediterranean, especially in Monaco, Provence, Italy, and Spain. Another similar type of singer was the trouveres, although these tended to be noblemen who sang poetry and were more well-received.
They were common in the North of France.
It is clear that the music of this period had a lasting effect, influencing many 21st century composers such as John Luther Adams and Steve Reich.
This focus on religious chant-like music, as well as the singing troubadours, was developed upon as the world entered the period we know as the Renaissance.
Again, to talk about this period fully, we would like to dedicate a whole novel. But we don’t have the space for that here.
Suffice to say that the Renaissance period was hugely influential, seeing the invention of various instruments and styles of music and singing.
Some of the instruments used in this era, especially as the Renaissance was ending, are still used today. There were early forms of the trumpet, the creation of the tambourine, violas, the triangle, and organs galore.
Music was becoming less about religious and communal expression (although these, especially the former, were still extremely important) and a means to worship.
It was becoming something far more personal. People could use it as a way of expressing their emotions, much like we do today.
Evolution Of Music: Conclusion
The early history of music is colorful and rich. The very first instruments were likely percussion-type instruments made with stones and sticks. The first invented type is was likely a flute.
While these inventions were pre-melody, it is likely that they kept rhythm. And they clearly had an influence on all the music to come.
As proto-humans progressed into more social creatures, the importance of socializing helped the emergence of music.
Hunter-gatherer societies used music for social interactions and religious purposes, influencing the cultures that followed.
The explosion of the Ancient Roman Empire, as well as the influence of the Ancient Greeks, firmly solidified music as a form of entertainment in our collective human nature.
The music of today, while very far removed from the Gregorian chants, lyrical poetry, and lyre-playing of the past still, exists for the same reasons.
It is a way of interacting with other humans, of self and communal expression, of religious devotion or even of promoting health. Perhaps most important of all, it is a form of entertainment.