This blog post is about the first music ever played or sung on Earth. It investigates a vast expanse of time from about 50,000 years ago up until the fall of the Roman Empire, which occurred about 1,500 years ago. That’s 48,000 years of human music-making. Sadly, most musical details of this time are cloaked in the impenetrable darkness that exists between pre-history and our earliest efforts to write. Consequently, this part of music history—the very beginning—is the least well-understood, the most poorly documented, and the most speculative. What little we do know is interesting, though—especially since any proper study of music history begins by studying things that people found in caves and dug from the ground. Indeed, before we begin studying music history, let’s briefly inspect music archaeology.
The oldest piece of evidence that attests to human music-making is a 42,000-year-old flute made from the wing of a vulture.
It was found in Hohle Fels, a cave in southern Germany. The cave also contained flute fragments made from mammoth bone and the very first example of figurative art—a woman shaped figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels.
Check out this short clip of archaeologist Wulf Hein demonstrating a melody on a replica of the ancient flute:
Moving forward in time, discoveries dating from the Bronze Age include metal bells, cymbals, jingles, and horns. Wall paintings from about 6000 BCE clearly depict people playing drums for some kind of hunting ritual.
Another interesting archaeological find is the so-called Standard of Ur. It was dug up in the 1950s from an ancient Sumerian cemetery dating from around 2600 BCE. It’s a wooden box depicting people at a banquet. Displayed on the box are several animals, many soldiers, a king, and—most notably for our purposes—a musician playing a lyre.
A lyre is a harp-like instrument that was common during antiquity. It had somewhere in the neighborhood of seven strings and was plucked with the fingers or played with a plectrum.
Also found in the the cemetery were actual musical instruments. One such instrument, the Queen’s Lyre, was found in the grave of Queen Pu-abi. The Queen’s Lyre, and the other harps found in the dig, are thought to be the world’s oldest surviving stringed instruments.
The animal represented on the Queen’s Lyre’s, a bull, had religious significance to the Sumerians. (The Sumerians were one of the first cultures on Earth; they lived about 4, 000 years ago in what today is the country of Iraq.) Evidence suggests that music was used by the Sumerians, and all other ancients known to us, to heighten the sense of awe during worship ceremonies.
Cave paintings, metal rattles, bone flutes, and cemetery lyres are all very interesting. But they belong to the realm of archaeology, which is not the focus of this blog post. In order to really study music in depth, we need to enter the realm of history.
The historical record begins with the birth of writing about 5,000 years ago. From this point, individuals are given voices, stories are told, and even a little music can be heard.
The accepted year for the establishment of writing is 3200 BCE, the accepted location of this development is Mesopotamia. Here, writing evolved over many years through representational systems of pictograms and phonograms—markings that use pictures. Eventually, the symbols were capable of reproducing utterances that could be deciphered by another human being.
Writing was invented principally for the purpose of record keeping. Clay tablets, known as cuneiform, were marked up using a wedge-shaped stylus and left to dry—thus preserving the writing.
The first written evidence for music are pictograms featured on cuneiform tablets that display harp-shaped characters.
The earliest composer whose name is known to us is Enheduanna. She was an Akkadian priestess who lived around the year 2300 BCE. Some of the lyrics to her moon-god hymns exist, but none of the music exists. Enheduanna predated humanity’s effort to capture sound with writing. The earliest known music—a melody in notation—was found on a clay tablet dating from between 1450 and 1250 BCE.
It was discovered in modern-day Syria amongst the ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit.
The tablet, part of a collection of similar cuneiform artifacts, is written in the Sumerian dialect known as Hurrian and contains a hymn to Nikkal—the wife of a moon god.
The music and the tablets are referred to as the Hurrian Songs or as the Hurrian cult hymns.
In the 1970s, a team of archaeologists and musicologist, lead by Anne Kilner from the University of California, deciphered one of the tablet’s melodies and published a short booklet and audio recording called Sounds from Silence.
Kilner and her team discovered that the tablet contains important details for the music such as the intervals between the notes, the pitch set to be used for the melody, and stipulations for performance. The tablet suggests that the music is to be a single voice accompanied by a lyre.
(The above video is for solo lyre only. This is because the vocal part of the music was not decipherable.)
The problem with studying the Hurrian Songs from a historical perspective is that not all historians agree with Kilner’s interpretation.
A History of Western Music by Peter Burkholder, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca, which is the standard university text for this subject, gives short shrift to the Hurrian Songs mentioning only that ”scholars have proposed possible transcriptions for the music but the notation is too poorly understood to be read with confidence.”
On the other hand, Musicologist Richard Taruskin seems to lend credence to Kilner’s research when he describes, in detail, the Hurrian Songs in The Oxford History of Western Music.
In any case, the point is that none of the music from ancient times can be interpreted with full accuracy. It’s the music of the medieval period—two thousand years in the future from the Hurrian hymns—that starts being more than superficially decipherable to historians.
Before we wade any deeper into ancient music, it might be helpful to consider the kinds of evidence musicologists are working with here. A History of Western Music suggests four categories:
- Drawings and other graphic depictions of musicians, instruments, and performances;
- Physical remains of instruments themselves,
- Writings about music and musicians in literature and in record books; and,
- Notated music (the rarest and most sought after).
It might also be helpful to consider the order of events that lead to the formation of ancient civilization. A simplified version of the story goes like this: Humans in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) learned to grow a surplus of food somewhere about the year 8000 BCE (that’s ten thousand years ago).
As a result, they stayed in one place, developed cities, and fostered culture such as art, music, and literature.
Although civilization formed independently in other parts of the world, such as in Mesoamerica and in China, the civilization that sprang out of Mesopotamia gave birth to the form of music studied in this class—known as Western music.
Through a very long series of conquests, shifting kingdoms, dynastic successions, and assimilation, civilization spread throughout the Mediterranean region. Some notable examples of these civilizations include the Egyptians (3150 BCE), the Greeks (800 BCE), and the Romans (500 BCE). The dates given are estimates of the beginnings of these civilizations.
Of course, there was plenty of time overlap between the three. For example, ancient Egypt lasted until about 300 BCE, many years after the founding of ancient Greece and within a couple centuries of the founding of ancient Rome.
All three of these ancient civilizations were overlapping in their times of inception, duration of existence, and times of downfall. The general time trend for the cultural center of the Mediterranean universe, however, is clear enough: It’s Egypt then Greece then Rome. All three of which being preceded by Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians and the Akkadians—who were the first of the firsts.
Out of these four civilizations, it’s the Greeks that we know the most about. So, it’s to the Greeks we shall now turn.
Music in Ancient Greece
The civilization of Ancient Greece was innovative musically for several reasons.
It saw the evolution of new instruments such as the aulos (a reed instrument, like a modern-day clarinet but with a double pipe body and finger holes); it saw scholars develop mathematical theory to explain musical intervals and the movements of the heavens; and, it saw a robust repertoire of music designed to accompany poetry.
In fact, poetry and music are one and the same in Greek thought. Because of this, both of these art forms are labeled with the catch-all term mousike, which can also refer to dancing. The word itself comes from the muses, characters in Greek mythology who represent inspiration to artistic creation.
So, in Ancient Greece, if you were reciting poetry, you were singing; if you were singing, you were reciting poetry. There’s a good chance you’d also be dancing.
Because of the marriage of music and poetry, musicologists are reasonably certain that the rhythm of the music—the parts that were played and sung—were controlled by the meter of the words. This helps musicologist decipher how the music goes.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Greek music is the way that they considered it scientifically. Using an instrument called a monochord, the Greeks were able to measure the exact ratios of the musical intervals.
For example, If you sound a string on an instrument like a guitar or a monochord then play the same string but this time stop it at the halfway point (by pressing a finger down at the exact center of the string, thus shortening it by 50 percent), it sounds as twice as high, and so, exists in a ratio of 2 to 1.
This is a common interval and a common sound in music in general, It is known to musicians as an octave. It is a sound that exists in all cultures and in all music.
Starting with Pythagoras—the famous Greek mathematician–many of the intervals comprising the familiar pitch set, known today as the major scale, were sussed out using this monochord. (Pythagoras was thought to have lived about the year 500 BCE)
Intriguingly, those same mathematical ratios were used to explain the laws governing the movement of planets in the sky.
A theory of the universe grew up around the teaching of Pythagoras. This theory of the universe is known as the Music of the Spheres.
A related concept, known as Harmonia, evolved from the Music of the Spheres. The idea of Harmonia is that an orderly whole can be devised through even divisions–thus producing pleasant harmony.
So, the fact that there were seven tones in the pitch set today know as the major scale, and there were seven things that moved around through the sky—the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn–meant that, to the Greeks, astronomy and music were related.
The concepts of Harmonia and The Music of the Spheres suggested to the ancients that one’s ethical character, or ethos, could be influenced by music.
Famous Greek philosopher Plato (428 BCE) carries on about the matter in his great work, The Republic. He writes that with music one must seek balance, for too much music makes one weak and irritable and too little makes one warlike, uncivilized, and ignorant. He also suggested that those being trained to govern should not listen to music featuring soft and indolent melodies.
Less speculative, and more concrete, are the two treatises on music theory–one nearly complete one fragmentary—written by Aristoxenus.
Active around the year 335 BCE, Aristoxenus wrote Elements of Harmony, which is a three-volume treatment of everything known about musical systems in his time.
This includes the Music of the Spheres concept, the ideas about the proper uses of music, and the makeup and character scales.
Aristoxenus departs from Pythagoras by suggesting the use of the ear instead of the monochord to derive and tune the scale.
Aristoxenus’ other work, the fragmentary one, is a short treatise on rhythm and metrics. Not much is known about its detail or its content.
Despite the patchy musical evidence on offer in these books, Aristoxenus, and other ancient Greeks, managed to explain to us moderns that their music had a very specific texture. Historians are fairly certain that most Greek music was heterophonic.
Heterophony is a texture of music whereby a principal melody is sung and accompanied by the same melody using slight variations.
To imagine this, think of people singing Happy Birthday together. Notice in your imaginary birthday choir how not everyone is singing the melody the exact same way. Someone, usually some joker, is departing from the tune and adding his or her own alterations. This is what the texture of heterophony sounds like.
The diagram below will help you understand just what heterophony is by comparing it with three other common musical textures—monophony, a single voice melody; polyphony, more than one simultaneous melody, and homophony, a melody supported by block clusters of tones.
Check out this video featuring heterophony in Indian music. Notice how the woman’s voice and the sitar perform roughly the same melody.
In ancient Greece, the poet and the aulos player would carry on together with roughly the exact same musical content–thereby executing a heterophonic texture.
Greek Pieces Preserved In Notation
As far as ancient civilizations go, we have quite a lot of musical material from the Greeks. However, there still aren’t too many pieces—certainly not enough to get any true sense of the Greek musical canon as a whole.
Imagine, for comparison, that for the whole of the twentieth century we had hardly any songs preserved. Say, we had three songs: Beat It by Michael Jackson, the Charles in Charge theme song, and Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller. This would leave historians with a pretty myopic view of the music of the twentieth century, I’d say.
Well, it’s kind of like that with Greek music; there’s simply not enough of it to accurately represent form, content, or style.
Nevertheless, we do have four pieces of particular note that are reasonably intact and reasonably decipherable.
They are the Stasimon Chorus, part of the epic play called Orestes(ah res tees) written by Euripides in (408 BCE); we have two hymns written in reverence to Apollo known as the Delphic Hymns (138 BCE and 128 BCE respectively); and we have a complete melody and set of words scrawled onto a tombstone known as the Epitaph of Seikilos.
The most complete and well-understood piece of this lot is this epitaph.
It was written in the first century CE, fairly late as our story goes. Musicologists are pretty certain of how it’s supposed to sound—making it the earliest melody that we are sure about. That means that, when you listen to it, you can be reasonably certain that you are hearing something the same way it sounded two thousand years ago.
The Stasimon chorus from Euripides’ play Orestes is fragmentary. As you can see below it exists on a papyrus scroll in which the margins are missing.
Listen to a recreation of the Euripides song here:
The Delphic Hymns also exist in fragmentary form. Here they are preserved at the Delphi Archaeological Museum.
Here is ancient music expert Michael Levy talking about the Delphic Hymns and performing the first one on lyre:
Oddly, even though the high cultures of Ancient Rome occur after that of Ancient Greece, we know very little about Ancient Roman music.
Most scholars suggest that musical thought and traditions established under the Greeks held sway throughout the Roman period.
Musicologist do say, however, that in Ancient Rome, musical contests were popular. (Imagine something like today’s American Idol.) This suggests that music, like other aspects of Roman life, was a kind of spectacle meant to be consumed like a sport.
The best way to organize your mind around this material is with a timeline. Here are the facts, figures, and works most representative of ancient music listed in chronological order:
- 40,000 BCE—Bone flute
- 8000 BCE—Birth of civilization
- 6000 BCE—Turkish wall paintings
- 3200 BCE—Birth of writing
- 1450-1250 BCE—Hurrian Songs
- 800 BCE—Beginning of Greek city-states
- 500 BCE—Pythagoras
- 408 BCE—Stasimon Chorus from Euripides’ Orestes
- 380 BCE—Plato writes The Republic
- 335 BCE—Aristoxenus, The Elements of Harmony
- 138 BCE— and 128 BCE—The Delphic Hymns
- 100 CE—Epitaph of Seikilos
That’s it, guys—just five songs (there are two Delphic hymns).
Even taking the Hurrian songs as the beginning—which they’re not, really—that’s still two thousand years being represented by five songs. That’s like representing modern music with the Charles in Charge theme song, Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction,” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” a song I wrote in high school, and “Whip it” by Devo. What a myopic view of humanity’s musical output that list of source material would provide.
As a point of comparison, in 1917 there were thousands of songs written, published, and recorded; some of these songs became huge hits and sold over a million copies.
Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press: New York, 2010.
Grout, D., Burkholder, J., & Palisca, C. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton, 2014.
Bauer, S. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.
Abraham, G. The Concise Oxford History of Music. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Randel, D. The Harvard concise dictionary of music and musicians. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press, 1999.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Direct by Werner Herzog. Creative Differences Productions, Inc., 2011.