When Did Humans Begin Making Music?
Our desire to make music appeared about 50,000 years ago, which was around the same time that we decided to bury dead people, worship gods, and make sophisticated tools. Anthropologists call prehistoric people that acted this way behaviorally modern humans.
The stock of people that lived before behaviorally modern humans are known to anthropologists as anatomically modern humans. These ancient people evolved in sub-Saharan Africa around 250,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Anatomically modern (but behaviorally ancient) humans were structurally identical to modern humans but acted much differently: They did not sing songs, worship gods, bury dead people, or even wear clothes. Indeed, wearing clothes did not become commonplace until about 72,000 years ago (Stearns 9).
Our ability to articulate complex thoughts and ideas using language came about even later, emerging only about 45,000 years ago. Incidentally, anthropologist suggest that the emergence of modern language coincided with the emergence of art—particularly, cave paintings and figurines sculptures (Wade 46).
How Do We Know Anything About Ancient Music
There are four basic kinds of evidence for human-music making:
- Drawings and other graphic depictions of musicians and instruments
- Physical remains of instruments themselves
- Literature and record books that cover music and musicians
- Notated music
Out of these, it is notated music that is the rarest and most sought-after.
What is the Oldest Piece of Evidence for Human Music-Making?
The oldest piece of archeological evidence for human-music making is a 42,000-year-old bone flute made from the wing of a vulture
It was found in Hohle Fels, which is a cave in southern Germany. In this cave, archaeologists also found the oldest known piece of representative art, a woman-shaped figurine.
Given this physical evidence, a safe supposition is that music has existed on Earth for about 50,000 years along with religion, language, and art.
How Did Music Get Passed Down Through the Ages?
Until the invention of accurate musical notation happened a thousand years ago, music was carried on solely as an oral tradition. An oral tradition is one in which customs, stories, art, and music are passed down through the generations via memory and person-to person contact.
Due to the inaccurate nature of transmitting information in this way, oral traditions and their products change slowly over time. For example, people often learn songs from their parents and grandparents, but teach different versions of those same songs to their own children and grandchildren.
Consequently, oral traditions are not a reliable source of historical information. This is because they behave like rumors in a high school. (During first period, it’s heard that Jane kissed Bobby. Later, during seventh period, you hear that Jane is pregnant and set to join Bobby’s metal band.)
After many generations, the songs of ones’ great-great-great grandparents are not the same songs as ones’ great-great-great grandchildren. Because of this phenomenon—known to anthropologists as the folk process—we don’t know exactly how the music of prehistory sounded.
We can study the musical artifacts they left behind, though.
What Other Evidence is There for Prehistoric Music Making?
Most of the evidence for prehistoric music-making comes from the remains of musical instruments and from artistic renderings of musicians. However, a more peculiar form of evidence comes to us from cave paintings.
Parietal art is found on the walls and ceilings of caves and often takes the form of animal paintings (“Cave painting” par. 1). For example, Chauvet Cave in Southern France is home to hundreds of cave paintings, some of which are more than 30,000 years old. Archaeologists are certain that locations within Chauvet Cave, and within other caves around the world, were used by prehistoric people for religious ceremonies. Moreover, researchers think that ancient people selected these locations based on their lively acoustic properties (Reznikoff par. 1).
Anyone who’s experienced a naturally occurring acoustic chamber can understand why ancient people favored these sites. The sounds produced inside these chambers is often beset by other-worldly amounts of echo, resonance, and reverberation. A single note sung inside a cave, or the bottom of a canyon, becomes an all-encompassing, wrap-around cascade of sound. No doubt these acoustic properties within the caves would’ve proved useful to shamans and religious mystics trying to summon the appropriate feeling of awe from their congregants.
Given the acoustic and artistic nature of these locations, it’s likely that cave-painting sites were the venues for humanity’s first musical performances.
What Happened Musically Once People Moved Out of Caves?
Music flourished in Earth’s first cities.
Thousands of years after humans performed ceremonial rituals inside painted caves, they formed agricultural societies—and eventually cities— in fertile regions around the globe.
The first permanent settlements show up in the archeological record about 15,000 years ago. By about 10,000 years ago, settled societies existed in Egypt, China, the Indus river valley, Central America, and the Andean region of South America.
The societies that developed in these places featured agriculture, political organization, social stratum, and despotic leaders, most of whom lived in royalty and were treated as living deities (Stearns 15).
The stability afforded by these cities allowed some of its inhabitants to focus on artistic endeavors like music.
The most consequential of these permanent settlements was Mesopotamia, which was in a fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq. People in Mesopotamia learned to grow a surplus of food somewhere about the year 8000 BC (that’s ten thousand years ago). As a result of their food surplus, they were able to stay in one place, develop cities, and foster culture like art, music, and literature.
What Physical Evidence for Music-Making Exists from Ancient Settlements?
One piece of evidence is the Standard of Ur, which is a decorated wooden box dug up in the 1950s from an ancient Sumerian cemetery dating from around 2600 BC. The Sumerians were one of the first cultures on Earth; they lived about 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
One of the figures depicted on the Standard of Ur is a musician playing a lyre. A lyre is a harp-like instrument that was common during antiquity. It had several high-tension strings tuned to pitch and was plucked with the fingers or played with a plectrum.
Also found in the cemetery were actual musical instruments. One such instrument, the Queen’s Lyre, was found in the grave of Queen Pu-abi. These artifacts are thought to be the world’s oldest surviving string instruments.
The animal represented on the Queen’s Lyre (a bull) had religious significance to the Sumerians.
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.
What Role has Music Played in the Societies of the World?
All societies on Earth have employed music in similar ways:
- For religious purposes
- Coupled with dancing and poetry for dramatic effect
- To enhance worship ceremonies and rites of passage
- To accompany everyday activities like working
Are There Musical Differences Between Cultures?
Despite many musical universalities, some cultures do exhibit differences. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, music is interwoven into everyday life to a much greater extent than it is in most other cultures. There are songs for pulling in the fishing nets, songs for puberty rites, songs for funerals, songs for warriors, songs for hoeing the fields, et cetera. For sub-Saharan Africans, nearly every activity encountered in daily life has an accompanying song (Collier 7).
Other differences among the world’s music include interval sizes (distance between notes), scale systems (theories of note arrangement), and instrumentation (choice of musical device).
The differences are noticeable, but rarely profound. What is remarkable are the similarities. Singing, for example, is inherent to every culture.
Are There Any Universal Musical Attributes Among the World’s Cultures?
Improvising is prevalent and singing is universal.
Improvisation, which is the act of composing and performing without preparation, imbues most of the world’s musical traditions—including those of India and sub-Saharan Africa.
In the West, improvisation is to be found in many forms of music, including blues and jazz, where it serves a critical component to the music’s aesthetic.
Like improvisation, singing is found in all cultures and societies. However, different cultures strive for different tone qualities. Some musical traditions call for timbres that include shouts, growls, whispers, and cries. Here, in the West, smooth, melodious singing is preferred.
What Kind of Instruments Exist Throughout the World? Are There Many Kinds?
The world’s musicians play similar instruments made from similar raw material, but many varieties exist.
Due to this abundance, musicologists have divided them into four categories:
- Chordophones, which are instruments featuring high-tension strings for plucking or strumming
- Aerophones, which are instruments featuring a length of tube or pipe through which a column of air is blown
- Membranophones, which feature high-tension membranes held taut over a resonating receptacle (drums)
- Idiophones, feature resonating materials (like wood or metal) to be used as scrapers, bells, gongs, xylophones, etc.
What Do Most of the Worlds’ Musical Traditions Have in Common?
Scales are prevalent in nearly all the world’s musical traditions.
A scale is a collection of notes from which to derive melody. They function like a word bank for music. A scale provides a musician with this certainty: “just use these notes here and everything will sound good.”
Here in the West, we are familiar with the major-minor scale system, which uses tonal centers to form a collection of distinct, but interacting, keys.
Many cultures employ a simpler system of pentatonic scales instead of the major-minor system. As the name indicates, pentatonic scales are collections of five notes.
What is the Most Significant Invention in History?
Writing is the most significant invention in history because it illuminates our view of prehistoric peoples and their traditions. It was invented principally for the purpose of record keeping. Clay tablets, known as cuneiform, were marked up with pictograms and ideograms using a wedge-shaped stylus and left to dry.
Invented in Mesopotamian about 5,000 years ago (and independently in China and Mesoamerica sometime after), writing is arguably the most consequential technology in all human history. It deserves this commendation because it allows for the field of history to exist, and history provides modern people with the clearest possible view of the past.
When Did People Begin Trying to Write Music Down?
The birth of writing 5,000 years ago marked the beginning of music history. The first written evidence for music is 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 princess and priestess who lived around the year 2300 BCE. Some of the lyrics to her moon-god hymns exist, but no music.
The earliest known music—a melody in notation—was found on a clay tablet dating from around 1450 to 1250 BC. Discovered in modern-day Syria among the ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit, the tablet is part of a collection of similar cuneiform artifacts and contains writing in a Sumerian dialect known as Hurrian, and a hymn to Nikkal, who was 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 contained important musical details like 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 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 music-history classes, gives short shrift to the Hurrian Songs by mentioning 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. That luxury doesn’t come until much later in history. It’s the music of the medieval period—two thousand years in the future from the Hurrian hymns—that is truly decipherable.
Is There Any Notated Music from Societies That Came Along after Mesopotamia?
Yes, there is some—but not much.
Through an exceptionally long series of conquests, shifting kingdoms, dynastic successions, and assimilations, civilization spread throughout the Mediterranean region.
Some notable examples of these civilizations include the Egyptians (3150 BC), the Greeks (800 BC), and the Romans (500 BC).
The most influential of these ancient peoples were the Ancient Greeks because they bestowed upon us the political, philosophical, and intellectual underpinnings that organize our world.
The Greeks also left behind a significant musical heritage in the form of theoretical treatises, philosophies of music, and some actual pieces of music. Musicologists have several pieces of note that are reasonably intact and reasonably decipherable:
- Stasimon Chorus, which is part of the epic play called Orestes (ah res tees) written by Euripides in (408 BC)
- Delphic Hymns, which consists of two hymns written in reverence to Apollo in 138 BC and 128 BC
- Epitaph of Seikilos, which is a complete melody and set of words scrawled onto a tombstone dating from the first century AD.
- The birth of music happened 50,000 years ago at the hands of behaviorally modern humans.
- Music is primarily an oral tradition, which means it’s transmitted through the generations by word-of-mouth.
- Societies throughout human history have employed music the same way: (1) for religious purposes, (2) to enhance dancing, (3) to accompany ceremonies, and (4) to keep time at work.
- Prehistoric music can be studied through artifacts and the locations of parietal art.
- About 10,000 years ago people learned how to grow a surplus of food, build permanent settlements, and form state-organized societies; consequently, they developed art, music, and other forms of culture.
- The invention of writing, which emerged about 5,000 years ago, provided a reliable mechanism to record humanity’s music-making activities.
- Musical evidence from ancient cities includes artifacts like the Standard of Ur, which is a wooden box with pictures of people and musicians on it, and a clay tablet containing the Hurrian Cult Hymns, which is the oldest piece of (arguably) decipherable music on Earth.
- The oldest composer whose name is known to us in Enheduanna, a Sumerian high priestess from the city of Ur who lived about 2300 BC.
- The first efforts to notate music emerged in ancient Mesopotamia (3,500 years ago), ancient Greece (2,500 years ago), and ancient Rome (2,000 years ago).
- What term do Anthropologist use to refer to prehistoric people that looked and acted the same way we do today?
- Behaviorally modern humans
- Anatomically modern humans
- What is an oral tradition?
- A set of behaviors that are passed down through the generations via genetics
- A type of ritual that features ring shouts and polyrhythmic drumming
- A manner of transmitting customs through person-to-person contact
- A type of mannerism learned by imitating animals
- What do anthropologists call the phenomenon of slow alteration and change that occurs to the products of oral traditions?
- The folk process
- The oral tradition paradox
- The theory of behavioral shift
- The evolution of thoughts and actions
- What is the oldest piece of evidence proving the existence of human music making
- Cave paintings depicting people playing lyres
- A flute made from the wing of a vulture
- A treatise from Ancient Greece depicting harmony and rhythm
- Ancient Sumerian hymns
- What evidence of human music making do researchers garner from the sites of parietal art?
- The sites were chosen to feature flute solos
- The sites were chosen for their favorable visual properties
- The sites were located inside echo chambers that enhanced ceremony and ritual
- The sites were located near clans of the cave bear
- What piece of musical evidence exists from ancient Sumer?
- The Standard of Ur
- The Bells of Gondor
- Crown of the King of the Golden Hall
- Paintings of Enheduanna
- All cultures use music to enhance religious rituals and…
- Guide fishing
- Hunt game
- Enhance life
- Accompany dancing
- What characteristics are common to the music of all cultures?
- The use of ideophones
- The use of the voice
- The employment of scales
- The employment of syncopation
- What kind of music notation uses letters of the alphabet or syllables to represent notes of the scale?
- What is the oldest piece of truly decipherable music?
- Hurrian cult hymns
- Epitaph of Seikilos
- Delphic Hymns to Apollo
- Behaviorally modern humans: Anthropologists refer to humans that were anatomically and behaviorally modern as behaviorally-modern humans. They buried their dead, participated in religious ceremony, and made music.
- A manner of transmitting customs through person-to-person contact: Oral traditions include stories, art, and music that are passed down through the generations via memory and person-to person contact.
- The folk process: The folk process describes the inaccurate transmission of oral traditions such as songs, stories, and poems. For example, people often learn songs from their parents and grandparents but teach different versions of those same songs to their own children and grandchildren.
- A flute made from the wing of a vulture: The oldest piece of archeological evidence for human-music making is a 42,000-year-old bone flute made from the wing of a vulture.
- The sites were located inside echo chambers that enhanced ceremony and ritual: Parietal artwork (cave paintings) are in echo-laden portions of caves. Archaeologists are certain that these locations were used by prehistoric people for religious ceremonies and that it is likely that ancient people selected these locations based on their lively acoustic properties.
- The Standard of Ur: In modern-day Iraq, archaeologist found the Standard of Ur, which is a decorated wooden box dug up in the 1950s from an ancient Sumerian cemetery dating from around 2600 BC. The Sumerians were one of the first cultures on Earth; they lived about 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
- Accompany dancing: All societies on Earth have employed music in similar ways. Music around the world has been used for religious purposes, coupled with dancing and poetry for dramatic effect, used to enhance worship ceremonies and rites of passage, and used to accompany everyday activities like working.
- The use of the voice: Singing is found in all cultures and societies. Different cultures strive for different tone qualities. Some musical traditions call for timbres that include shouts, growls, whispers, and cries. Here, in the West, smooth, melodious singing is preferred.
- Solfeggio: Some cultures have a solfeggio-based system of notation, but these systems are used for jogging the memory, not for accurate record keeping. A solfeggio-based notation system uses letters of the alphabet or syllables to represent the notes of the scale.
- Epitaph of Seikilos: The most complete and well-understood piece of this lot is this epitaph. Found in present day Turkey, it exists in a form of Ancient-Greek notation that featured symbols above the text. Musicologists are confident that they know how it’s supposed to sound. Epitaph of Seikilos — a complete melody and set of words scrawled onto a tombstone dating from the first century AD.
Appendix 1: How Writing Evolved
Writing evolved over many centuries. It went through three basic stages: pictographic symbols, which were pictures of the things and scenes, ideographic symbols, which were depictions of ideas, and logographic symbols, which were symbols for words (Gleick 32).
Writing eventually evolved into syllabic and alphabetic systems in which characters were used to represent sounds, vowels, and consonants (“Writing system, “Functional classification par. 1).
Appendix 2: Humanity is Losing Touch With Its Musical Roots
Music performance has ceased to be a communal event and has become a passive affair. Fewer people are players and singers, and most people are listeners and critics. Indeed, most people can’t carry a tune unless they go to Karaoke night. Because of this, humanity is in real danger of losing touch with its original musical impulse. When was the last time any of you heard a coherent rendition of Happy Birthday while at a family gathering? Modernity has provided us with the tools to experience music without first having gained the tools to make music ourselves.
Appendix 3: The Invention of Notation Has Irreversibly Altered the Nature of Music
The emergence of a viable, reliable form of music notation emerged about 1,000 years ago in medieval Europe. It could be argued that this technology has wrought a change upon our communication habits equivalent to the birth of writing.
Human brains are bifurcated, and certain skills and abilities result from activity on one side or the other. For example, our ability to do math, speak, read, and write stems largely from neuronal activity in the left hemisphere. Similarly, our ability to think in three dimensions, distinguish patterns, and perform music stems largely from neuronal activity in the right hemisphere.
Consequently, brain damage to the left side diminishes ability to solve math problems and read books. And, brain damage to the right side diminishes ability to recognize faces and sing songs (Sagan 158). Curiously, a musician who has sustained a legion to their right hemisphere will no longer be able to recall melodies but will be able to read music notation unencumbered (Sagan 167).
Although the two hemispheres coordinate their efforts to produce complex skills, our ability to sing and play memorized songs exists separate from our ability to read and write musical notation—at least at the level of the brain. This means that much of humanity’s musical ability, especially the abilities inherent to oral traditions, stem from a right- hemisphere phenomenon. However, since humanity has undergone a whole-sale shift towards literacy, which is a left-brain phenomenon, the ability to appreciate and memorize music is underutilized. Consequently, humanity is likely losing touch with its musical roots.
Indeed, music performance has ceased to be a communal event and has become a passive affair. Fewer people are players and singers, and most people are listeners and critics. Indeed, most people can’t carry a tune unless they go to Karaoke night. Because of this, humanity is in real danger of losing touch with its original musical impulses
When was the last time any of you heard a coherent rendition of Happy Birthday while at a family gathering? Modernity has provided us with the tools to experience music without first having gained the tools to make music in any way.
 A system of music notation wherein letters of the alphabet or syllables are used to represent the notes of the scale.
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Gleick, James. “The Persistence of the Word.” The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, Vintage Books A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2011,
Ong, Walter J. Interfaces of the Word. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. Ballantine Books: New York, 1977.
Stearns, N. Peter, Ed. The Encyclopedia of World Music: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Chronologically Arranged, Sixth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2001.
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“Writing system, “Functional classification. The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 1 January 2020.
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