Music History: Prehistoric and Ancient Music

Music has been around since the beginning of time. It has been a form of communication and community since before there were even communities (haha). But because drawings, the written word, photographs, movies, the Internet, etc. haven’t been around as long to document our cultural history, we only have a small amount of knowledge about the early beginnings of music. However! We do have some information about early music, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Prehistoric music is the earliest music. This musical grouping, also known as “primitive music,” categorizes all of the music created in preliterate cultures. So this is before people could read and write. (Fun fact: literacy is believed to have emerged around 8,000 BCE with the development of basic, logical math.) This time period is also known as prehistory, which means – quite literally – “before history;” before any written record of history and culture ever existed. So, historians don’t really know much about how music exactly got started. Some think that music grew out of naturally occurring sounds and rhythms, and human-made music possibly echoed these patterns. Historians also think the first musical instrument was quite possibly the human voice. That being said, other prehistoric musical instruments did exist. In 2004, the oldest known wooden pipes were found in Ireland (wooden pipes! Read more here), and in 2008, archaeologists discovered a flute made out of bone in Germany (known as the Hohle Fels Flute, pictured below). The instrument is somewhere between 43,000-35,000 years old.


So unfortunately we don’t have any recordings of prehistoric music. We might be able to imagine what it sounded like, though. Picture this: a prehistoric band made of bone flutes, wooden or shell-made percussion, and human voices working together to create sound.

Then comes the time period of Ancient Music. Ancient music categorizes all music created in literate cultures (they could read and write at this point). *Side note: we don’t actually have a date as to when the Ancient music period began; all we know is that it started after cultures began reading and writing.* What’s cool about Ancient music is that because cultures became literate and started writing stuff down, we actually have a small record of what the music was like from this time. Cuneiform tablets (cuneiform is one of the earliest writing systems) from 4,000 years ago have been found to have some form of musical notation. In fact, these tablets are believed by historians to indicate a two-stringed lyre (a stringed instrument similar to a harp; popular in Ancient Greece), describe notes similar to a diatonic scale (a scale such as C-D-E-F-G), and record the earliest known melodies. Other clues about Ancient music come from illustrations, such as this one from The Odyssey, by Homer, showing a musical performance:

Illustration of Odysseus Weeping at Song of Demodocus

And this image here shows a tablet of Ancient Greek musical notation:


To learn more about how historians have figured out how to read ancient music, click here.

Music in ancient cultures, particularly Sumer culture (southern Mesopotamia), was an important part of religious and civic life. Many songs and musical instruments were written and played to honor their gods. Click here to read about an awesome project headed by singer and composer Stef Connor on reconstructing ancient Sumerian music. (There’s also a sample of her album, The Flood, which is her singing ancient Sumerian music. It’s really cool.) For more examples of what ancient Sumerian music might have sounded like, check out the video below:

This leads us to the Song of Seikilos. The Song of Seikilos is the oldest known complete written composition (written around 200 BCE), and it was engraved on an ancient tombstone in Turkey. The text is signed by Seikilos, an Ancient Grecian, to Euterpe (probably his wife), and the translation is as follows:

While you live, shine

have no grief at all 

life exists only for a short while

and time demands an end.

Here is a modern recording of the piece (the music starts at 0:25). This recording is based on a historical understanding of Ancient Greek musical notation and language:

Historians end the Ancient music era around 500 CE. As a transition to the next post in this particular series (which will be on Medieval music), I’d like to briefly discuss music during Biblical times. There are several references to music in the Old Testament: Gen. 4:21, Gen. 31:27, 1 Sam. 10:5 are a few. In many cases, music was used to praise and worship God. Hebrew churches sang antiphonal chants (sort of like a call-and-response chant between the church leader or choir and audience; often to words in the Book of Psalms) in their religious services as well as hymn songs (some of these hymn songs were chant-like with multiple voices while others were just one voice).

Cool fact: in some Old Testament scrolls, small markings were written above the text of various psalms. Modern scholars have translated those markings into a system of music notation called ta’amim.

New Testament and Christian era music (at the tail end of the Ancient music era), sadly, was passed through aural tradition rather than written tradition, so we don’t have much there by way of a historical record. It is believed that Ancient Hebrew music, the antiphonal chants and hymn songs and other music discussed in the Old Testament, directly influenced and was integrated into the music of the early Christian church. In fact, the earliest music notation system used by the early Christian church is very similar to the ta’amim of the Hebrew church.

*The featured image of this post is an Ancient Egyptian image depicting string instruments.

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