It is unlikely that any human society (at any rate until the invention of puritanism) has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing. Like cave painting, the first purpose of dance is probably ritual – appeasing a nature spirit or accompanying a rite of passage. But losing oneself in rhythmic movement with other people is an easy form of intoxication. Pleasure can never have been far away.
Rhythm, indispensable in dancing, is also a basic element of music. It is natural to beat out the rhythm of the dance with sticks. It is natural to accompany the movement of the dance with rhythmic chanting. Dance and music begin as partners in the service of ritual.
Music lurks in the corners of everyday life. Hollow objects make notes when struck. Reeds and bamboos and shells whistle and moan when one blows into them (and sometimes even when the wind does). Anything stretched tight goes twang when plucked – an increasingly familiar sound once hunters have bows and arrows (from about 15,000 years ago). And the human voice has a delightful ability to go up and down at will.
Music is a game waiting to be played.
Solo flute: 45,000 years ago
A recent discovery suggests that music is played much earlier than previously suspected — and apparently by humans of a different species from ourselves. In 1995, deep in a cave in Slovenia occupied 45,000 years ago by Neanderthals, a flute was found. It was made from the leg bone of a young bear. Though broken at both ends, it still has four finger holes. In its prime it could produce at least four notes.
Simple whistles have been found earlier than this, capable of only a single note (two such whistles, made by modern humans perhaps 100,000 years ago, have been unearthed in Libya). But if accurately dated, this Neanderthal flute is by far the earliest known example of music.
Scrapers, roarers and rattles: from 12,000 years ago
Several primitive musical instruments, dating from about 12,000 years ago in the late palaeolithic period, have been discovered by archaeologists. They include scrapers, to produce a rhythmic rasping sound (the washboard of traditional skiffle is a scraper); and ‘bull-roarers’, consisting of a piece of wood which can be swung on a cord to make a loud vibrating sound from its passage through the air.
Natural rattles (for example gourds with their dried seeds inside) are also certainly used for music from the earliest times.
Woodwind and strings: 10,000-3000 BC
In the next 7000 years, up to the start of recorded history, many other musical instruments are developed. Trumpets from natural materials, such as the conch shell or the long hollow bamboo of the Australian didgeridoo, may have been introduced first as speaking tubes – enhancing or disguising the voice of the priest. Drums are mainly blocks of wood or stone. Hollow reeds of different pitch are bound together as panpipes, and flutes with holes are made in hollow cane, or even pottery.
Stringed instruments first appear when people discover how to make music on a bow. One way is to put the end of the bow in the mouth and to tap the string, changing the note by altering the cavity of jaw and cheeks.
Harp, lyre and lute: from 3000 BC
By the beginning of recorded history, in Mesopotamia in about 3000 BC, a sophisticated harp is in use; its form, in the shape of a bow, suggests its descent from the more primitive musical bow. The lyre, a portable version of the same kind of instrument (resting on the lap rather than the ground) evolves soon after.
By about 2000 BC a form of lute is being played in this same Middle Eastern region. A stringed instrument with a body as the sounding board and a long neck against which the strings can be pressed, the lute is the ancestor of the family which eventually includes the guitar (though the lute has a rounded back to the body).
Sounding brass and tinkling cymbal: 1500-1000 BC
The addition of metal instruments, made either of copper or bronze, completes the range available in classical civilizations. A copper trumpet of a simple kind is known in Egypt from about 1500 BC. Cymbals appear in Israel by 1000 BC.
The range of early musical instruments is most familiar to western readers through the Bible – from the harp-playing King David to the sounds of brass and tinkling cymbal criticized by St Paul – or through Greek myth, where Apollo is invariably associated with the lyre and Pan with the reed pipes. But the first society to make music a matter of state is further east, in China.
Chinese bells: from 1600 BC
Confucius selects music as his symbol of the harmony which everyone should strive for. In doing so he reinforces a long tradition in Chinese ancestor worship. Bronze bells are the preferred instruments in the ritual, and the Chinese skill in bronze-casting ensures that they are superbly made. Sonorous stone slabs and pottery flutes are also used. All have been found in tombs of the Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC).
In the ritual a set of tuned bells is suspended from a beam, to be struck by the priests in appropriate sequences. Fine-tuning is achieved by scraping metal away from the inside edge of a bell. (China at this time also makes a less solemn contribution to musical history with the invention of the Mouth organ).
Greek music and lyrics: from the 6th century BC
Our word for music is provided by the Greeks. It means literally the art of the Muses. That very broad definition indicates the role of music in ancient Greek life. It is connected with the recital of poetry (when read to the lyre, the result is ‘lyrics’) and it accompanies the dancing of the chorus in the performance of drama.
The Greeks are interested in musical theory (the Pythagoreans discover the mathematical basis of the octave) and they are the first people to devise a way of writing down music. As a result a few fragments of Greek music are the earliest examples to survive – including two hymns to Apollo carved in marble at Delphi in the 2nd century BC.
Mechanical organ: 3rd century BC
Pipes of varying sorts are among the earliest of musical instruments, and pipers must often have imagined a pipe too large for human lungs. A scientist in Alexandria, by the name of Ctesibius, is credited with being the first to invent an organ – with a hand-operated pump sending air through a set of large Pipes. Each pipe is played by pressing a note on a board. This is the beginning of keyboard instruments.
By the time of the Roman empire, a few centuries later, the organ is a familiar and popular instrument – playing a prominent part in public games and circuses as well as private banquets. The emperor Nero, an enthusiastic performer, is proud of his talents on the organ.
Plainsong: from the early Christian era
Apart from the few Greek fragments, the earliest music to have survived is the plainsong of the medieval Christian church. Given an official form in the 6th century, in the papacy of Gregory I, it is known now as Gregorian chant.
Its roots are very much earlier. It derives from the chants used for the biblical psalms in Jewish synagogues in the early years of Christianity. The first Christians are Jews, so they worship in the manner familiar to them. The Jewish liturgical signs, reminding worshippers of how the chant should go, find their way into the medieval church’s Musical notation. And that, in turn, develops into the system by which music is written down today.
From plainsong to polyphony: 6th – 12th century AD
During the centuries of the early Middle Ages, music – other than in its popular forms in rural communities – remains the preserve of the church and is performed mainly by voice and organ. The organ, known in classical times in Alexandria, is familiar in western Europe from at least the 8th century.
The sound of the organ, with its ability to play widely spaced chords, is increasingly imitated in the music of cathedral choirs. The spread of voices from treble to bass echoes the same spread of organ pipes. At first the different levels of voice usually sing in parallel vocal lines. But as the years go by, increasing complexity is attempted.
By the 11th century the complexity of the music being written for abbey and cathedral choirs is such that it has been given the name polyphony (from Greek for ‘many sounds’). The characteristic of polyphony is that each vocal line has approximately the same weight; the different levels of voice are treated as equals, whose paths interweave, rather than any one of them taking the lead and being supported harmonically by the rest.
This remains broadly the musical convention of Europe until the 16th century, though there are developments within the tradition. The most often quoted is an increased subtlety of rhythm associated with a musical pamphlet of about 1320, by Philippe de Vitry, entitled Ars Nova (New Art).