This article was originally presented on The conversation.
The short answer is: No one knows who invented music.
There is no historical evidence to tell us exactly who sang the first song, or whistled the first tune, or made the first rhythmic sounds that resemble what we know today as music.
[ Related: “Archive Gallery: The History of Recorded Music“ ]
But researchers know it happened thousands of years ago. The earliest civilizations in Africa, Europe and Asia had music. Back then, many believed that it was a divine creation, a gift from the gods.
Indeed, gods and goddesses of many religions and mythologies are associated with music. Stories and artwork tell us that the African god Ayan was a drummer; the Greek god Apollo played the lyre, a stringed instrument. In the Book of Genesis, Jubal – a descendant of Adam – is identified as the father of the harp and the flute.
Scientists will probably never be able to credit one person, or even a group of people, with the invention of music. But as a musicologist—that is, someone who studies the history of music—I have seen many artifacts and many pieces of evidence that can help us understand how and why the ancients played music.
Some scientists say that singing is the first kind of musical sound. Not that people sang whole songs back then. Instead, they made simpler vocal sounds—perhaps just a few notes strung together. If this is true, perhaps early humans began to speak and sing around the same time.
Why were they singing? Perhaps they had an impulse to imitate something beautiful, like bird sounds. However, vocal imitations of other animal sounds may have been used for hunting, such as the modern duck call.
It is also possible that singing was a way of communicating with babies and young children, such as early versions of lullabies. But then again, people didn’t sing whole tunes or songs; our modern lullabies—like “Rock-a-bye Baby”—took centuries to develop.
Singing in Catholic churches throughout Europe during the Middle Ages is well documented. At first there was only one vocal melody, sung either by a soloist or by a small group of male clergy. Nuns also learn to sing in monasteries. Later, polyphony became more common – when two, three or four voices sing different melodies, adding to the complexity of the sound.
Archaeologists have helped musicologists learn about ancient musical instruments from the artifacts they have found. For example, they have found flutes and whistles made of bone, ceramic and stone.
Archaeologists used a process known as carbon-14 dating to find out how old the bone tools were. All living organisms—animals, plants, and humans—have some carbon-14 in them; when they die, the amount of carbon-14 decreases, little by little, over years, decades, and centuries.
When scientists measured how much carbon-14 was left in the flutes—made from the bones of large birds—they found that some of the instruments were more than 30,000 years old!
In Japan, some ancient whistles and rattles made of stone or clay are about 6,000 years old. Through their small holes, these instruments produced high, shrill tones. Those who used them may have considered the sounds to be somehow magical and may have played them during religious rituals. Some of these stone whistles can still make sounds.
In China, ceramic bells, which may be the ancestors of bronze bells, appeared at least 4,000 years ago. In Greece, instruments such as the krotola, a set of hollow blocks bound in leather, were played 2,500 years ago. The Greeks also used finger cymbals and frame drums.
Musical instruments can also be associated with different types of people. The shepherds played the syrinx, a whistle-like instrument known today as the pan flute. It was a simple tool that was easily carried in the fields. The aulos was a more complex woodwind instrument consisting of two pipes. Since it requires more skill to play the aulos, you will need instruction from a teacher – or perhaps, if you are rich, you can simply hire experienced musicians to play for you.
Manuscripts and works of art
In Africa, 4,000-year-old rock paintings and engravings found in Egyptian tombs show musicians playing what appears to be a harp.
Greek pottery often depicts musical scenes; these images often appear on vases and urns. However, the settings are often unclear. Whether the musicians were part of a festival or celebration, or simply playing for their own amusement, is not always known.
Handmade medieval manuscripts also provide clues. Ink and sometimes gold leaf illustrations often show musicians playing an instrument.
A world without music
Can you imagine living today without music? i can’t Not only entertains and captivates, but allows us to convey emotions. Music helps us celebrate happy events and comforts us when we are sad or in pain. Ancient music certainly evokes strong emotions in its listeners, just as music in this century and beyond will do the same.
Laura Dallman is a professor of music history at the University of Florida.