When we talk about music, it’s hard not to think of its history. We can all appreciate the contributions of great artists like Johnny Cash, Jon Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, or David Bowie, but the full history of music and musical instruments themselves is something that often goes unmentioned when we talk about having a love of music. In fact, for many people, the history of musical instruments is something of a mystery, and we may find ourselves asking, ‘what was the first musical instrument’? Today, we are taking a dive into the ancient side of musical history, the first song, and the earliest musical notation.
Music has been part of the human experience for as long we’ve been able to make it. Music is part of what makes us human and brings us together in a way that no other expression of artistry and creativity can. Music has been a part of us for thousands, if not millions of years – the innate expression of rhythm and mimicking the sounds we hear around us is likely as old as spoken language. However, a more modern understanding of music and its role in our society has been shaped by many different aspects of what came before us, such as our belief systems and what tools and resources we had available.
The Music of Classical Antiquity
The very word Music itself derives from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘the art of the Muses’, nine unique spirits who were responsible for inspiring all of art and poetry. There were Muses like Calliope, responsible for ‘epic poetry’, or Terpsichore, the Muse of dance. Euterpe was the Muse chiefly responsible for Music.
The ancient Greeks depended on music not only for entertainment but also for its value as part of religious rites and festivals. “The bells at the Agia Triada Monastery in Athens, Greece, are a good example of how bells have been associated with religious rituals over the centuries and are still used today to call communities together for religious services.” This helped Greeks with worship and in giving structure to daily life. Even then, music was given great value in the era of classical antiquity.
Musicians were respected and paid for their services much like other expert crafters, and often had their likenesses depicted in art and on pottery as part of those depicting epic tales or feasts. Musical scores and instruments have been since recovered from archeological expeditions, showing the value that Greeks placed on performing beautiful music. “In Athens during the second half of the fifth century B.C., the Odeion (roofed concert hall) of Perikles was erected on the south slope of the Athenian akropolis—physical testimony to the importance of music in Athenian culture.”
We can see that music was as important to the ancient Greeks as it is to us today. Ancient instruments of the Greeks include many we already know or may recognize – the pan flute and pipes (a favorite of shepherds), the lyre (famous from the tale of the god Orpheus and his descent into Hades), and the Kithara, a plucked string instrument and an ancestor of the guitar. These instruments would be played for all manner of events, and those like the pan flute are still used in the creation of music today.
Singing often accompanied musical performances both at home and in professional performance settings, and many in Greece were expected to be know how to play. “The art of singing to one’s own stringed accompaniment was highly developed. Greek philosophers saw a relationship between music and mathematics, envisioning music as a paradigm of harmonious order reflecting the cosmos and the human soul.”  Bringing their soul closer to a state of enlightenment and acquire a sense of closeness to nature gave the Greeks a purpose to the music that they created.
The Oldest Instrument – The Neanderthal Flute
But what was the first musical instrument? It’s a question that had stumped historians and musicians alike for hundreds of years. While we are not yet certain of the very first created, archeologists have uncovered an instrument older than the earliest cities inhabited, even those most ancient ones in Egypt or Greece.
One of the oldest instruments in the world is the Neanderthal Flute, an instrument over 60,000 years old discovered near Cerkno, Slovenia. The Neanderthal Flute contains 4 pierced holes and was made from the bone of a young cave bear. The holes were intentionally placed to create a crude sound we might recognize as that of a flute. As the National Museum of Slovenia describes it, “It is about 20,000 years older than other known flutes, made by anatomically modern humans. This discovery confirms that the Neanderthals were, like us, fully developed spiritual beings capable of sophisticated artistic expression.”
For the Neanderthals and early humans, the musical instruments they developed would have been made from the materials they had readily available, like wood, bone, and stone, and would have been carved by hand. Access to metals like brass and silver would have come much, much later to humans that had access both to the ability to mine them and the skill to forge them.
The Oldest Song and Musical Notation
Musical notation, the symbols that identify different notes for performing music, has been around for a much shorter amount of time than the Neanderthal Flute. One of the oldest songs in the world, discovered in an ancient Syrian city called Ugarit, was written in cuneiform in the Hurrian language on clay tablets and is dated at roughly 3,400 years old – still quite an impressive amount of time. Though we do not yet understand the rhythm of the piece, the notes themselves have been translated and performed for us to listen to and gain a greater understanding of the music of the Sumerian people.
Our understanding of musical notation, beyond that passed down through different cultures and exchanges of learning, was also greatly advanced by discoveries made of musical scores and compositions by the Greeks and Byzantines, with discoveries like the Seikilos Epitaph, the earliest complete notated musical composition (a song with lyrics). Musical notation was limited in reproduction since it all had to be done by hand. During the Middle Ages, this was often left to the few educated classes like the nobility or to members of the church, especially for choral music. The Gregorian Chant (named for Pope Gregory) was an early style of music that benefitted from developments in music notation, including adding lines to better indicate pitch and rhythm. The true mass production of musical notation came about from the invention of the printing press, whereby music could be produced for larger groups on paper, and which also helped to standardize musical notation on the whole.
Since those ancient times, our love of music has never changed, though the instruments we use have undergone a significant evolution. From the humble lyre we can derive the harp, from the ancient kithara we see its origins expressed in the modern guitar. Modern musical instruments allow us to connect to our past, to perform and express our ideas, our creativity, and our passion much as how our ancestors did in their day and age. By understanding our past, we can better understand our present and our future – and this goes for music too!
- https://www.thoughtco.com/inventing-musical-instruments-1992156 - Bells
- (Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “Music in Ancient Greece”).