How the Early Musicians Changed History
As a blend of popular music and styles originating in Korea, Africa, South America, and many other cultures have become global over the past years, a cultural revolution has occurred worldwide. But how did music even come about in the first place? Has music always been important in human society? When and where did the first instruments originate? When thinking about the beginnings of music, it can be assumed that early tunes echoed the sounds of nature and were known to be played at ceremonies in many indigenous cultures. As instruments developed over time, more complex and sophisticated rhythms eventually came about.
Some of the earliest instruments and sheet music to exist can be traced to the Stone Age and early Mesopotamia, respectively. Stone age humans were not merely hunters and gatherers, but musicians too. A 35,000-year-old primitive bird-bone flute recovered from a German cave is the oldest known musical instrument. The flute was reconstructed from 12 pieces of griffon vulture bone scattered in a small plot of the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany. Joined together, the pieces form an 8.6-inch instrument with five holes and a notched end.
Early Sheet Music
Among the many clay tablets found in Mesopotamia were some of the oldest examples of sheet music to exist. It was discovered that the music was for a stringed instrument called the lyre.
Only one out of about thirty-six tablets found in Ugarit in northern Syria was preserved well enough to be read and reconstructed. It was a hymn written around 1400 B.C.E and was composed of seven notes played in harmony equivalent to the modern major scale. The hymn is known as the Hurrian Hymn no. 6. Below is an interpretation of the song by Michael Levy, a musician and composer who has researched playing techniques of lyres in antiquity.
Reconstructions such as this act as a bridge to the people of our past from many thousands of years ago.
Draffkorn Kilmer, Anne. “The Musical Instruments from Ur and Ancient Mesopotamian Music.” Expedition Magazine, 29 July 1998, pp. 12–19. Penn Museum, www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-musical-instruments-from-ur-and-ancient-mesopotamian-music/.
Malam, John. Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, 10,000 to 539 B.C. Austin, Tex, Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.
Owen, James. “Bone Flute Is Oldest Instrument, Study Says.” National Geographic, 24 June 2009, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2009/06/bone-flute-is-oldest-instrument--study-says/.
Wilford, John Noble. “Stone Age Flutes Found in Germany Offer Clues to Early Music.” The New York Times, 24 June 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/science/25flute.html.