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4000BC - 500

Prehistoric Period




Research on the evolutionary origins of music mostly started in the second half of the 19th century, and was much discussed within Music Archaeology in the 20th Century. After the appearance of the collection of articles "The Origins of Music" (Wallin, Merker, Brown, 2000) the subject was a debated topic of human evolutionary history. There are currently many hypotheses (not necessarily conflicting) about the origins of music.

Some suggest that the origin of music likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. Human music may echo these phenomena using patterns, repetition and tonality. Even today, some cultures have certain instances of their music intending to imitate natural sounds. In some instances, this feature is related to shamanistic beliefs or practice. It may also serve entertainment (game) or practical (luring animals in hunt) functions.

Even aside from the bird song, monkeys have been witnessed to beat on hollow logs. Although this might serve some purpose of territorialism, it suggests a degree of creativity and seems to incorporate a call and response dialogue.

Explanations of the origin of music depend on how music is defined. If we assume that music is a form of intentional emotional manipulation, music as we know it was not possible until the onset of intentionality - the ability to reflect about the past and the future. Between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago humans started creating art in the form of paintings on cave walls, jewelry and so on (the "cultural explosion"). They also started to bury their dead ceremonially. If we assume that these new forms of behavior reflect the emergence of intentionality, then music as we know it must also have emerged during that period.

From a psychological viewpoint, the question of the origin of music is difficult to answer. Music evokes strong emotions and changed states of awareness. Generally, strong emotions are associated with evolution (sex and survival). But there is no clear link between music and sex, or between music and survival. Regarding sex, musicians often may use music to attract mates (as for example male birds may use their plumage to attract females), but that is just one of many functions of music and one of many ways to attract mates. Regarding survival, societies with a musical culture may be better able to survive because the music coordinates their emotions, helps important messages to be communicated within the group (in ritual), motivates them to identify with the group, and motivates them to support other group members. However it is difficult to demonstrate that effects of this kind can enhance the survival of one group in competition with other groups. Once music exists, effects of this kind may promote its development but it is unclear whether they can explain music’s ultimate origin.

Another possible origin of music is motherese, the vocal-gestural communication between adults (usually mothers) and infants. This form of communication involves melodic, rhythmic and movement patterns as well as the communication of intention and meaning, and in this sense is similar to music. Motherese has two main functions: to strengthen bonding between mother and infant, and to help the infant to acquire language. Both of these functions enhance the infant’s chances of survival and may therefore be subject to natural selection.

Motherese has a gestural vocabulary that is similar across cultures. The way mothers and babies raise and lower their voices and simultaneously change their expressions and move their hands is similar in Asia and Europe, for example (in spite of linguistic differences such as tone languages versus non-tone languages). The apparent universality of motherese could be explained either genetically or by universals of the human environment. A genetic explanation for the vocabulary of motherese would have to be biological and evolutionary; no such explanation has yet been found. Regarding environment, motherese may stem from universals of the prenatal environment. The human fetus can hear for 20 weeks before birth – considerably longer than other animals, most of which cannot hear before birth at all. The fetus can also perceive movement and orientation for 20 weeks before birth. This is presumably not an accident of evolution, but an adaptation that promotes the survival of the infant after birth by improving bonding between the infant and the mother. If the fetus learns to perceive the emotional state of the mother via the internal sounds of her body (voice, heartbeat, footsteps, digestion etc.), it can presumably adjust its postnatal demands (e.g. crying) depending on her availability and in that way enhance its own survival as a fragile being in a dangerous world. Research on the ability of the fetus to learn and remember sound patterns, and on the active two-way nature of mother-infant communication, is consistent with this theory. If this theory is true, the internal sounds of the human body and the relationship between those patterns and emotional state may be the ultimate source of the relationship between patterns of sound and movement in music and their strong emotional connotations. This theory is consistent with the universal link between music and religion and the changed states of consciousness that music can co-evoke.

Charles Darwin’s idea about the importance of music for human sexual selection found a new development in Miller’s idea of the role of musical display for "demonstrating fitness to mate". Based on the ideas of honest signal and the handicap principle, Miller suggested that music and dancing, as energetically costly activities, were to demonstrate the physical and psychological fitness of the singing and dancing individual to the prospective mates. Critics of this approach note how in most species where singing is used for the purposes of sexual selection through female choice, only males sing (as it is males, who are trying to impress females with different audio and visual displays), and besides, males as a rule sing alone.

Among humans both males and females are ardent singers, and making music is mostly a communal activity. Communal singing by both sexes occurs among many cooperatively breeding songbirds of Australia and Africa such as the butcherbirds, fairywrens, white-browed sparrow weaver and Turdoides species, but is absent from non-hominid mammals.






Prehistoric music (previously primitive music) is a term in the history of music for all music produced in preliterate cultures (prehistory), beginning somewhere in very late geological history. Prehistoric music is followed by ancient music in different parts of the world, but still exists in isolated areas. However, it is more common to refer to the "prehistoric" music which still survives as folk, indigenous or traditional music. Prehistoric music is studied alongside other periods within music archaeology.

prehistoric music

4000BC - 700BC

600BC - 340BC

320BC - 500


Egyptian lute players. Fresco from the tomb of  Nebamun, a nobleman in the 18th Dynasty of                    Ancient Egypt (c. 1350 BC).

​Ancient music

Ancient music is music that developed in literate cultures, replacing prehistoric music. Ancient music refers to the various musical systems that were developed across various geographical regions such as Mesopotamia, India, Persia, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome. Ancient music is designated by the characterization of the basic notes and scales. It may have been transmitted through oral or written systems.


Music has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since antiquity. The ancient Egyptians credited one of the powerful gods Hathor with the invention of music, which Osiris in turn used as part of his effort to civilize the world. The earliest material and representational evidence of Egyptian musical instruments dates to the Predynastic period, but the evidence is more securely attested in tomb paintings from the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–2134 BC) when harps, end-blown flutes (held diagonally), and single and double pipes of the clarinet type (with single reeds) were played (Anderson, Castelo-Branco, and Danielson 2001; Anon. 1999). Percussion instruments,and lutes were added to orchestras by the Middle Kingdom. Cymbals (Anon. 2003). Egyptian folk music, including the traditional Sufi dhikr rituals, are the closest contemporary music genre to ancient Egyptian music, having preserved many of its features, rhythms, and instruments (Hickmann 1957,; Anon. 1960,). Although experiments have been carried out with surviving Egyptian instruments (on the spacing of holes in flutes and reed pipes, and attempts to reconstruct the stringing of lyres, harps, and lutes), only the Tutankhamun trumpets and some percussion instruments yield any secure idea of how ancient Egyptian instruments sounded. None of the many theories that have been formulated have any adequate foundation (Anderson, Castelo-Branco, and Danielson 2001).

Egyptian players.


In 1986, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer from the University of California at Berkeley published her decipherment of a cuneiform tablet from Nippur dated to about 2000 BCE. She demonstrated that they represent fragmentary instructions for performing music, that the music was composed in harmonies of thirds, and that it was also written using a diatonic scale (Kilmer 1986). The notation in that tablet was not as developed as the notation in the later cuneiform tablet dated to about 1250 BCE (Kilmer 1965). The interpretation of the notation system is still controversial, but it is clear that the notation indicates the names of strings on a lyre, and its tuning is described in other tablets (West 1994). These tablets represent the earliest recorded melodies, though fragmentary, from anywhere in the world (West 1994).

The harps of Ur

In 1929, Leonard Woolley discovered pieces of four harps while excavating in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, located in what was Ancient Mesopotamia and is contemporary Iraq. Some of the fragments are now located at the University of Pennsylvania, in the British Museum in London, and in Baghdad. They have been dated to 2,750 BCE. Various reconstructions have been attempted, but none have been totally satisfactory. Depending on various definitions, they could be classed as lyres rather than harps. The most famous is the bull-headed harp, held in Baghdad. The second Iraqi War led to the destruction of the bull-head lyre (Anon. 2005).

Ancient Greek pottery

Hurrian music

Among the Hurrian texts from Ugarit are some of the oldest known instances of written music, dating from c.1400 BCE and including one substantially complete song. A reconstruction of this hymn is presented at the Urkesh webpage.

Ancient India

Musical instruments, such as the seven-holed flute and various types of stringed instruments have been recovered from the Indus valley civilization archaeological sites.

The Samaveda consists of a collection (samhita) of hymns, portions of hymns, and detached verses, all but 75 taken from the Rigveda, to be sung, using specifically indicated melodies called Samagana, by Udgatar priests at sacrifices in which the juice of the Soma plant, clarified and mixed with milk and other ingredients, is offered in libation to various deities. In ancient India, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text.

The Nātya Shastra is an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts, encompassing theatre, dance and music. It was written at an uncertain date in classical India (between 200 BCE and 200 CE). The Natya Shastra is based upon the much older Natya Veda which contained 36000 slokas (Ghosh 2002, 2). Unfortunately there are no surviving copies of the Natya Veda. There are scholars who believe that it may have been written by various authors at different times. The most authoritative commentary on the Natya Shastra is Abhinavabharati by Abhinava Gupta.

While much of the discussion of music in the Natyashastra focuses on musical instruments, it also emphasizes several theoretical aspects that remained fundamental to Indian music:

Establishment of Shadja as the first, defining note of the scale or grama.
Two Principles of Consonance: The first principle states that there exists a fundamental note in the musical scale which is Avinashi (अविनाशी) and Avilopi (अविलोपी) that is, the note is ever-present and unchanging. The second principle, often treated as law, states that there exists a natural consonance between notes; the best between Shadja and Tar Shadja, the next best between Shadja and Pancham.
The Natyashastra also suggests the notion of musical modes or jatis which are the origin of the notion of the modern melodic structures known as ragas. Their role in invoking emotions are emphasized; thus compositions emphasizing the notes gandhara or rishabha are said to be related to tragedy (karuna rasa) whereas rishabha is to be emphasized for evoking heroism (vira rasa).

Jatis are elaborated in greater detail in the text Dattilam, composed around the same time as the Natyashastra.

Ancient China

Legend has it that the qin, the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, has a history of about 5,000 years. This legend states that the legendary figures of China's pre-history — Fuxi, Shennong and Huang Di, the "Yellow Emperor" — were involved in its creation. Nearly all qin books and tablature collections published prior to the twentieth century state this as the actual origins of the qin (Yin n.d., 1–10), although this is now presently viewed as mythology. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and examples have been found in tombs from about 2,500 years ago. The exact origins of the qin is still a very much continuing subject of debate over the past few decades. 

 Ancient Greek pottery

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek musicians developed their own robust system of musical notation. The system was not widely used among Greek musicians, but nonetheless a modest corpus of notated music remains from Ancient Greece and Rome. The epics of Homer were originally sung with instrumental accompaniment, but no notated melodies from Homer are known. Several complete songs exist in ancient Greek musical notation. Three complete hymns by Mesomedes of Crete (2nd century CE) exist in manuscript. In addition, many fragments of Greek music are extant, including fragments from tragedy, among them a choral song by Euripides for his Orestes and an instrumental intermezzo from Sophocles' Ajax.

Some fragments of Greek music, such as the Orestes fragment, clearly call for more than one note to be sounded at the same time. Greek sources occasionally refer to the technique of playing more than one note at the same time. In addition, double pipes, such as used by the Greeks and Persians, and ancient bagpipes, as well as a review of ancient drawings on vases and walls, etc., and ancient writings (such as in Aristotle, Problems, Book XIX.12) which described musical techniques of the time, all indicate harmony existed.

Ancient Rome

The music of ancient Rome borrowed heavily from the music of the cultures that were conquered by the empire, including music of Greece, Egypt, and Persia. Music was incorporated into many areas of Roman life including the military, entertainment in the Roman theater, religious ceremonies and practices, and "almost all public/civic occasions."

The philosopher-theorist Boethius was one of the best known musicians of the time, although he wasn't a musician at all, with his work being regarded as a stepping stone during the Latin Middle Ages and the Medieval period. His work The Principles of Music (better-known under the title De institutione musica) divided music into three types: Musica mundana (music of the universe), musica humana (music of human beings), and musica instrumentalis (instrumental music). Additionally, his work the Quadrivium was used to understand dissonance and consonance in music (Anon. 2001).


Greek written history extends far back into Ancient Greece, and was a major part of ancient Greek theater. In ancient Greece, mixed-gender choruses performed for entertainment, celebration and spiritual reasons. Instruments included the double-reed aulos and the plucked string instrument, the lyre, especially the special kind called a kithara. Music was an important part of education in ancient Greece, and boys were taught music starting at age six. 

"David with his harp" Paris Psalter,
c. 960, Constantinople

Biblical period

According to Easton's Bible Dictionary, Jubal was named by the Bible as the inventor of musical instruments (Gen. 4:21). The Hebrews were much given to the cultivation of music. Their whole history and literature afford abundant evidence of this. After the Deluge, the first mention of music is in the account of Laban's interview with Jacob (Gen. 31:27). After their triumphal passage of the Red Sea, Moses and the children of Israel sang their song of deliverance (Ex. 15). But the period of Samuel, David, and Solomon was the golden age of Hebrew music, as it was of Hebrew poetry. Music was now for the first time systematically cultivated. It was an essential part of training in the schools of the prophets (1 Sam. 10:5). There now arose also a class of professional singers (2 Sam. 19:35; Eccl. 2:8). Solomon's Temple, however, was the great school of music. In the conducting of its services large bands of trained singers and players on instruments were constantly employed (2 Sam. 6:5; 1 Chr. 15:16; 23;5; 25:1-6). In private life also music seems to have held an important place among the Hebrews (Eccl. 2:8; Amos 6:4-6; Isa. 5:11, 12; 24:8, 9; Ps. 137; Jer. 48:33; Luke 15:25).


Music and theatre scholars studying the history and anthropology of Semitic and early Judeo-Christian culture, have also discovered common links between theatrical and musical activity in the classical cultures of the Hebrews with those of the later cultures of the Greeks and Romans. The common area of performance is found in a "social phenomenon called litany," a form of prayer consisting of a series of invocations or supplications. The Journal of Religion and Theatre notes that among the earliest forms of litany, "Hebrew litany was accompanied by a rich musical tradition:"
"While Genesis 4.21 identifies Jubal as the “father of all such as handle the harp and pipe,” the Pentateuch is nearly silent about the practice and instruction of music in the early life of Israel. Then, in I Samuel 10 and the texts which follow, a curious thing happens. “One finds in the biblical text,” writes Alfred Sendrey, “a sudden and unexplained upsurge of large choirs and orchestras, consisting of thoroughly organized and trained musical groups, which would be virtually inconceivable without lengthy, methodical preparation.” This has led some scholars to believe that the prophet Samuel was the patriarch of a school which taught not only prophets and holy men, but also sacred-rite musicians. This public music school, perhaps the earliest in recorded history, was not restricted to a priestly class--which is how the shepherd boy David appears on the scene as a minstrel to King Saul."

Christian period

Very little is known about primitive Christian music, notes Whitcomb, because like most of the ancient, it was unwritten. As a result, as songs passed from generation to generation, they grew very different from the original. However, she notes that "much of this early music derived its beauty from the Greeks and its holiness from the Hebrews." According to Ulrich, Hebrew music "was of direct and immediate influence on the musical practices of the early Christian church." He cites Werner in noting that "the connections between Hebrew and Christian chant have been scientifically investigated and proved."

The musical art of the Levites, the Temple musicians who were named after their historic ancestors, was lost by the end of the 1st century. In 70 AD the Second Temple was destroyed by the troops of the Emperor Titus and in the years following the Levites along with the majority of Jews fled from Palestine. As a result, the synagogue music of the Dispersion lost the joyful character of that of the Temple and the large instrumental forces were dispensed with.

The New Testament was not written until centuries later than the old and the music had attained much higher development, according to music historian Ida Whitcomb. As it related to Christ, it is called Christian music. However, there are but few allusions to it in three of the Gospels: in the Gospel of Luke, there are the "Angels' Song," Mary's "Magnificat," and Zacharias's "Song." In Acts, Paul and Silas sing behind prison-bars: the prison is shaken, the doors fly open, and they are free. In the Epistles, there are but few references to music, but in Ephesians there is a "beautiful one," in which Paul exhorts the churches to sing "Psalms" and "spiritual songs."

Hindley adds that antiphonal chants between cantor or priest and the congregation was originated by the Hebrews' worship methods. At its peak around the beginning of the Christian era, the elaborate music of the Temple was performed by a large choir of highly trained men singers, with boys sometimes added, and during this period many instruments also were used by the Temple orchestra.

Whitcomb adds that many of our noblest Church hymns have been suggested by the Psalms, which she notes was "the first hymn-book of the Hebrew nation and remains today not only the hymn-book of the Hebrew Temple, but also of the Christian Church."

Ancient Greek pottery

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