How Music and Instruments Began？
How Music and Instruments Began？
How Music and Instruments Began？
Music must first be defined and distinguished from speech, and from animal and bird cries. We discuss
the stages of hominid anatomy that permit music to be perceived and created, with the likelihood of both
Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens both being capable. The earlier hominid ability to emit sounds of
variable pitch with some meaning shows that music at its simplest level must have predated speech. The
possibilities of anthropoid motor impulse suggest that rhythm may have preceded melody, though full
control of rhythm may well not have come any earlier than the perception of music above. There are four
evident purposes for music: dance, ritual, entertainment personal, and communal, and above all social
cohesion, again on both personal and communal levels. We then proceed to how
outdoor musical instrument began, with a
brief survey of the surviving examples from the Mousterian period onward, including the possible
Neanderthal evidence and the extent to which they showed “artistic” potential in other fields. We warn
that our performance on replicas of surviving instruments may bear little or no resemblance to that of the
original players. We continue with how later instruments, strings, and skin-drums began and developed into
instruments we know in worldwide cultures today. The sound of music is then discussed, scales and
intervals, and the lack of any consistency of consonant tonality around the world. This is followed by
iconographic evidence of the instruments of later antiquity into the European Middle Ages, and finally,
the history of public performance, again from the possibilities of early humanity into more modern times.
This paper draws the ethnomusicological perspective on the entire development of music, instruments, and
performance, from the times of H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens into those of modern musical history,
and it is written with the deliberate intention of informing readers who are without special education in
music, and providing necessary information for inquiries into the origin of music by cognitive scientists.
But even those elementary questions are a step too far, because first we have to ask “What is music?
” and this is a question that is almost impossible to answer. Your idea of music may be very different
from mine, and our next-door neighbor’s will almost certainly be different again. Each of us can only
answer for ourselves.
Mine is that it is “Sound that conveys emotion.”
We can probably most of us agree that it is sound; yes, silence is a part of that sound, but can there
be any music without sound of some sort? For me, that sound has to do something—it cannot just be random
noises meaning nothing. There must be some purpose to it, so I use the phrase “that conveys emotion.”
What that emotion may be is largely irrelevant to the definition; there is an infinite range of
possibilities. An obvious one is pleasure. But equally another could be fear or revulsion.
How do we distinguish that sound from speech, for speech can also convey emotion? It would seem that
musical sound must have some sort of controlled variation of pitch, controlled because speech can also
vary in pitch, especially when under overt emotion. So music should also have some element of rhythm, at
least of pattern. But so has the recital of a sonnet, and this is why I said above that the question of “
What is music?” is impossible to answer. Perhaps the answer is that each of us in our own way can say
“Yes, this is music,” and “No, that is speech.”
Must the sound be organized? I have thought that it must be, and yet an unorganized series of sounds
can create a sense of fear or of warning. Here, again, I must insert a personal explanation: I am what is
called an ethno-organologist; my work is the study of musical tubular musical instrument (organology) and worldwide
(hence the ethno-, as in ethnomusicology, the study of music worldwide). So to take just one example of an
instrument, the ratchet or rattle, a blade, usually of wood, striking against the teeth of a cogwheel as
the blade rotates round the handle that holds the cogwheel. This instrument is used by crowds at sporting
matches of all sorts; it is used by farmers to scare the birds from the crops; it was and still is used by
the Roman Catholic church in Holy Week when the bells “go to Rome to be blessed” (they do not of course
actually go but they are silenced for that week); it was scored by Beethoven to represent musketry in his
so-called Battle Symphony, a work more formally called Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria,
Op.91, that was written originally for Maelzel’s giant musical box, the Panharmonicon. Beethoven also
scored it out for live performance by orchestras and it is now often heard in our concert halls “with
cannon and mortar effects” to attract people to popular concerts. And it was also, during the Second
World War, used in Britain by Air-Raid Precaution wardens to warn of a gas attack, thus producing an
emotion of fear. If it was scored by Beethoven, it must be regarded as a musical instrument, and there are
many other noise-makers that, like it, which must be regarded as musical instruments.
And so, to return to our definition of music, organization may be regarded as desirable for musical
sound, but that it cannot be deemed essential, and thus my definition remains “Sound that conveys
But then another question arises: is music only ours? We can, I think, now agree that two elements of
music are melody, i.e., variation of pitch, plus rhythmic impulse. But almost all animals can produce
sounds that vary in pitch, and every animal has a heart beat. Can we regard bird song as music? It
certainly conveys musical pleasure for us, it is copied musically (Beethoven again, in his Pastoral
Symphony, no.6, op. 68, and in many works by other composers), and it conveys distinct signals for that
bird and for other birds and, as a warning, for other animals also. Animal cries also convey signals, and
both birds and animals have been observed moving apparently rhythmically. But here, we, as musicologists
and ethnomusicologists alike, are generally agreed to ignore bird song, animal cries, and rhythmic
movement as music even if, later, we may regard it as important when we are discussing origins below. We
ignore these sounds, partly because they seem only to be signals, for example alarms etc, or “this is my
territory,” and partly, although they are frequently parts of a mating display, this does not seem to
impinge on society as a whole, a feature that, as we shall see, can be of prime importance in human music.
Perhaps, too, we should admit to a prejudice: that we are human and animals are not…
So now, we can turn to the questions of vocalization versus motor impulse: which came first, singing
or percussive rhythms? At least we can have no doubt whatsoever that for melody, singing must long have
preceded instrumental performance, but did physical movement have the accompaniment of hand- or body-
clapping and perhaps its amplification with clappers of sticks or stones, and which of them came first?
Here, we turn first to the study of the potentials of the human body. There is a large literature on
this, but it has recently been summarized by Iain Morley in his The Prehistory of Music (Morley, 2013). So
far as vocalization is concerned, at what point in our evolution was the vocal tract able to control the
production of a range of musical pitch? For although my initial definition of music did not include the
question of pitch, nor of rhythm, once we begin to discuss and amplify our ideas of music, one or other of
these, does seem to be an essential—a single sound with no variation of pitch nor with any variation in
time can hardly be described as musical.
All animals have the ability to produce sounds, and most of these sounds have meanings, at least to
their ears. Surely, this is true also of the earliest hominims. If a mother emits sounds to soothe a baby,
and if such sound inflects somewhat in pitch, however vaguely, is this song? An ethnomusicologist, those
who study the music of exotic peoples, would probably say “yes,” while trying to analyze and record the
pitches concerned. A biologist would also regard mother–infant vocalizations as prototypical of music
(Fitch, 2006). There are peoples (or have been before the ever-contaminating influence of the electronic
profusion of musical reproduction) whose music has consisted only of two or three pitches, and those
pitches not always consistent, and these have always been accepted as music by ethnomusicologists. So we
have to admit that vocal music of some sort may have existed from the earliest traces of humanity, long
before the proper anatomical and physiological developments enabled the use of both speech and what we
might call “music proper,” with control and appreciation of pitch.
In this context, it is clear also that “music” in this earliest form must surely have preceded
speech. The ability to produce something melodic, a murmuration of sound, something between humming and
crooning to a baby, must have long preceded the ability to form the consonants and vowels that are the
essential constituents of speech. A meaning, yes: “Mama looks after you, darling,” “Oy, look out!” and
other non-verbal signals convey meaning, but they are not speech.
The possibilities of motor impulse are also complex. Here, again, we need to look at the animal
kingdom. Both animals and birds have been observed making movements that, if they were humans, would
certainly be described as dance, especially for courtship, but also, with the higher apes in groups.
Accompaniment for the latter can include foot-slapping, making more sound than is necessary just for
locomotion, and also body-slapping (Williams, 1967). Can we regard such sounds as music? If they were
humans, yes without doubt. So how far back in the evolutionary tree can we suggest that motor impulse and
its sonorous accompaniment might go? I have already postulated in my Origins and Development of
instrument (Montagu, 2007, p. 1) that this could go back as far as the earliest flint tools, that
striking two stones together as a rhythmic accompaniment to movement might have produced the first flakes
that were used as tools, or alternatively that interaction between two or more flint-knappers may have led
to rhythms and counter-rhythms, such as we still hear between smiths and mortar-and-pestle millers of
grains and coffee beans. This, of course, was kite-flying rather than a wholly serious suggestion, but the
possibilities remain. At what stage did a hominim realize that it could make more sound, or could
alleviate painful palms, by striking two sticks or stones together, rather than by simple clapping? Again
we turn to Morley and to the capability of the physiological and neurological expression of rhythm.
The physiological must be presumed from the above animal observations. The neurological would again,
at its simplest, seem to be pre-human. There is plenty of evidence for gorillas drumming their chests and
for chimpanzees to move rhythmically in groups. However, apes’ capacity for keeping steady rhythm is very
limited (Geissmann, 2000), suggesting that it constitutes a later evolutionary development in hominins.
Perceptions of more detailed appreciation of rhythm, particularly of rhythmic variation, can only be
hypothesized by studies of modern humans, especially of course of infantile behavior and perception.
From all this, it would seem that motor impulse, leading to rhythmic music and to dance could be at
least as early as the simplest vocal inflection of sounds. Indeed, it could be earlier. We said above that
animals have hearts, and certainly, all anthropoids have a heartbeat slow enough, and perceptible enough,
to form some basis for rhythmic movement at a reasonable speed. Could this have been a basis for rhythmic
movement such as we have just mentioned? This can only be a hypothesis, for there is no way to check it,
but it does seem to me that almost all creatures seem to have an innate tendency to move together in the
same rhythm when moving in groups, and this without any audible signal, so that some form of rhythmic
movement may have preceded vocalization.
But Why Does Music Develop from Such Beginnings? What is the Purpose of Music?
There are four obvious purposes: dance, personal or communal entertainment, communication, and ritual.
Seemingly more important than these fairly obvious reasons for why music developed is one for why
music began in the first place. This is something that Steven Mithen mentions again and again in his book,
The Singing Neanderthals (Mithen, 2005): that music is not only cohesive on society but almost adhesive.
Music leads to bonding, bonding between mother and child, bonding between groups who are working together
or who are together for any other purpose. Work songs are a cohesive element in most pre-industrial
societies, for they mean that everyone of the group moves together and thus increases the force of their
work. Even today “Music while you Work” has a strong element of keeping workers happy when doing
repetitive and otherwise boring work. Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds the
participants into a cohesive group, and we all know how walking or marching in step helps to keep one
going. It is even suggested that it was music, in causing such bonding, that created not only the family
but society itself, bringing individuals together who might otherwise have led solitary lives, scattered
at random over the landscape.
Thus, it may be that the whole purpose of music was cohesion, cohesion between parent and child,
cohesion between father and mother, cohesion between one family and the next, and thus the creation of the
whole organization of society.
Much of this above can only be theoretical—we know of much of its existence in our own time but we
have no way of estimating its antiquity other than by the often-derided “evidence” of the
anthropological records of isolated, pre-literate peoples. So let us now turn to the hard evidence of
early musical practice, that of the surviving musical instruments.1
This can only be comparatively late in time, for it would seem to be obvious that sound makers of soft
vegetal origin should have preceded those of harder materials that are more difficult to work, whereas it
is only the hard materials that can survive through the millennia. Surely natural materials such as
grasses, reeds, and wood preceded bone? That this is so is strongly supported by the advanced state of
many early bone pipes—the makers clearly knew exactly what they were doing in making musical instruments,
with years or generations of experiment behind them on the softer materials. For example, some end-blown
and notch-blown flutes, the earliest undoubted ones that we have, from Geissenkl?sterle and Hohle Fels in
Swabia, Germany, made from swan, vulture wing (radius) bones, and ivory in the earliest Aurignacian period
(between 43,000 and 39,000 years BP), have their fingerholes recessed by thinning an area around the hole
to ensure an airtight seal when the finger closes them. This can only be the result of long experience of
So how did tembos
musical instrument begin? First a warning: with archeological material, we have what has been found;
we do not have what has not been found. A site can be found and excavated, but if another site has not
been found, then it will not have been excavated. Thus, absence of material does not mean that it did not
exist, only that it has not been found yet. Geography is relevant too. Archeology has been a much older
science in Europe than elsewhere, so that most of our evidence is European, whereas in Africa, where all
species of Homo seem to have originated, site archeology is in its infancy. Also, we have much evidence of
bone pipes simply because a piece of bone with a number of holes along its length is fairly obviously a
probable musical instrument, whereas how can we tell whether some bone tubes without fingerholes might
have been held together as panpipes? Or whether a number of pieces of bone found together might or might
not have been struck together as idiophones? We shall find one complex of these later on here which
certainly were instruments. And what about bullroarers, those blades of bone, with a hole or a
constriction at one end for a cord, which were whirled around the player’s head to create a noise-like
thunder or the bellowing of a bull, or if small and whirled faster sounded like the scream of a devil? We
have many such bones, but how many were bullroarers, how many were used for some other purpose?
So how did pipes begin? Did someone hear the wind whistle over the top of a broken reed and then try
to emulate that sound with his own breath? Did he or his successors eventually realize that a shorter
piece of reed produced a higher pitch and a longer segment a lower one? Did he ever combine these into a
group of tubes, either disjunctly, each played by a separate player, as among the Venda of South Africa
and in Lithuania, or conjointly lashed together to form a panpipe for a single player? Did, over the
generations, someone find that these grouped pipes could be replaced with a single tube by boring holes in
it, with each hole representing the length of one of that group? All this is speculation, of course, but
something like it must have happened.
Or were instruments first made to imitate cries? The idea of the hunting lure, the device to imitate
an animal’s cry and so lure it within reach, is of unknown age. Or were they first made to imitate the
animal in a ritual to call for the success of tomorrow’s hunt? Some cries can be imitated by the mouth;
others need a tool, a short piece of cane, bits of reed or grass or bone blown across the end like a key
or a pen-top. Others are made from a piece of bark held between the tongue and the lip (I have heard a
credit card used in this way!). The piece of cane or bone would only produce a single sound, but the bark,
or in Romania a carp scale, can produce the most beautiful music as well as being used as a hunting call.
The softer materials will not have survived and with the many small segments of bone that we have, there
is no way to tell whether they might have been used in this way or whether they are merely the detritus
from the dining table.
This bone does raise the whole question of whether H. neanderthalensis knew of or practised music in
any form. For rhythm, we can only say surely, as above—if earlier hominids could have, so could H.
neanderthalensis. Could they have sung? A critical anatomical feature is the position of the larynx
(Morley, 2013, 135ff); the lower the larynx in the throat the longer the vocal cords and thus the greater
flexibility of pitch variation and of vowel sounds (to put it at its simplest). It would seem to have been
that with H. heidelbergensis and its successors that the larynx was lower and thus that singing, as
distinct from humming, could have been possible, but “seems to have been” is necessary because, as is so
often, this is still the subject of controversy. However, it does seem fairly clear that H.
neanderthalensis could indeed have sung. It follows, too, that while the Divje Babe “pipe” may or may
not have been an instrument, others may yet be found that were ensemble musical instrument. There is evidence that
the Neanderthals had at least artistic sensibilities, for there are bones with scratch marks on them that
may have been some form of art, and certainly there is a number of small pierced objects, pieces of shell,
animal teeth, and so forth, found in various excavations that can only have served as beads for a necklace
or other ornamentation – or just possibly as rattles. There have also been found pieces of pigments of
various colors, some of them showing wear marks and thus that they had been used to color something, and
at least one that had been shaped into the form of a crayon, indicating that some reasonably delicate
pigmentation had been desired. Burials have been found, with some small deposits of grave goods, though
whether these reveal sensibilities or forms of ritual or belief, we cannot know (D’Errico et al., 2003,
19ff). There have also been found many bone awls, including some very delicate ones which, we may presume,
had been used to pierce skins so that they could be sewn together. All this leads us to the conclusion
that the Neanderthals had at least some artistic and other feelings, were capable of some musical
practices, even if only vocal, and were clothed, rather than being the grunting, naked savages that have
been assumed in the past.