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How Music and Instruments Began?
How Music and Instruments Began?
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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



    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

(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 emotion.”

    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

xylophone musical 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



    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



    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 flute making.


    So how did tembos musical

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.

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