History of Music

History of Music

A rock gong in Africa from the Stone Age

People have been making music almost as long as there have been people, probably for at least a hundred thousand years. The earliest music, in Africa, was probably clapping hands and singing. Soon people also began to bang on hollow logs and knock sticks together to make louder sounds; these were the earliest percussion instruments.

What an aulos might have sounded like

By about 3100 BC (if not earlier), musicians in West Asia and Egypt were making instruments that could produce different pitches: high and low notes. The first wind instruments may have come from Egypt, even before the beginning of the Old Kingdom. These were hollow reed pipes with holes in them to put your fingers on to vary the pitch. Some probably had reeds in one end that you put in your mouth, like a modern clarinet. Musicians sometimes played one pipe, and sometimes played two pipes at the same time, one with the fingers of each hand. By about 1800 BC, in the Shang Dynasty (if not earlier), people were also playing pipes in China.

Playing a Chinese qin

The earliest stringed instruments may have come from West Asia, where the Sumerians built thin lyres as early as 3000 BC. By 2500 BC people in northern Syria were also playing lyres, and by about 1900 BC, in the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian musicians had also learned to play the lyre, though lyres did not become common in Egypt until the New Kingdom. By 200 BC, people were playing stringed instruments like the qin in China, too.

The earliest lutes - a lyre with a neck like a modern mandolin - were also from West Asia.

We don't know what this early music sounded like, because there was no way to write down notes or to record music. We can tell from pictures and from descriptions that people sometimes played their instruments alone and sometimes in groups, and that they probably played songs with verses and choruses as we do today.

Blowing a shofar, or ram's horn

By about 1500 BC, in the New Kingdom, people in Egypt were playing bronze trumpets as well as flutes. (But it's possible that trumpets existed as early as the Old Kingdom). At first musicians seem to have mostly played trumpets for the army. They were also blowing through cow and goat horns to make music.

Medieval Gregorian chant

Around 300 BC, Greek musicians worked out ways of writing down notes to describe songs. Soon afterward, thanks to the Greek conquest of Egypt, Egyptian musicians also used the Greek method to write down songs.

In the Middle Ages, about 1000 AD, Christian monks in Europe began to use a new method of writing down notes, the ancestor of the system we use today.

Bibliography and further reading about the history of music:

African music
Egyptian Music
Chinese music
Ancient Greek music
Sound waves
Quatr.us home



Who runs Quatr.us?

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

More about Professor Carr's work on the Portland State University website

Help support Quatr.us!

Quatr.us is entirely supported by your generous donations and by our sponsors. Most donors give about $10. Can you give $10 today to keep this site running? Or give $50 to sponsor a page?

Today's special find from Amazon:

This is a great kit: mold your own human skeleton, put it together, attach the magnets and stick it to your fridge! Learn what's inside your body.

The Story of Quatr.us:

Quatr.us began in 1995 as a student project funded by Portland State University. For the last fifteen years, Quatr.us (formerly "History for Kids") has been entirely independent of the University, using ads to keep the service free.

Quatr.us now has about 3000 articles, all researched and written inhouse by university professors; we try to add a new article every day. About 30,000 people a day visit Quatr.us (that's about a million people a month!), from every country in the world. Our many awards include the Encyclopedia Britannica's Best of Web 2009.

Science Topics and Donations Biology Physics Weather Geology Mathematics Chemistry Astronomy Donations

Keep in touch with Quatr.us!

Send us an email now and we'll add you to our mailing list - new ideas and projects, announcements of new archaeological and scientific discoveries, seasonal offers and project ideas, and special gifts.

Sign up for Quatr.us' email newsletter

October's history and science ideas for you to take home:

Thanks for visiting Quatr.us! Check out today's Quatr.us current events post