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A short history of music

Did you know that human beings have been making music for approximately 55,000 years? Here's my short history of music from then --> til now!

Starting with our voices, and then most likely hitting things to find rhythms we've been using music to tell stories since the dawn of time. A 35,000 year old bone flute with 5 holes made from a vultures wing was discovered a few years ago and many more instruments followed.

In fact the Divje Babe Flute (pictured) dates back even further, possibly 60,000 years. But it might not actually be a flute - it's possibly just a bone that was bitten into by animals which created the holes.

Prehistoric music (created before 1,500 BC) includes all music created before people started to write about the history of music e.g. Native American & Australian Aboriginal music was around for a long time before anyone recorded it in history. We know it existed but don't know much about it other than what was passed down. In fact the oldest recorded song was written just 3400 years ago in Syria. The Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal is the oldest surviving substantially complete work of notated music in the world and it was composed in harmonies of thirds. It's an anonymous work.

Then there's the Seikilos epitaph - the oldest surviving complete musical composition dating back to either the 1st or 2nd century CE. The melody is recorded alongside the lyrics engraved on a tombstone in present-day Turkey. (And yes, I want a song inscribed on my gravestone when we reach that time please!)

Double pipes (Ancient Greeks) and bagpipes (Celts) suggest Polyphony was used early on i.e. at least two simultaneous lines of independent melody. One pipe was probably a drone and the other melody. Scotland the Brave probably didn't exist then I guess - but if it did I assume it was all they played based on the typical modern day use of bagpipes...!

After that we start to find more instruments such the Ravanahatha (pictured) - a bowed stringed instrument from Sri Lanka, and many more...

In Persia some of the early composers names are recorded such as Barbod, Nakissa and Ramtin. The legendary king, Jamshid, is actually credited with the invention of music in Iran - which is quite a claim!!

Music also appears in the Bible, It was an essential part of training in the schools of the prophets (Book of Sam) and Solomon's Temple was apparently the great school of music. Religion in fact - particularly the Catholic Church despite its obvious flaws - was responsible for unifying cultures in time after the fall of Rome and music from this time served as the focal point for musical development for the 1st thousand years of this period.

In Medieval times music was a rich and vibrant culture depicted in paintings and literature. But of course with the Church being the Church the only music which has survived from the era before 800 to the present day is the liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church.. cuz God?

Things go crazy from there, the Church tried to unify and suppress lots of chant traditions in the 9th century. By the 11C polyphony was huge, and then various forms of sacred music developed in the late 13C. After that you've got Renaissance, Baroque (think harpsichords), Classical, Romantic, and eventually 20C brought us Blues, Swing, Jazz, Rock n Roll, Electronic and so on. There's lots already written about all of those eras in detail if you want to read more.

Plus don't forget all the great African, Asian, Byzantium, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Persian and other music that was being created during what the western world calls the 'Classical' era (posh people patronizing young prodigies like Mozart to write big orchestral stuff)


But why do I care about all of this you might ask? For me it serves as a useful reminder that what many of us involved in music is innate, its within us looking for a way out, and its steeped in rich histories and cultures that go back tens of thousands of years.

Sometimes, in all honesty, this thing we do might not always seem like its worth it. It can be frustrating, expensive, and difficult. But the truth is we can't not do it, its beyond our reason to imagine a world without it, and the entire history of humankind is stitched together by every note ever played.

The history of music helps me bring back into perspective the reasons that we have to create and play music, even if sometimes we don't always want to.


PS For anyone wondering the lyrics to inscribe on my tombstone when that day comes are as follows:

The words that you heard when you were young will always stay, the ones that always stay make the world go away.

- Levellers

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