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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 instruments 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.

How Did Music Begin? Was it via Vocalization or was it through Motor Impulse?


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 instruments (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.”

So Now We Can Ask Again, “How Did Music Begin?”


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.

Studies based on fossil remains of the cranium and jaw formation of the early species of homo suggest that while Homo ergaster from between two million and a million and a half years ago could produce some variation of pitch but perhaps without much breath control, Homo erectus may have had greater ability, and Homo heidelbergensis, and certainly its later development from around a million years ago into the common ancestor of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, could certainly “sing” as well as we can, though of course we can have no evidence of whether they could control such ability, whether they used it, and if so to what extent. So we can say that vocalization, while absent from the capability of our cousins the great apes and of the early forms of Homo, could be as old as at least a million years. It would seem that Homo heidelbergensis had the muscular abilities, but perhaps not the full mental capacities and that it was not until H. sapiens arrived that all the requirements for vocalization were in place, both exported and imported, and possibly not even in the earliest stages of the evolution of H. sapiens. It is here that there is controversy over the relative musical abilities of H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens, to which in due course we shall return.

Much of this work also discusses the origins of speech as well as that of music. The two processes seem to have much the same physiological requirements, the ability to produce the various consonants and vowels that enable speech, and the ability to control discrete musical pitches. But this capacity goes far beyond the ability to produce sounds.

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 Musical Instruments (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.