Gizmodo Asks “What Was the Earliest Music?”

NEW YORK – Gizmodo in its Giz Asks column on July 5 asked experts “What was the earliest music?” The answers varied according to the area of expertise, but, of course, the ancient Greeks were mentioned.

Among the experts, Joshua Kumbani, PhD candidate in archaeology at the University of Witswatersrand in South Africa, told Gizmodo: “Oral singing is likely the earliest form of music, followed by organized sound like clapping or foot stomping. Various musical instruments could have been developed at a later stage. For example, the musical bow is regarded as one of the early musical instruments of the Khoisan in southern Africa. It is argued the musical bow was discovered during hunting: after releasing the arrow, the bow string continued vibrating, which produced some musical tones, and thus led to its adoption as an instrument.”

“Some of the earliest musical instruments used in the past do not convincingly look or sound like musical instruments, Kumbani continued, noting that “for example, a bullroarer, which produces a whirring sound, has been reported to have been used for musical purposes. One archaeological piece has been recovered from Matjes River site from Later Stone Age contexts, and it is also depicted in the rock art at the Doring River site in the Cederberg in South Africa. The uses of the bullroarer may have been diverse, but one of them was being used as a musical instrument. That said, I can’t imagine many people would think of the whirring sound it makes as ‘musical’— but ‘music is in the ear of the beholder,’ as the scientist Jelle Atema once put it.”

Naomi Weiss Associate Professor of Classics at Harvard University told Gizmodo: “Specialists on ancient civilizations could each give you examples of music from their particular areas of expertise, but one could always go back further. My own area is ancient Greece, from roughly the eighth to the fourth centuries BCE. I could talk about bards singing in the Iliad and Odyssey, reflecting traditions stretching back into the Bronze Age. Or the images of various instruments on ancient Greek pottery—lyres, pipes, trumpets, cymbals, castanets, drums. Or the productions of classical Athenian plays, like Sophocles’ Antigone or Euripides’ Medea, which were essentially musicals, with singing and dancing choral ensembles and instrumental accompaniments. Or musical contests and the professional musicians who became famous as they toured across the ancient Greek world. Or the development of music theory in technical treatises dating back at least to the fourth century BCE. Or the scraps of Greek musical notation on papyri from Ptolomaic Egypt, a couple of which seem to provide the tunes for songs composed by Euripides a couple of centuries earlier.”

None of these examples, however, gives you the ‘earliest’ music,” Weiss continued, “and if I were to present them as such, I’d end up following a common tendency in the U.S. and Europe of framing ancient Greek culture in terms of the origins of ‘Western’ civilization—the origins not just of music, but of art, literature, philosophy, and democracy itself. Actually, as any Assyriologist could tell you, many early Greek musical traditions and technologies, along with the media through which they were transmitted, can be traced eastwards, back to ancient Mesopotamia. And as any Egyptologist could tell you, we have evidence of a thriving musical culture in northern Africa that predates archaic Greece by a couple thousand years.”

Weiss noted that “one interesting question to ask might be: what did an ancient culture think the earliest music was? In ancient Greek mythology, music was the domain of the Muses, whose parents were Zeus and Memory. But there were other ideas about the ‘earliest’ music. Just as today, songwriters liked to position themselves within a long line of musicians, going back not just to mythical figures like Orpheus but to more apparently historical ones like the seventh-century Terpander of Lesbos, whose songs and lyre music became especially renowned in Sparta. Lament was frequently viewed as the prototypical form of song: the writer Herodotus traces this back to Egypt, while one of Pindar’s choral songs depicts the birth of various musical forms from the mourning death-cry of the Gorgon. This is not actually so different from modern ideas about the evolution of music: the ethnomusicologist Steven Feld has suggested that musical polyphony arose out of the cross-cultural phenomenon of group wailing in performances of lament. And perhaps we should follow ancient Greek thinkers in approaching this question beyond the human entirely. The peripatetic philosopher Chamaeleon of Pontus, for example, claimed that ‘the ancients’ discovered music by imitating birds— an idea that continued well into the Roman period.”


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