While no one knows the exact person who invented music, historians and scientists have theories. Many of which we share in this article.
The person who invented music was the first sentient creature to bang two rocks together to create a rhythm. After that, someone decided to stretch an animal hide over a gourd to make the first drum, but singing probably predated it all.
Of course, this is a very brief description, so let’s dig into it deeper.
The First Singers In The World
The first sung notes could have happened before homo sapiens even existed, as researchers have discovered evidence of a hyoid bone in a homo erectus specimen that lived 400,000 years ago.
The hyoid bone is exclusive to hominids— humans, and Neanderthals— and is a critical part of the anatomy that allows us to form speech.
Without a hyoid bone, we would be unable to speak or sing. So it stands to reason that the first species to evolve this bone would have been the one to sing the first music.
Did Neanderthals sing? Did homo erectus? Because no soft tissue remains in the bones we’ve discovered, we can’t know for sure what the vocal cords looked like in our ancestors, but since they had hyoid bones, the possibility of speech and song exists.
If you’ve ever been friends with a drummer, you probably noticed that they’re always tapping on things, beating out rhythms to music in their heads, even when they’re not in band class. So some ancestor of ours was pounding out rhythms on rocks, logs, or makeshift drums before recorded history. We’ll never know his name.
But as we get closer to recorded history, we begin seeing evidence of other musical instruments. Most of us know someone whose grandmother said something like, “Drums? Why don’t you learn to play a real instrument?” No matter how much that stings to a percussionist, they have to admit that more sophisticated instruments came later.
In 1995, a 60,000-year-old flute was discovered in the Divje Babe cave in what is now known as Slovenia. While the Neanderthals only had about 20,000 years left to live on the planet 60,000 years ago, they were making music. Carved from a cave bear’s femur, the flute has been definitively linked to a Neanderthal creator.
So they were capable of musical expression and creating something in the pursuit of beauty. That doesn’t gibe well with most people’s concept of Neanderthals as thuggish cavemen.
Other ancient instruments include:
- The first modern humans carved the Geisenklösterle Flutes from ivory from mammoth tusks. They are roughly the same age as the Divja Babe flute.
- The Hohle Fels Flute was carved from a vulture bone. It is about 35,000 years old and turned up in modern-day Germany. It is the first instrument we know of that looks and functions similarly to the flute used in orchestras today.
- The Isturitz Flutes are about 25,000 years old. Discovered in a French cave, these flutes show obvious wear on the holes— evidence of repeated playing.
- A 20,000-year-old bullroarer was found in Ukraine, but many examples dot the globe. Australian aborigines use them today.
- Lithophones are essentially tuned rocks. The oldest we know of date to 10,000 years ago and were found in Viet Nam, though we’ve discovered examples worldwide.
- The Chinese Jiahu flutes are up to 9,000 years old. Made from the bones of cranes, these flutes are intact, making them among the oldest playable aerophones.
- The world’s oldest playable trumpets come from King Tutankhamun’s tomb. They are over 3,000 years old and made from copper and silver.
Who Invented Sheet Music
When asking who invented music, we may be asking about music notation rather than the vibration of sound waves organized into rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns.
The oldest example of notated music is a 4,000-year-old clay tablet with cuneiform musical notation. It comes from Sumeria. For some context on how old this musical notation is:
- The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest extant piece of literature. It mythologizes the real-life king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk.
- Gilgamesh lived about 4,500 years ago.
- The story of his life and adventures wouldn’t have been written until hundreds of years after his rule and death.
- The clay tablet with musical notation was created during or close to Gilgamesh’s lifetime. That’s old.
But we don’t call it “stone music,” so, at some point, musicians began developing more practical systems of notation and committing them to paper.
Guido of Arezzo was an 11th-century Benedictine monk who spent most of his life in Italy. He was the first person we know of to come up with a musical notation system that resembles what we use today.
He used a four-line staff to show specific notes and created a system that would develop into solfege, which uses the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti scale to represent individual pitches.
Since music is more than just pitches, a system had to develop to indicate rhythms and how long each note should last. This system began emerging in the 13th century in Asia when a Persian musician named Safi al-Din al-Urmawi came up with a method of using different note shapes to represent different durations.
A note appeared on a staff to indicate the pitch, and it might be drawn as a square, drawn as another square, and then as a triangle, for example, to indicate a “short, short, long” rhythm.
The Purpose of Written Music
Before musical notation came into being, the only way a musician could learn a piece of music was by rote, by having another musician teach it to him.
Consider the childhood game of Telephone, where one person whispers a phrase to another who passes it on to the end of the line. At the game’s end, the amusement comes in hearing how many mistakes have compounded to make the original phrase unidentifiable.
The same thing can happen when learning music from someone else.
We needed musical notation to preserve music for subsequent generations. Imagine trying to learn the piano part for Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. The pianist plays more than 30,000 notes in the 40-minute piece of music. Rote learning on that scale is unthinkable.
Guido of Arrezzo helped start musicians down the road to notation that would make learning music simpler and more reliable.
Today, we have a complex and developed system of musical notation. It generally relies on a five-line staff to indicate pitch. We assign clefs to staves for reference points (the G clef, for example, tells us which line on the staff corresponds to the pitch G and is also called the treble clef), round noteheads, as well as time signatures and key signatures.
The duration of the notes is indicated by whether the round shapes are filled or open, whether they have a stem coming off of them, and whether that stem has one or more “flags” coming off of it.
People who insist that music is hard to read simply need to think of it as a code. That’s all it is, rather than a completely new language one has to learn to be able to play music.
Who Invented Music? Final Thoughts
Music, rather than opposable thumbs, might be the one true thing that sets humans apart from other life forms. We need to create art and beauty, and music is one of the best ways to do so.
We’ll never know who invented music, but knowing what we do about ancient humanity by what they left behind, and knowing that we have this artistic drive lets us know that as soon as humans were mentally and physically capable of making music, they were doing exactly that.