Who Invented Music, & How Old Is It? (The Full Origin Story)

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  • Did music exist in pre-historic times?
  • What are the origins of standard music notation?
  • We dive deep into the age-old question – who invented music?
  • Keen for more? Check out our guide to the types of contemporary music

Music is universally present in human civilization across time and space, which makes the question of who invented music, or who created music first, practically unanswerable.

Scientists carbon-dated flutes found in modern-day Germany to 42-43,000 years old, suggesting ancient music of the instrumental music variety is at least that old.

The oldest known bullroarer, dated to 18,000 BCE, was discovered in Ukraine.

Lithophones, precursors to the modern marimba or xylophone, have been discovered all over the world, with the oldest known examples, at around 11,000 years old, found in Vietnam.

The types of instruments people make, and thus the style and sound of the music that results, are contingent on available materials. For this reason, musical style varies widely from place to place and time to time.

The presence of music, in one shape or form or another, though, is universal.

How Old Is Music?

One thing that does not vary across space and ceases to vary across time around 528,000 BCE is the pre-human ability to sing, suggesting ancient music of the vocal variety could be that old.

As soon as the predecessors to Homo sapiens evolved a hyoid bone placed in the proper location relative to the vocal tract, they would have had the capacity to sing.

Similar placement of the hyoid bone is what allows us to continue singing in the present day. Today’s popular music is thus a result of a physiological development from 530,000 years ago.

Thus, while we can be certain that music was being created over 40,000 years ago, even if we don’t know exactly who created music using these instruments, we might need to set our sights even further back in order to determine who invented music.

In this article, we’ll go all the way back to the likely origins of music and explore the following topics:

  • How do we know music existed in the pre-historic world?
  • Who invented music notation?
  • Should we even care about who invented music?

Clues As To Who Created Music

The evidence we have of music having existed throughout the existence of humanity as we know it is not in the form of music itself, but in the form of instruments and fossils.

Archaeologists and music history scholars can guess what the music might have sounded like based on the shape and form of instruments, but there is no clear record of the music itself: no records, tapes, CDs, mp3s, or even sheet music.

This problem ceases to exist, however, as soon as written music notation makes its way onto the scene.

Several ancient civilizations used written systems of music notation.

Artifacts from China, Egypt, Greece, India, Mesopotamia, Rome, and the Middle East in the form of papyrus and clay tablet inscriptions typically share monophonic texture, the centrality of text, and the implied use of improvisatory techniques.

The oldest known surviving piece of music notation is the Hymn to Nikkal, part of the Hurrian Songs from Ugarit, Syria, dated 1400 BCE.

Though this is the oldest known piece of music notation, it would be a stretch to suggest that its composer is the composer who invented music, as there are likely countless other pieces of written music pre-dating this artifact that did not survive to the present day.

The Origins Of Standard Music Notation

Written music began to look more like the standard music notation of today beginning in the middle ages, specifically in the mid-ninth century.

A form of notation using neumes was developed to aid in the performance of Gregorian chant melodies.

Neumes (from the Latin, neuma, meaning “gesture”) were figures placed above the text of a melody to indicate how the melody ought to be performed for each syllable of the text.

The number of notes, the contour of the melody, and the relative rhythmic relationships of the notes could be suggested using neumatic figures. 

The earliest surviving neumatic notation of this sort can be found in the Musica disciplina, written by the Frankish writer and music theorist Aurelian of Réôme.

The main drawback of using this sort of notation was that it could not be sight-read, since neumes were not set to any absolute pitch and there was no mechanism for assigning rhythm to the pitches.

Music notated in this style thus had to be learned by ear and memorized, but the memory could be aided by looking over the notation.

The lack of standardization was unsettling to leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, for which and by which the bulk of Middle Ages Western European music was being created.

If there was to be one universal church, then the music performed as part of the mass in each branch of this universal church had to sound the same, so church leaders set about standardizing as much as they could about the music.

Nowadays we tend to tune A to 440 Hz using a pocket tuner or pitchfork, but at the time there were no such devices.

This did not stop church leaders from standardizing what they could, though, so official church modes were formulated that served the same function as today’s modes (the major and minor scales being the two most popular modes in the popular music of today).

It would be a huge stretch to suggest that the church leaders and Frankish Kings of the middle ages are the ones who invented music, though; they merely had an interest in standardizing and preserving it.

As a side note, we have the copyist monks in scriptoriums to thank for our understanding of music history of this time period: these yearly music historians painstakingly hand-copied treatises on instrumental music and vocal music so that we could more thoroughly answer the question of who invented music.

Is Guido d’Arezzo The Monk Who Invented Music?

The modern staff addressed the drawbacks of neumatic notation by introducing measured time and a solmization system in which each note of the scale was given a singable syllable.

These developments are attributed to Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian monk living around the turn of the eleventh century, who used the chant Ut Queant Laxis as the basis for the solmization syllables as follows: Ut queant laxis, resonare fibris, Mira gestorum, famuli tuorum, Solve polluti, labii reatum, Sancte Iohannes.

The first syllable of each line, Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si, became singable stand-ins to distinguish between the pitches of the scale. Several centuries later, “Ut” was replaced with “Do,” to make it more easily singable.

In the 19th century, an English music teacher named Sarah Glover replaced “Si” with “Ti” so that each syllable could be distinguished by its first letter. By this time, the solfege system looks exactly as it does today.

The Guidonian Hand was used as a pedagogical tool for learning to sing intervals in music properly. Music historians today suggest it was not invented by Guido himself but adapted from his solmization system and then attributed to him later.

Is Sheet Music, Music?

The place of notation in music is an endlessly fascinating question. Sheet music, on the page, makes no sound at all: it is not until the “music” is interpreted and performed by a musician that it becomes music.

It then disappears as soon as the performer ceases to perform, even if it remains on the page.

In this way, written music is something like a recipe: it is the instructions for making music, but in the same way that you can’t eat a cookbook, you can’t hear the music on the page until it is interpreted.

Who Invented Music That Plays Itself?

The division between performed music and written music gets a little fuzzy with the advent of MIDI.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it is a technical standard that describes a communications protocol, digital interface, and electrical connectors that make it possible for a wide variety of instruments, hardware, software, and devices to communicate musically.

Digitized music existed prior to MIDI, but the creation of a universal format by Ikutaro Kakehashi and Dave Smith in the early 1980s paved the way for huge leaps forward in the sophistication of music technology.

MIDI scores are a lot like written musical scores, except that they are by design significantly more standardized than the typically written score.

MIDI scores still have to be interpreted, in this case through a computer program, in order to make sound, but they will sound exactly the same every time they are “performed” based on the standardization of the MIDI protocol.

When a performer plays in a MIDI score, that performance will be recorded in exactly the way it was played in, thus the performance does not dissipate in quite the same way it would if someone were to transcribe a performance to a written score.

To Conclude: Culture Is Contingent, But The Tendency To Create Culture Is Universal

It would be quite surprising for someone to suggest that Ikutaro Kakehashi and Dave Smith are the ones who created music, the ingenious enterprising individuals who invented music because music had obviously been around long before they invented MIDI.

Composers of classical music had built worlds on the page of notation that had been standardized centuries before, and even they lived and died centuries before Ikutaro Kakehashi and Dave Smith entered the scene.

However, the question of who invented music, whether we’re talking about popular music today or the popular music of the classical era, which was, of course, classical music, might need to be reframed in a more productive way.

The same composers of the classical music era writing classical music were responding at once to two different impulses.

On the one hand, there was the fact that classical music could be written and sold profitably as a life-sustaining occupation.

On the other, there is an innate drive in humans, even pre-human hominids, to create things of beauty.

The history of music is thus not a history of enterprising individuals, of outliers who invented music or re-invented music in one way or another, but of a universally uniting, foundational, perhaps even elemental experience, hardwired into our being.

How else would music have independently appeared and survived as part of every far-flung, seemingly unrelated culture that existed having never heard of each other prior to transgressing natural barriers to find one another and share or steal each other’s culture?

Culture evolves to diverge and converge, but the tendency to create culture is universal. For that reason, the question of who invented music will never yield a definitive answer, because the seed of musical creation is with all of us.

We didn’t inherit it from the music our hominid ancestors made: we just have the same seed, ready to be planted in whatever culturally-contingent soil we have available given the time and place in which we are born.

If you happen to be born in Vienna in 1750, your seed goes into the soil of classical music.

If you are born in the Volta region of Ghana in 1950, chances are your seed might instead go into the soil of layered polyrhythmic drum music and songs passed around your village so that everyone is a musician rather than a select few.

The thing held in common here is your innate, genetic heritage that drives you to create, regardless of where or when you are born.