Table of Contents

History of Music1

Prehistoric men and women probably started making music as a way to imitate the sounds of nature, either for religious or recreational reasons. The first musical instrument ever employed is likely to be the human voice, although archaeologists also found several rudimentary instruments, such as flutes, dating back to more than 35,000 years ago.

A few researchers stated that some archaeological finds actually date back to the Neanderthal period, proving that humankind discovered music way before we used to believe.

With the development of a writing system, it became possible to compose music as we do today.

The first-ever written piece of music, presented in a cuneiform “alphabet”, was found in Syria and it probably dates back to 3400 years ago.

Researchers were able to find out more about ancient music by studying the drawings on walls, vases, and other objects, deducing that in Ancient Greece, for example, instruments similar to modern bagpipes already existed. With this method, they also discovered the existence of string instruments (such as the lyre) and flutes (the aulos). Some writings of that time also suggested the existence of polyphony.

To deepen their knowledge of music in ancient Asia, in India, in particular, researchers consulted the sacred Hindu books, the Vedas, which contain precious information about Indian classical music.

Ancient music also blossomed in the Middle East, in the Persian empire in particular, and in Egypt. Hebrews also developed specific musical forms early on, mostly for religious reasons.

Medieval Period

As we move forward in musical time, we begin to enter the Medieval Period of music which can be generally agreed to span the period from around 500AD up until the mid-fifteenth century. By this time music was a dominant art in taverns to cathedrals, practised by kings to paupers alike. It was during this extended period of music that the sound of music becomes increasingly familiar. This is partly due to the development of musical notation, much of which has survived, that allows us a window back into this fascinating time.

From the written music that survives from the monasteries and other important accounts of musical practices, it’s possible to assemble an image of a vibrant culture that ranges from the sacred to the secular. Throughout the Medieval period, the music slowly began to adopt ever more elaborate structures and devices that produced works of immense beauty and devotion.

Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin pioneered many of the musical forms we still recognise today including the motet and the sacred Mass. Alongside these important forms came the madrigal that often reflects the moods and feelings of the people of the time. It’s wonderfully polyphonic form is both mesmerising and delightful.

Renaissance Period

Instruments developed in accordance with the composer’s imaginations. A full gamut of wind, brass and percussion instruments accompanied the Medieval music, although it is still the human voice that dominates many of the compositions. Towards the close of the high medieval period, we find the emergence of instrumental pieces in their own right which in turn paves the way for many musical forms in the following period: The Renaissance.

Before leaving this period of music it is important to mention the Troubadours and the Trouveres. These travelling storytellers and musicians covered vast distances on their journeys across Europe and further afield into Asia. They told stories, sung ballads and perhaps most importantly, brought with them influences from far and wide that seamlessly blended with the western musical cultures.

The Renaissance (1450 – 1600) was a golden period in music history. Freed from the constraints of Medieval musical conventions the composers of the Renaissance forged a new way forward. Josquin des Prez is considered to be one of the early Renaissance composers to be a great master of the polyphonic style, often combining many voices to create elaborate musical textures.

Later Palestrina, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd build on the ideas of des Pres composing some of the most stunning motets, masses, chansons and instrumental works in their own right. Modality was firmly established as a basis for all harmony, and although strict rules governing the use of dissonance, the expressive qualities of Renaissance music is virtually unparalleled.

As instrumental pieces became accepted into the repertoire, we find the development of instruments like the bassoon and the trombone giving rise to larger and more elaborate instrumental groupings.

This gave composers far more scope to explore and express their creative ideas than before. The viol family developed to provide a very particular, haunted quality to much of the music of the time alongside the establishment of each recognisable family of instruments comprising, percussion, strings, woodwind and brass.

Keyboard instruments also became increasingly common and the advent of the sonata followed in due course. Other popular forms for instrumental music included the toccata, canzona and ricercar to name but a few, emanating from the Courtly dance.

Towards the end of the Renaissance, what was called the Church Modes began to dissolve in favour of what is now considered to be functional harmony or tonality based on a system of keys rather than modes.