Summary · The origins of music · Primordial music · The discovery of musical instruments · String instruments and percussion instruments with membranes Articles
History of Music

The origins of music

The birth and discovery of the first musical instruments

People have always wondered about the origin of music, from Plato to Rousseau and Darwin, and many have tried to find an answer. Darwin, for example, hypothesised that music is the evolution of a natural behaviour linked to courtship, so the better a specimen can sing, the more chance it has of reproducing, but is it really that simple?

vase shape: attic with red figures of ancient musicians

Primordial music

Before delving into the history of the birth of music, we must ask ourselves a question: what is music?
If we look in the Treccani encyclopaedia we find this definition:

"The art of devising and producing structured sequences of simple and complex sounds, which may vary in pitch, intensity and timbre, by means of the human voice, an instrument or a combination of both.".

There is one important thing to stress in this definition, the word "human". In fact, we will see that at the beginning of the music, behaviours are not exclusively human, but rather are part of many animal species.

Rhythm and singing
But how was this primordial music supposed to sound? More like singing or rhythms? These are the two hypotheses that researchers make, and obviously one does not exclude the other. Of course, it's easier to think that music evolved through the voice, but observing the behaviour of Gorillas and Chimpanzees we see how they use their hands to beat on their chests or with each other, creating a kind of rhythm that we can hardly call music, but perhaps it is from this behaviour that music was born.

While we have no idea about rhythms, we do have some clues about the voice. Observing the anatomy of homo erectus (our ancestor from about a million years ago) we know that he was not able to make such complex sounds and consequently he certainly did not have a particularly developed language. This, because the study of language is closely linked to the study of the birth of music, means that we can rule out Man Erectus as the first person to use the voice to make music.
To find our own vocal capabilities we have to wait for homo sapiens and homo of Neanderthal, so around 300 thousand years ago..

The discovery of musical instruments

We can be sure of the existence of music when we have found the first instruments, in particular, the first instrument found is the Divje Babe bone flute, about 10 cm long, from 40 thousand years ago.

bone flute of Divje Babe

The fact that a flute was found as the first instrument does not mean that wind instruments were necessarily the first instruments to be made, for this is not certain. The difference is that the flute is certainly a more recognisable instrument, whereas it is impossible to determine whether a piece of wood was used as a musical instrument or not, but if we find a piece of bone with holes and a mouthpiece, it is very likely that this was a musical instrument.

Other similar instruments are a shell with a hole on it, a possible ancestor of a trumpet. Even several flutes have been found in the same cave, which might suggest that humans were already playing together at that time, and we might have found an ancient orchestra.

After flutes, the oldest instruments to have been found are the so-called Gong Stones: large stones which, when struck like stones, emit a metallic sound. We are talking about 12.000 years ago.

String instruments and percussion instruments with membranes

Having discovered the origins of the voice, wind and percussion instruments, we are still missing stringed instruments and percussion instruments with membranes.
The problem with the latter two instruments is that the materials from which they are made, unlike bone or stone, have not reached us.

So how do we know, for example, when stringed instruments were invented? There is a very interesting way: at some point we started to find arrowheads dating back to the Neolithic period, if there are arrows there are bows, and what is a bow if not a stick held taut by a string?
This is already a musical instrument, even today in Africa there is a similar instrument. If we add a sounding board to this bow and even add more bows on top of it, we see that slowly there is the evolution of what will be the lyres and all stringed instruments.

African stringed instrument

If we add a sounding board to this bow and even add more bows on top of it, we see that slowly there is the evolution of what will be the lyre and all stringed instruments.

As far as percussion instruments with membranes are concerned, we know that at some point man began to dress himself in skins, and the skins needed to be stretched into wooden frames in order to be usable. Well, in all the cultures of the world there is an instrument consisting simply of a wooden frame with a skin stretched over it.

But there is also another hypothesis, namely that thanks to the invention of the art of pottery, pots were used to collect the meat of freshly killed animals, and to cover these pots, the skin was used as a lid. Now, if we imagine a pot with a skin on top as a lid, it is easy to see that this in itself is a drum.

strumento ad arco africano
By Stefano Vivaldini
music manuscript by J.S. Bach
Musical forms

Every piece of music, whether classical or popular, is composed according to a starting structure that we call "musical form".

The lute pleyer - Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi
Baroque musical forms

In the Baroque period between 1600-1700, various musical forms and genres were born and developed: for instrumental music, the concerto grosso, the solo concert, the suite and the sonata, and for vocal music, the madrigal, the opera, the cantata and the oratorio.

inside a theater
The origins of Italian Opera

In 1600, a new theatrical and musical genre was born in Italy: Opera, which was destined to occupy theatre seasons and bring people together in a single hall to this day. Italian opera was born in the courts, moved to the theatre, changed its form and became one of