The question of why music was first invented has yet to be answered, but its effect on the development of human culture cannot be denied. Music helps us communicate, provides an opportunity for creative expression, and has the ability to bring large groups of people together, regardless of their differences. Listed below are six inventions that changed music throughout history and shaped the art form that we know today.
1. The prehistoric flute
First on the list are the prehistoric flutes discovered only five years ago in a cave located in southern Germany. These instruments, carved from mammoth ivory and bird bone, are estimated to be over 40,000 years old, making them the oldest instruments ever found. Open at both ends, the flutes feature finger holes that would have allowed an early human to produce musical notes.
This instrument is important for its likely use as an early form of recreation and entertainment, or as a part of religious ceremonies, as well as the possibility that it helped advance the social bonds of early humans. Thousands of years later, yet still far in our past, humankind would develop primitive instruments such as rattles, scrapers, and bull-roarers before creating the more refined and complicated instruments we know today.
2. The octave scale and notation
Though many ancient civilizations developed their own musical scales, the ancient Greek thinker Pythagoras was the first to develop a near-perfect, mathematically-based scale that consisted of tones and “hemitones”—what we know today as an octave scale. Though it isn’t clear who first added to this early musical theory to develop an initial form of musical notation, this achievement is also often credited to the Greeks. They would influence 6th century philosopher Boethius to develop the letter system of notation using the letters A through G that we are familiar with today. Together, these inventions enabled humans to record and distribute compositions, allowing original compositions and musicianship to spread farther than it ever had before.
3. The piano
The invention of the piano was a vital development in the history of music, as it gave composers of the time the ability to work within a range of notes much more vast and complex than those provided by the harpsichord, the piano’s predecessor. This keyed instrument allowed musicians to play in accompaniment with other instruments or to perform solo pieces, and became a central part of entertainment both in the home and the public sphere in the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though it is not the primary form of entertainment that it once was, the piano and keyboard continue to be some of the most popular instruments for people to learn to play.
4. The metronome
Though small in size, the metronome has a significant impact on a musician’s ability to play in time with a song. Musical performances require a musician to interpret notes, play with emotional focus, and keep time all at once. A metronome allows individual players as well as composers directing a group to stay on beat and thus deliver a measured, impactful performance. Early experiments with metronomes were first conducted in the late 17th century, but the tool was not employed by any of the iconic classical composers until Beethoven. The metronome is still used today by amateur musicians as well as in major recording studios to help music professionals create the perfect sound.
5. The microphone
Humans had been working toward voice amplification since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but a workable version of the microphone did not appear until the late 19th century. Its effect on the history of music was significant because it allowed people to hear music not only louder, but with a greater degree of detail than ever before. Its central use in musical recording had a direct effect on the eventual ability of people to listen to music anytime, anywhere.
Prior to the invention of the microphone, people needed to see music performed live in order to enjoy it. Additionally, the use of the microphone in concert venues allowed small groups of musicians to put on a show of a size and volume that before was only attainable by large orchestras on naturally amplified stages. In modern music, microphones allow musicians to create complex works of art full of nuance to deliver a more powerful performance to their listeners.
6. The electric guitar
The most recent invention to make this list is the electric guitar, which changed the direction that modern music took by providing players with an energetic, exciting new sound. The electric guitar was invented in 1931 and came accompanied by an external speaker that received the vibrational input from a pickup inside the guitar, turning the vibrations from the strings into the characteristic sound we all know today. Jazz and blues players of the mid-20th century first adopted the instrument, ushering in a new era for both genres.
In the 1950s, the fledgling rock and roll scene would adopt the electric models developed by Gibson and Fender to create a new genre of music that set the stage for popular music today. It became the trademark instrument for a long list of guitar legends, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. The electric guitar continues to be a favorite among youth in Western culture and remains central to the creation of popular music.