Archeologists tell us that the act of making music dates back at least 35,000 to 40,000 years. That’s when most of the available evidence points to the creation of the first musical instruments.
Some scholars point to a period beginning about this time as an explosion of cultural creativity. The early human beings of the Upper Paleolithic period began producing extraordinary examples of cave paintings, jewelry, and sculptural carvings from stone and bone. Their growing sense of spiritual and ethical awareness is evident in their carrying out complex rituals such as burying their dead.
One of the oldest examples we have of an object deliberately fashioned to produce music is a flute discovered in 2004 in Germany. Thought to be about 35,000 years old, the instrument is made from two pieces of hollowed-out mammoth ivory. With these two pieces fastened together, and with three finger-holes carved into the tube, a musician could produce five distinct musical tones. The flute as an instrument evolved into ever more complex and melodious forms, as evidenced by a remarkable example made during the Neolithic period in China.
The Jiahu flutes
Chinese myths dating back thousands of years tell of the mystical connections between flutes and the long-legged birds known as cranes.
In the 1980s, archeologists working at an ancient settlement in the central plains of China discovered objects they called the Jiahu flutes, dating from about 7,000 BCE. Over time, they discovered dozens of these flutes, all carved from the wing bones of the red-crowned crane. Many were made with seven or eight holes, giving them a remarkably sophisticated range of tones similar to the eight-tone scale familiar to us today.
This find represents the oldest musical instruments found in China and one of the oldest still-playable caches of instruments in the world. Careful replicas constructed by musicians in Henan show us that the flutes’ tone sounds remarkably like the flutes manufactured today.
The Lyres of Ur
Humans made and played the lyre and other stringed instruments from the time of the earliest civilizations in the Mideast and the ancient Mediterranean world. The lyre reached its high point in ancient Greece, when it was known as a sacred instrument to Apollo, god of music, poetry, and the arts. For the Greeks, the lyre served as a symbol of wisdom, enlightenment, and moderation.
The classical lyre typically consisted of a yoked body with two upright or curved arms supported by a crossbar and a set of tuning pegs. These pegs might be fashioned of bone, ivory, or bronze. Between the crossbar and the bottom portion of the instrument were seven strings, commonly made from sheep gut, that varied in thickness. The musician would hold the lyre in their hands or lap and pluck or strum it by hand or with a plectrum. Some lyres were played with a bow, much like a violin. Others had bowl-shaped bodies, often made of tortoiseshell.
Ancient art is filled with depictions of various forms of the lyre, from Minoan clay pieces of the 15th century BCE to statues of Apollo dating from the third century CE and beyond.
Archeologists have discovered lyres in their excavations of numerous ancient cultures. Among the most famous of these finds are the Lyres of Ur, products of the ancient Sumerian civilization. In 1929 archeologist Leonard Woolley found these 4,500-year-old pieces, with their carved bulls’ heads and inlaid lapis lazuli ornamentation, in present-day Iraq. Expert consensus designates them as the oldest-known surviving stringed instruments in the world.
After extensive restorations, the three lyres were distributed to museums in Pennsylvania, London, and Iraq. The Golden Lyre of Ur, the most magnificent of the three, was reposed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad until 2003, when rioters partially destroyed it and left pieces in various locations in the city. Much of the original jewels and gold were never recovered (although the gold bull’s head was found in the National Bank of Iraq five years later). Dedicated experts eventually reassembled the broken pieces. Andy Lowings, a British musician and civil engineer, also created a remarkable replica using Woolley’s notes and the help of colleagues around the world to source cedarwood, stones, gems, and mother-of-pearl.
Other musicians have built and played replicas of numerous other types, with recordings widely available.
A pair of wind instruments called Tutankhamun’s Trumpets, found in the Egyptian ruler’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, is part of what the archeologist dubbed the treasure trove of “wonderful things” he saw there. One bronze and one silver, the long, slender trumpets feature decorative motifs depicting gods associated with war. They are among the oldest surviving playable musical instruments in existence. A 1939 BBC recording, accessible on YouTube today, preserved their haunting sound, easily recognizable as similar to today’s trumpets.
The instruments found a home in the Cairo Museum until 2011, when the bronze trumpet disappeared during the chaos of the political uprising. The silver trumpet was already abroad as part of a museum tour. Not long after its disappearance, the bronze instrument turned up, just as mysteriously as it had vanished, tucked into a bag filled with antiquities on the Cairo Metro.
Mapping ancient music
The European Music Archeology Project (EMAP), launched in 2013, aims to recreate several ancient instruments. Organizers of this still-ongoing $4.6 million effort set out to construct musical instruments that would resemble—and sound like—those that were developed thousands of years ago in the region.
The project’s playable instruments include a set of Numantian trumpets, ultracircular clay aerophones used in the second century BCE by the Arevaci, a group of Celtiberian peoples living in the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Arevaci maintained their central settlement in the city of Numantia, Spain. From the remnants of multiple instruments, the EMAP team worked to create replicas, even down to the ornate decorative carvings on the pieces.
Other experts rebuilt functioning examples of the ancient carnyx, a horn dating from the Iron Age; the lur, a 4-foot-long war horn used in Scandinavia three millennia ago; the bullroarer, a small, thin-layered plank typically made of wood or bone and whirled in a horizontal or vertical circle to create sound waves of various pitch. Researchers have unearthed originals of the bullroarer in Paleolithic-era archeological sites throughout the world.
EMAP exhibitions have allowed people from across Europe to examine and enjoy these instruments, and the organization has even made recordings featuring accomplished contemporary musicians playing them.