Tunes: Song has been a part of human society for thousands of years.

Music is universal throughout humanity. Experienced and enjoyed across cultures and continents, it has played a vital role in the history of human society – and possibly evolution itself.

  • What exactly is music?

    There is no single definition. But most people agree with author and curator Jeremy Montagu that it is “sound that conveys emotion”.

    Music has existed for at least 40,000 years of human history and, like language, it is believed to be a universal human trait. No culture has ever been discovered without it.

  • How did it begin?

    The earliest musical instruments ever discovered are around 43,000 years old. They are simple flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory. Discovered in the Geissenklösterle in southern Germany, they were some of many personal ornaments belonging to early humans living around the River Danube at the time. The caves also contained art and mythical imagery.

    But while instruments are the first proven examples of human music, some researchers think it may date back far earlier. Although there is no proof, many agree that song has always existed in some way. For example, a mother humming or crooning to her baby probably predated speech by some time. And as the hominid voice had fully developed as early as 530,000 years ago, neanderthals and Homo sapiens may both have made early music.

  • Is it just a human thing?

    Yes and no. Humans are the only species to develop musical instruments – but there are plenty of animals in nature that use song. The most obvious of these is birdsong, a method of communication as old as 66 million years. Birds use song in family groups, as a territorial defence or for the attraction of a mate.

    And they are not the only animals to use and recognise songs. Four other primates also sing – lemurs, tarsiers, titi monkeys and gibbons. Some experts have noted that all four species form monogamous relationships, suggesting that singing itself could be related to the way family groups develop.

  • What role did it play in early societies?

    Many researchers are convinced that these flutes were used in religious rituals. Early musical instruments were precious objects that took hours to make. Using only a stone tool, a flute maker would have to split a section of curved ivory or bone along its natural grain. The two halves would then have been hollowed out, carved and fitted together with an airtight seal.

    Music may also have played a part in human evolution. The flutes likely helped early humans communicate and form tighter social bonds. Unlike neanderthals, homo sapiens used music to build stronger societies – and ultimately survive while their near cousins went extinct.

  • What about modern humans?

    Throughout ancient and modern history, it has been used in sacred ceremonies. In Ancient Greece, music was an important feature of festivals, marriages and funerals. Egyptian temples have scenes showing musicians playing. Early Medieval Europe was filled with Christian, Islamic and Jewish sacred music.

    Music has also played a defining role in some of the biggest political movements in history. In the late 19th Century, communists around the world united under the Internationale. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan’s songs were used by the civil rights movement.

  • What’s the future of music?

    Music has evolved hugely since early humans first sang on Earth. Instruments have transformed from the ancient flutes in 40000BC to the first-ever electronic instrument – the spooky hands-free theremin in 1920. Today, some say the evolution of instruments may have reached its final stage. Contemporary musicians often create their music using nothing but a computer.

    But that’s not to say music itself will ever stop evolving. This essentially human trait and expression of emotion will keep changing with the people who make it.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite piece of music? Why?


  1. Write a short story set in a dystopia where all music has been banned.

Word Watch

The former lecturer at the University of Oxford curated the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments – the most comprehensive collection of European historical instruments in Britain. He died in 2020.
A cave containing traces of early prehistoric art and instruments from between 43,000 and 30,000 years ago. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
River Danube
Europe’s second-longest river. It originates in Germany and flows through 10 countries – the largest number in the world. Its mouth is in Romania.
Any member of the biological family Hominidae – or “great apes”. Currently, the four hominid species alive are humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
An extinct hominid species that lived alongside Homo sapiens until around 40,000 years ago. Some research suggests they went extinct due to climate change or competition from Homo sapiens.
Homo sapiens
The species to which all modern humans belong.
66 million years
Fossils of the Vegavis iaai indicate that this ancient bird living alongside dinosaurs made a similar noise to modern-day geese.
Any mammal from the group that includes lemurs, lorises, tarsiers, monkeys, apes and humans.
A form of relationship in which a person or animal has only one spouse at a time – unlike a polygamous relationship, which is common in many other primates.
A left-wing anthem used as a standard of the socialist movement since the late 19th Century.
Bob Dylan
An American singer-songwriter often regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his songs.
An electronic musical instrument. The pitch is controlled by the movement of the performer’s hand towards and away from the circuit – meaning a theremin player never actually touches their instrument. It has featured on albums by Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys.

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