Archaeologists discover oldest musical instrument

Researchers in Germany have discovered a treasure trove of prehistoric artefacts over 40,000 years old. Among them is a simple flute thought to be the oldest instrument ever discovered.

From Beethoven to Kraftwerk, Germany has been home to some of the most influential musicians of all time. But a new discovery suggests that the region’s most important contribution to musical history may have come many thousands of years earlier. Archaeologists in Swabia, South Germany, have found what they believe to be the oldest musical instrument ever discovered.

The instrument does not look like much to sing about. It is simply a hollow piece of mammoth bone with two holes drilled into the side. But researchers are in no doubt of its significance: it is, they say, a primitive flute.

Simple wind instruments made of bone have been discovered before. But this is the oldest yet. It demonstrates beyond doubt that humans have been using tools to make music for at least 43,000 years.

Nobody knows for sure what the role of music in early human societies was – but many experts are convinced that the flute was used in religious rituals, combined with human voices and simple percussion.

Since only a few notes can be played on this flute, the music it made would have been extremely basic. The earliest evidence for more complex melodies comes around 3000 BC, when stringed instruments like harps and lyres began to appear in Mediterranean art.

The oldest piece of music put down in writing comes from Ancient Egypt, where music was a hugely important part of the culture. It is a hymn for voice and harp, in which both follow the same rhythm and tune.

It was not until the 13th Century AD that composers started to layer different melodies to create sophisticated harmonies – a technique known as ‘polyphony.’ Soon orchestras and other ensembles were born, and new instruments with them: first cellos and pipe organs, later brass instruments and pianos.

Advances in technology mean that new instruments have come thick and fast in the last century. And music has changed with them: without electronic instruments such as the electric guitar and the synthesizer, genres like pop and rock could hardly exist.

Now, however, the evolution of instruments may have reached its final phase: contemporary musicians often create their music using nothing but a computer.

The bounds of music

With all the technological wizardry and polished production that goes into modern music, it is a far cry from the bone flutes of ancient times. Most people prefer it that way: old-fashioned music sounds primitive and dull in comparison, they say.

But early music still survives in folk traditions; and the genre has some dedicated fans. Ancient music, they argue, speaks to us more directly than pop ever could. Where modern music is slick and overproduced, folk is raw, pure and essentially human.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite musical instrument? Why?
  2. Does a modern pop concert have anything in common with a religious ritual?

Activities

  1. Design and make a musical instrument.
  2. Listen to a recording of ancient music and write a review of it. How are the rhythms and melodies different from modern music? How does it make you feel?

Some People Say...

“Music on a computer sounds soulless and mechanical.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely there are more important inventions than the flute – isn’t it basically just entertainment?
Most experts would disagree. Music was an essential part of rituals in early human societies. These rituals are thought to be a key part of what made Homo sapiens so successful as a species: they allowed tight bonds to be forged within tribes, and transmitted customs through the generations. This may have been the reason why we outcompeted our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals.
Wouldn’t that mean that birds are ‘cultured’ too?
Interesting point. Bird calls are slightly different, because they are used to convey specific messages (like ‘this is my territory’ or ‘beware, predator’). They are not part of an evolving culture. Still, zoologists do believe that many birds do sing simply for pleasure.

Word Watch

Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most influential and important composers in history. Writing in the early 19th Century, he created music that was so bold and different from his contemporaries that many were shocked by it. Though he started to go deaf in his 20s, Beethoven continued to write great works even when he had completely lost his hearing: he was so musical that he could create symphonies in his mind.
Wind instruments
Wind instruments are used by blowing over a small hole into a tube. This creates a vibration that produces a sound. There are two main types of wind instruments: woodwind (flutes, oboes, bagpipes) and brass (horns, trumpets, trombones).
Pipe organs
Organs have been around since Ancient Greece, but the sorts of organs found in churches took centuries to develop. When keys are pressed, air is released into a valve, creating vibrations in much the same way as a wind instrument.
Pianos
Before pianos came harpsichords. In these, keys were pressed to pluck strings inside the instrument. This mechanism did not allow the volume to be changed; so a new instrument was invented, in which the strings were struck by soft hammer rather than plucked. This was the ‘piano forte’ – (Italian for ‘quiet-loud’) – which became arguably the most important instrument in modern Western music.