Ancient Music: The World’s Oldest Songs & Musical Instruments

Since the earliest known times music has been an important aspect of life in all cultures. This is a collection of resources for learning about the ancient roots of music including the first instruments, their sounds and modern reproductions of ancient compositions. You can also use these links to explore the development of music on a cultural, psychological and emotional level.
 
The ability to hear these early musical creations is a valuable learning experience. In that light I have selected sites that provide alternative ways of listening to the sounds including streaming, mp3, ogg, MIDI and other audio options. 
 
It’s interesting to note the way music survives across the ages, passed on through musicians and new technologies. Todays technology makes possible the digitization of musical sounds, compositions and performances. By way of example I have included some relatively recent but notable composers and performers that show how music continues to be preserved and used by successive generations.
 
The earliest musical instruments are deeply connected with nature, made from parts of animals and materials in the environment. Methods of preserving the music made with these instruments and the human voice can now be traced back thousands of years, in particular to a terracotta tablet dated to about 1400 BC, which includes a musical staff and words to a hymn.
 
To date the oldest known musical instruments all happen to be flutes. The oldest is believed to be an ancient mousterian flute segment discovered in the "Divje babe I" cave site (Slovenia). If correct, it was made by Neanderthals from a cave-bear bone around 45.000-50.000 years ago. Another flute, made from a swan’s wing bone discovered in the Geissenklosterle Cave in Germany, is estimated at 36,000 years old. You can learn more about these discoveries below. The study of musical instruments is known as Organology.
 
 
The Oldest Known Songs
 
This piece on Hurrian Music provides information about the cuneiform tablet found at Ugarit, dating to the 13th century B.C., which contains the earliest known musical score in history. The page shows pictures of the tablet and plays a modern day rendering of a Hurrian hymn. There is also a translation of the words to the preserved song. You can listen to a MIDI file of the oldest known song in the world via this page: Evidence of Harmony in Ancient Music by Robert Fink.
 
This short National Geographic article mentions lyrics found in the 4,300-year-old tomb of Inti: Egyptian Tomb Yields "World’s Oldest Love Song"
 
 
Ancient Instruments
 
Dolmetsch Online – Music before the 16th Century – this is a thorough guide to the history of ancient instruments including time-lines and archaeological discoveries. The site also provides excellent information on a wide range of sound and music topics including a Brief History of the Physics of Musical Instruments.
 
NEANDERTHAL FLUTE: Oldest Musical Instrument’s 4 Notes Matches 4 of Do, Re, Mi Scale – musicology analysis by Robert Fink.
 
SWAN SONGS OF YORE Ancient birds, Stone Age music by Mark Brazil. An article for The Japan Times about the connection between bird-song and the development of early music focusing on the ancient swan-bone flute. Flute Playing Sound Sample.
 
The Oldest Playable Musical Instruments – six complete bone flutes between 7,000 and 9,000 years old were discovered during excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu, located in Henan province, China. The flutes are made from the ulnae, or wing bones, of the red-crowned crane and have five, six, seven or eight holes. The site has two wav samples of a flute being played. 
 
Roman Musical Instruments – a pictorial guide to the musical devices used by the Romans.
 
Links to History of Musical Instruments – an extensive list of music resources.
 
 
Music of the Ancient Greeks 
 
This page for Ancient Greek Music contains all published fragments of Ancient Greek music which consist of more than a few scattered notes. Available for listening in Real audio and MIDI formats.
 
Ancient Greek Music on Papyrus: Two New Fragments – hear the music represented on these ancient papyri (Quicktime audio).
 
 
Further Exploration
 
Music of the Past in the Present
 
The Master Musicians of Joujouka – the Sufi trance masters made famous by their association with the Beat Generation.  William Burroughs described it as the world’s oldest music, and the musicians as a "4000-year-old rock and roll band". Rolling Stones founder and guitarist Brian Jones produced their first album in 1968; you can listen to a few 30 sec samples of the band including one titled Brian Jones Joujouka Very Stoned  via the site.
 
 
Brain and Mind
 
What Makes Music So Significant? From brain development to culture, music pervades the human psyche. This is a PBS discussion about the cultural and psychological aspects of music and the mind. You can watch video footage of the discussion.
 
 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Audio Files
 
The Mozart Effect – Why does the music of Mozart create as much excitement in the laboratory as it does in the concert hall? This BBC audio programme investigates the myths and reality of Mozart’s mind and his music. Mozart’s life and the therapeutic value of his music are analysed during a series of discussions with several experts from various fields (28 min). The site also provides related links to Mozart resources.
 
Denmark Radio has Nine Mozart symphonies available for free download as high quality mp3. Symphony numbers 34 and 36 are in mp3 surround-format; download surround software (encoder & decoder)
 
Mozart Cylinder Recordings provides digitized copies of performances in mp3 and unedited 24-bit wav files.
 
Mozart – Mutopia Project is a listing of Mozart’s works where you can download the scores and listen to MIDI files of the compositions. The Mutopia Project is a growing database for sharing all types of music available in the public domain. It focuses on providing free printable sheet music with audio and picture previews.
 
Mozart’s Piano Sonatas has a collection of MIDI files.
 
Piano Society – Mozart Biography has a small selection of free mp3 downloads, Fantasias, Sonatas, Miscellaneous.
 
 
Connections  Between Animal Sounds, Language and Music
 
Sounds of the World’s Animals – Explore how animal sounds are represented in various languages. Combines onomatopoeia with audio samples of almost forty different animals.
 
Birdsong links – A comprehensive listing of resources specializing in sounds, recordings and sonograms of birds.
 
Lithuanian wind instruments (Aerophones) – ethnoculture resource explaining the use of wind instruments in connection with birds.
 
 
Wikipedia Knowledge
 
Wikipedia: Bird song – mentions the imitation of birds by classical composers.
Wikipedia: Digeridoo – listen to digeridoo sounds
Wikipedia: Sound/list – a list of full length copyleft/public domain songs in ogg format (classical).
Wikipedia: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – also provides a selection of orchestral, choral and piano media files, free to download in ogg format.
 
 
 Neanderthal Flute       Ugarit Tablet   

2 responses to “Ancient Music: The World’s Oldest Songs & Musical Instruments

  1. Wow!
    Absolutely wicked website! How on earth did you manage to make it like that?!Seriously!
    Could you tell me how to make it like that?! Visit my space!

  2. Hey Buddy, I have some deaf frends.  Profoundly Deaf that I want good-great works for them to do.  There is a space betwen the words.  A place where poetry is silent and music is silent.   There, one see the Grace and ever quiet that washes on the shore.   As ever be well.

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