When Did Music Begin?

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Prehistoric drawing in the Magura cave, Bulgaria. Photograph in Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Magura_-_drawings.jpg

Prehistoric drawings on cave walls depict both animals and people. These are in the Magura cave in Bulgaria. Image by Nk.

Music is everywhere. We can’t escape it. We listen to it on the radio while driving around doing errands. We hear it in the background sound effects at the movie theater or on the television. Commercials use (or abuse, depending on your perspective) music to catch your attention and try to make a sale. Music is in grocery stores, public buildings, work-out facilities, recreation centers, and schools. Perhaps the only place you might be able to escape it is in the library.

Do we really want to escape music? Have you ever thought about abolishing it? Is it possible to eliminate it from our lives? It has been embedded into our psyche since the day we were born. It soothes, relaxes, inspires, controls, and manipulates – all that and much more. Life is music. So, when did music begin?

Early Humans and Music

It’s difficult to say when music began. We can find references in various religious texts to singing and making music. We see evidence in cave paintings that depict people dancing. (You have to admit that the presence of dancing strongly suggests the presence of music.) It has been suggested that the first musical instrument might have been a roughly constructed hollow stick through which one could blow and make sound – the precursor of wind instruments.

Sticks to beat out a rhythm? Simple, yes; crude, perhaps, but doesn’t music include even that type of crude instrument? What about the feet and the hands that tap or stamp out a rhythm? Doesn’t music involve rhythm and some semblance of a beat? And what about the human voice? Isn’t that a musical instrument too? The voice has certainly been around since the first humans walked this earth.

What is Music?

To determine the beginning of anything, one must define it. What is music? There are various definitions that offer suitable interpretations. Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com:

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“Music – an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and colour. The tones or sounds employed, occurring in single line (melody) or multiple lines (harmony), and sounded or to be sounded by one or more voices or instruments, or both.”

Yahoo.com goes further: “an aesthetically pleasing or harmonious sound or combination of sounds: the music of the wind in the pines.”

In What is Music?, Philip Dorrell describes music scientifically as a “super-stimulus of perception.” A more aesthetic interpretation from Annie Lennox, writing in Resurgence & Ecologist (July/August 2008), defines it as as “pure magic.”

Birds Sing Their Own Songs to communicate. Clive Orford photo. Used with permission from the photographer.

Birds sing their own songs to communicate. Many have beautiful melodic calls. Image courtesy of Clive Orford.

If music is sound, pleasing and magical, with variations in pitch that suggest a melody and some sort of rhythm, perhaps even a counterpoint of harmony, then it follows that it really did exist long before humans walked the earth. As Sarah E. Worth points out, music is a form of communication. Don’t all living creatures communicate with one another? After all, don’t the birds sing? Isn’t singing a form of making music? What about the creatures of the sea? Whales are believed to sing their own eerie songs in the deeps.

Nature is Music

In order to define precisely when music began, one would have to go back much further than the parameters of recorded human history.

Nature has always had its own special music, as A. Leokum poignantly wrote in the Fredericksburg Virginia’s Free Lance-Star:

“Did you ever walk in a forest and suddenly come upon a little brook bubbling merrily along its path? Didn’t it sound like music? When the rain pitter-patters against a roof, or a bird sings heartily – aren’t these like music?”

Let’s go beyond the suggestion that natural sounds are like music and suggest that all of nature is music. The Romantic composers frequently composed music in honour of natural sounds. Contemporary composers went a step further and used actual sounds of nature in their compositions.

Humans tend to believe that everything started with the first signs of human intelligence, with the first recorded events of human history. We could believe that music started with the caveman, or that the Book of Psalms (from Hebrew scripture as well as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) were early examples of vocal music, and that King David’s harp was one of the first stringed instruments, which he used as accompaniment when singing the psalms that scholars believe he wrote.

If we look at the broader definition, however, as humans we really can’t take the entire credit. We did not create music. It has always been out there, waiting for all of us to discover, to appreciate, and to enjoy.


Dictionary.com. Music. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Dorrell, Philip. What is Music. (2005)Accessed June 5, 2013.

Forney, Kristine, and Machlis, Joseph. The Enjoyment of Music. Eleventh Edition. (2011). W.W. Norton.

Hadley, Kathryn. Prehistoric Music. (February 9, 2009). HistoryToday. Accessed June 7, 2013.

Lennox, Annie. What is Music? (2008). Resurgence & Ecologist. 249. Accessed June 5, 2013.

Leokum, A. Man-made Music Began With Songs of Love and Death. (April 27, 1990). The Free Lance-Star. Accessed June 6, 2013.

New American Standard Bible, Book of Psalms (49:4 and 57:8). Accessed June 7, 2013.

Wallin, Nils L., Merker, Björn et al. The Origins of Music. (2000). MIT Press.

Worth, Sarah E. Music, Emotion and Language: Using Music to Communicate. (1998). Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy. Accessed June 6, 2013.

Yahoo Education. Music. Accessed June 04, 2013.

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  1. I love this article – it’s so true. Music has always been there, just waiting for us to find it. We all find it in different ways and we all enjoy it in different ways. How beautiful is that?

  2. music is essential, in my opinion. todays music would never have come to be if it were’nt for those birds or cave men wwacking things, or blowing on hollowed wood.

  3. This article gives a fantastic perspective for a research paper I’m writing for school! I totally agree that humans didn’t create music, that we just discovered it along our evolutionary journey.

  4. The background microwave radiation is the remainder of the first music by God or Yahweh, Ohm! When one amplifies the background microwave radiation, u hear the primordial sound Ohm!. Word became flesh. That’s music of the heavans

  5. Emily-Jane, thank you for such an excellent, engaging, as well as intellectually stimulating article, I almost missed.

    Music! What can I say when I read an article that talks about something closest to my heart, my soul, my being? Nothing! Because I’m rendered absolutely speechless, my senses overwhelmed. Hymns, classic guitar music and classical music (composers & their music esp Mozart’s) esp in my adult years have been an integral part of my “breathing in and breathing out.”

    So, when did music begin? Briefly, I say music starts the moment we are born and make a sound, for music to me is simply a “sound in time” – something properly defined by dictionary.com.

    Prayer is still my utmost communication with God, but I have to confess that hymn and choral singing in recent years have intensely equaled or even superseded it, or it has become my prayers, that’s why.

    With a-song-in-my-heart cheers, since my voice is my current top instrument.

  6. That is a great thought that say’s Music was always out there people just discovered it. And we have no choice but appreciate it.

    Thank’ s for the article…….

  7. We have all heard the expression ” When the Angels Sing” thus Music was there long before it was here, we have just been Blessed with this Wonderful Gift!!

  8. Music is pretty much whatever we say it is….John Cage helped prove that. Monody, Harmony, Polyphony, homophony, birdsong, whale songs – all are music. We hear music everywhere, but we have adopted an irritating and destructive practice of turning music into something akin to wallpaper: omnipresent, bland, familiar and lacking in the noblest qualities that music brings to our lives. Filling my tank with gas does not need to be accompanied by Adele belting out a tune. Getting a tooth drilled and filled or riding in an elevator does not require another insipid arrangement of Pacelbel’s Canon. We are in danger of diluting music to its lowest common denominator: background. Hopefully those who love music can teach us to listen, and to absorb the soundtrack of our universe without turning it into ubiquitous, meaningless noise.

  9. Emily,
    Your article has a beautiful take on the sounds caused by nature. The only caveat that I would add is, until there is an emotional connection to those sounds, it might not be correct to define them as music. Is the songbird really singing or making instinctive noises marking territory and attracting potential mates? I don’t know the answer to that.

    Another theory could be that humans found a connection with the sounds around them. We subjectively found them beautiful. And then, people being people, we experimented with sound trying to make it more emotionally charged to us.

    This doesn’t take away from your message. It only creates the necessity for a creature that finds beauty in nature.

  10. To quote the publication, Insight on the Scriptures, “The Bible’s first reference to music is before the Flood, in the seventh generation following Adam: “[Jubal] proved to be the founder of all those who handle the harp and the pipe.” This may describe the invention of the first musical instruments or perhaps even the establishment of some kind of musical profession.—Ge 4:21.”

    Jubal was a descendant of Cain, the first born son of Adam and Eve.

  11. I think man was created with some kind of a “music gene.” Who knows when it first “awoke” in humans. The thing we do know is that humans and music go back together for thousands of years. And as far as we know, there have been no groups of humans anywhere on earth that did not produce and enjoy some form of music. A gift to us from God? Perhaps. I cannot think of a better or a more universal gift!

  12. Music is out of this realm, thats why God in habit praises because music is supernatural, it can calm you, make u relax and more… Oh i feel like singing…

  13. God made music known to man after man had been made, so God also loves music and good music for that matter, just like he chose to accept the sacrifice of Abel and ignored Cain’s sacrifice