History of Music

Pre-Renaissance Music: The Evolution of Instruments and Theory

Prehistoric Music

The earliest forms of music were probably drum-based, percussion instruments being the most readily available at the time (i.e. rocks, sticks). These simplest of simple instruments are thought to have been used in religious ceremonies as representations of animals. There was no notation or writing of this kind of "music" and its sounds can only be extrapolated from the music of (South) American Indians and African natives who still adhere to some of the ancient religious practices.

As for the more advanced instruments, their evolution was slow and steady. It is known that by 4000 BCE the Egyptians had created harps and flutes, and by 3500 BCE lyres and double-reeded clarinets had been developed.

In Denmark, by 2500 BCE an early form of the trumpet had been developed. This trumpet is what is now known as a "natural trumpet." It is valveless, and depends completely on manipulation of the lips to change pitch.

One of the most popular instruments today was created in 1500 BCE by the Hittites. I am talking about the guitar. This was a great step; the use of frets to change the pitch of a vibrating string would lead to later instruments such as the violin and harpsichord.

In 800 BCE the first recovered piece of recorded music was found. It was written in cuneiform and was a religious hymn. It should be noted that cuneiform is not a type of musical notation.

By 700 BCE there are records of songs that include vocals with instrumentals. This added a whole new dimension to music: accompaniment.

Music in Ancient Rome and Greece

Greece was the root of all Classical art, so it's no coincidence that Classical music is rooted in Grecian innovations. In 600 BCE, famed mathematician Pythagorus dissected music as a science and developed the keystone of modern music: the octave scale. The importance of this event is obvious. Music was a passion of the Greeks. With their surplus of leisure time (thanks to slave labor) they were able to cultivate great artistic skills. Trumpet competitions were common spectator events in Greece by 400 BCE. It was in Greece that the first bricks in music theory's foundation were layed. Aristotle wrote on music theory scientifically, and brought about a method of notation in 350 BCE. The work of that genius is still studied today.

The next significant step in music's evolution was by Boethius. In 521 CE he brought the Greek system of notation to Western Europe, allowing the musicians there to scribe accurately the folk songs of their lands. Incidentally, it was Boethius who first wrote on the idea of the opera.

Music in the Middle Ages

Most of the music created after Rome fell was commissioned by the church. The Catholic religion has a long history of involvement (for better or worse) with the musical arts. In 600 CE Pope Gregory had the Schola Cantarum built. This was the first music school in Europe.

Meanwhile in China, music was progressing also: it was reported that in 612 CE there were orchestras with hundreds of musicians performing for the assorted dynasties. Although the specific music from this period in China is unknown, the distinct style supposed to have developed there is reflected even in recent orchestral Asiatic pieces.

In 650 CE a new system of writing music was developed using "neumes" as a notation for groups of notes in music.

144 years after the Schola Cantarum was built, a singing school opened in the Monastery of Fuda, fueling the interest in musical vocation. And by 790 CE, there were splinters of the Schola Cantarum in Paris, Cologne and Metz. In 800 CE the great unifier Charlemagne had poems and psalms set to music. In 850 CE Catholic musicians had a breakthrough by inventing the church "modes." These modes would later metamorphose into today's major and minor scales. In 855 CE, the first polyphonic (2 unrelated melodies/voices at once) piece was recorded, and by 1056 this polyphonic style replaced Gregorian chants as the music of choice (even after the Church made polyphonic music "illegal;" this ban was later lifted). In 980 CE, the great tome Antiphononium Codex Montpellier was scribed.

In 1000 CE Guido D'Arezzo made many improvements in music theory. He first improved and reworked standard notation to be more user-friendly by adding time signatures. Then he invented solfege. This is the vocal note scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la ,ti, do. This innovation has affected almost every modern vocalist.

In 1100 CE, a new secular movement began. This separation of Church from music was a straddling one, and soon this new "folk" music was looked down upon as pagan and borderline blasphemous.

The Renaissance

On the dawn of the Renaissance in 1465 the printing press was first used to print music. By using a press a composer could organize his pieces and profit from them with great ease. In 1490 Boethius's writings on opera were republished in Italian.

With the onset of the Renaissance, the rules of music were about to change drastically. This was the beginning of a new enlightened age that would showcase some of the greatest musical minds ever produced.

The history of music at this point is best told by the styles that emerged and the composers who lived after the Renaissance.