“After silence , that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music .” ―Aldous Huxley

Music in our modern world is more than entertainment.

Knowing what kind of music someone enjoys can tell you a lot about them. Nearly all religions today use music as a tool of worship in some way, and music seems to have physiological effects on our bodies that we are just beginning to understand. A person’s musical tastes can tell you about their personality, their interests, their politics. Music tells us who we are .

We can remember our first kiss by the song that was playing on the radio; we cry when the song that was our deceased grandfather’s favorite is played. Music is one way that we measure and color our lives – and this has been true for thousands of years .

By modern estimates, musical instruments predate written language by at least 50,000 years . It seems that the more musical artifacts we find, the more we realize that musical cultures of prehistory were more advanced than we have ever thought.

Let’s look at a few examples of musical instruments and their relationship to the culture of their times as far back as we can. Perhaps through exploring our earliest instruments we can come that much closer to understanding how we came to be who we are.

Levite harp

A 'nebal' harp, on an ancient coin.

A ‘nebal’ harp, on an ancient coin.

The lyre, possibly the world’s most famous instruments through history, was the musical tool of the Levites.

The Levites were a priestly group in ancient Israel who were responsible not only for sacred texts but for music – which we can see in the book of Psalms. Throughout the book of Psalms we see references to ‘playing the name of god’. Ancient Hebrew culture had a distinction between singing and playing an instrument, and their harp, the 10 string nebal or kinnor would have been used to play the psalm, doubling the voice.

The structure of the nebal or kinnor is somewhat similar to the design of the harps of Sumer a culture of prominence from 3000 BCE. The harps of Sumer remian the oldest harp artifacts we have excavated.

The instruments of Sumer.

We can tell that the instruments of Sumer were holy because they were made of precious materials, included in ritual art, and incorporated into sacred stories . Musicians recieved special training in schools throughout Sumer, and musicians would wash their hands to cleanse them before playing these valuable instruments.

The Queen’s Lyre, of Ur (2750 BCE) is made of the precious stones lapis lazulli, red limestone, and carnelian, with a bulls head and body serving as the frame of the instrument and a symbol of fertility and the goddess Inanna.

In the great Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (first story fragments written in about 2000 BCE) the flutes are said to made of made of lapis lazulli and carnelian. Gilgamesh of Uruk was said to have lived around 2700 BCE, and was obviously part of a vibrant and precise musical culture. Excavations of ancient flutes from Sumer show that they were likely designed to play scales that we still use today .

The instruments of Sumer reflect a highly developed culture . Sumer was complete with not only instruments capable of precise musical tunings, but also notation which allowed important songs to be written down in cuneiform. The system utilized by the Sumerians is somewhat similar to the system we use today – and though we don’t have the wealth of artifacts from the cultures prior to Sumeria, we do have some evidence that this knowledge was passed down from cultures prior.

The flute of Divje Babe.

Many instruments made prior to written history were likely made of perishable materials such as animal skins and wood. Still, some survived – we’ve found a number of flutes made of bone which show evidence of a developed prehisoric musical culture. Some instruments seem to date back to a time when we shared the planet with Neanderthals.

This flute, found in the cave of Divje Babe in modern day Slovenia, was likely constructed from a bear femur and had four holes. Evidence suggests this particular artifact is somewhere between 40,000 and 55,000 years old .

The positioning of these four holes lead to speculation that its creators were already using scales similiar to what what musical cultures much later would employ. Some experts believe that the Divje Babe flute was in fact created by Neanderthals – which would challenge common ideas of our supposedly less-developed prehistoric cousins.

The condition of these prehistoric instruments leaves much to our imagination and to debate.

What does the flute of Divje Babe illuminate about the intellectual life of its creators – and what if they were Neanderthals? Was the Divje Babe flute incorporated into a prehistoric tradition of spirituality?

How do these ancient instruments inform our ideas of the history of music?

What do you think? Does this change how you see music, or our collective history?

Angela Cross

Author Angela Cross is a vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She’s also a passionate and ever-curious soul – learn more about Angela at her artist page !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out her latest album, Songs from the Girl .

Enjoy the article? Consider leaving a tip  : )

Your support keeps Waistcoat & Watch up and running ad-free – and keeps our writers well-fed and well-caffeinated!