Prehistoric music is not knowable directly, so we search for clues and form hypotheses. We can look at stone-age societies surviving until recently to sample the real thing. We can investigate archaeological finds that provide clues of man’s past music-making. We can conjecture various ways in which our distant ancestors may have used rhythmic and tonal sounds to communicate, to establish specific emotional states, and to bind together the social group.
Higher forms of animalia respond to sound. (Some even hypothesize that plants respond to sound.) Sound perception began as an offensive strategy for tracking prey, and as a defensive mechanism for avoiding becoming prey. Some animals began producing intentional sound for communication with others. Bird song is our must frequently heard and most complex non-human example. The social structure of bird life is entwined with bird song.
Humans could use voice, hands, and feet to make intentional sounds. These were our first musical instruments, the body itself. Chanting voices, clapping hands, and stamping feet likely generated our first musical performances. Singing is thought to have evolved from motherese, the mothers’ stylized, song-like communication with their infants. In humans, unlike say birds, song-like vocalizations are a free-form resource at the disposal of the full creative power of the human brain.
Drums were likely the first devised sound-generating instrument, probably predating hominins. Their earliest use was undoubtedly as an extension of the body’s communication capability. Monkeys have been observed to beat on hollow logs with sticks in a call-response pattern, a very old intentional use of a devised sound instrument for communication.
The sing-song of motherese may have been co-opted to accompany or replicate repetitive sounds of human industry such as tool making or plant grinding, thus allowing time at manual labor to pass more easily and pleasurably. Man may have discovered he could imitate natural sounds such as bird song, perhaps initially as a hunting technique. By extension, man found he could imitate other natural sounds.
Music and language are related. Both metaphysical pursuits needed to await the human brain, its intentional consciousness, and its neuro-muscular support for the human voice box. Such pursuits of the human mind develop through an evolutionary process, via Dawkins proposed memes. Just as the memetic coevolution of music and language depended on biological evolution of brain and voice box, one hypothesizes there could be a linkage the other way as well. Has the memetic evolution of music and language influenced human biological fitness? One suspects the answer is certainly yes for language capability. For music, the functional case for contributing to human evolutionary success is perhaps not as strong.
Music may be simply an adjunct to language and related communication skills that enhanced natural selection during human evolution. Music’s rise to an art form with its own aesthetic could be the result of the brain’s adaptive wiring, allowing auditory brain centers to tap into the pleasure centers normally associated with eating and sex. Perhaps pleasure was the sole reward and hence the memetic evolutionary driver.
However, an argument can be made for an independent role for human musicality in human biological success. Several such selective benefits are suggested. Music could create added strength in the social bond of the group. Rhythmic chanting may have been used to alter the conscious state, to enable hunters to overcome fear and to perform well in the hunt or battle even when badly injured. Music and dance may have been part of mating rituals, as was suggested by Darwin. Some aspects of music, particularly rhythm, may have happened earlier than speech, because they were not dependent on the brain’s fine control of tongue and larynx. Thus primitive aspects of music may have been our first communication skill, pulling speech along with it.
Based on current cultures with little contact with civilization, the earliest human-crafted musical instruments were percussive and wind, accompanying the chanting human voice. The first unambiguously intentional flutes (raptor wing bone and mammoth tusk) date to ~40,000 years ago in southern Germany. But music undoubtedly dates from long before that. Singing probably was contemporaneous with language, reed flutes may be nearly as old, and intentional rhythm appears to be much older.
Celebrations of successful hunting or battles likely involved musical ceremonies of thankfulness. In ceremonial music, the ultimate listeners were the spirits and the musicians the medium of communication.
We cannot guess much more about paleolithic music. By the early neolithic, lithophones are known, sets of stone slabs or pieces of wood of various sizes used with mallets, an ancient xylophone. By the late neolithic, flutes and stringed lyres are known from marble statues near Greece. Animal skins on hollow log ends began to appear widely, struck with hands or sticks. Then ceramic drums appeared, and ceramic flutes and whistles.
Just as the neolithic appeared worldwide, so did its music. South-east Asia offers many examples of musical instruments from the Neolithic. But here we will concentrate on the western music traditions, considered to start in the classical Greek antiquity of the bronze age. That’s a subject for a later discussion.