A brief history of music

Music plays a huge role in modern society. Through the internet almost anybody has access to lots of music nowadays. We use it to relax, overcome emotions or just for entertainment. It’s scientifically proven, that music can influence our behaviour. A concrete example therefore would be movies, which create tension, affection or other feelings just with some background music.

So where does music even come from and how did it develop into the music, we know today? This article will cover the evolution of music from the earliest days of human kind until the pop, rock and electronic culture nowadays.


The origin of music with musical instruments dates back even before the New Stone Age (11.500 B.C.). In this time early instruments, like flutes or rattles were made out of clay. Discoveries show however that before this time people made instruments out of wood. The oldest instrument, the “Divje Babe Flute“ produced by Neanderthals is approximately 43,000 years old.

In many cultures, music is seen as a gift of a transcendent entity. The Chinese mythology says for example, that the first scale came from a miracle bird. According to the Hinduism several gods provided their contribution to the gift of music and in the bible Jubal, a Kinnor player is called the father of music.  

Early high cultures and ancient empires (3000 B.C. – 476 A.D.)

Surprisingly in many early high cultures, like China, India, Palestine and the old Egypt, music developed quite fast. String instruments were built, several tunings, diatonic and heptatonic scales and even music theory began to arise. Furthermore first approaches to notation were made. The Egyptians as an example had defined signs and hand movements to show rhythm and melody, similar to the Cheironomy and the Neumes in the middle ages. Moreover there was made a strict distinctionbetween entertaining and spiritual music. Later with the opening of some cultures towards others, the different kinds of music blended.

In ancient Greece and Rome music became on one hand more rational and on the other more philosophically. Pythagoras with his mathematical approach and Platon and Aristoteles, who were dealing with the effect of music on humans. In theatres choirs and instrumentalist supported the action, therefore music served entertaining purposes and even in school basics of music and music theory were taught.

The Medieval Era (476 – 1450)

At first the music was still homophone, which means only one melody and theme of a song is sung at the same time. The composers were mainly Frankish and byzantine. In the high and especially late medieval area (1250-1450) composers slowly started to experiment with polyphony like the canon. The cantus firmus was the guide line and on top was the soprano voice, mainly in dominants. Furthermore the first notation with the so called Neumes developed. Besides the catholic churches, were the friars only sang Choral, in taverns troubadour played and sang secular music with their lyres. An example for the late medieval polyphony is the canon.

Medieval choral sheet. (Old form of notation)

Renaissance (1450 -1600):

In the Renaissance era the music became freer, new instruments like guitar or cembalo were produced and the polyphony developed even further. The centre of attention back in those days was Florence, were composers also started to create more contrasted music, the interaction between different voices while playing different themes. Famous composers are for example Palestrina and Monteverdi.

Baroque (1600-1750)

The Baroque era with composers like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, evolved new opuses. Concerto grosso, Opera and Oratory were the main ones. Music was made more with instruments rather than with vocals. The Basso continuo built the foundation, played by cello or cembalo and on top the strings were mostly kind of fighting with each other (lat. concertare – to fight).

Classical era (1750-1830)

After the palatial Baroque, classical artists wanted to renew the ancient form and timelessness. Therefore new works, like sonatas with a completed form raised. The music became lighter and the tempo variation increased, which created a more opposing impression. Everywhere famous composers are Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash

Romantic era (1830 – 1910):

In the Romantic era, emotions stood in the centre of attention. Chords expanded and music in general had a wider feeling. There were many virtuosos, which even did composing, Paganini and Chopin as an example. Especially at the end of this epoch, orchestras became bigger and bigger and gigantic orchestral works were composed, that’s why even bigger opera houses needed to be built (Maler, Wagner, etc.). Furthermore the middle class and the higher underclass finally got access to music.

Impressionism, expressionism and atonal music (1910 – 1945)

Whereas the impressionism with composers, like Debussy focused less on the emotion and moreon the general atmosphere and the impressions from outside, the expressionism with Ravel and Shostakovich still covered big emotions. In the atonal music, with many sub genres, the clear tonal centre was removed. Composing became on one hand more mathematical and on the other more at random. Moreover composers operated with noises and acoustic impressions.

Contemporary Music:

Under contemporary music we understand the several genres, which raised in particular in the second half of the 20th century until today. However already in the 20s Jazz and Swing with composers as Gershwin originated. Between the 30s and 50s there was also Blues and early Rock and Roll played. In the 60s pop and rock bands, like The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix were founded, which performed on big music festivals. In the 70s hard rock established with bands as Led Zeppelin, also Punk and Country rock was played. The genres spread more and more, even metal and electronical music, like disco (dance) developed. Mainly in the 80s the Hip hop genre of the American ghettos raised popularity as well as house music on parties. Also pop became more common. The bands of the 90s such as Linkin Park and Nirvan played rock and punk, pop was still gaining popularity, whereas in the late 90s and early 2000s more electronic music, even dubstep raised. Nowadays there is a variety of music genres, however according to the global charts, most popular is probably a mixture of electronic and pop.

Photo by Glenn van de Wiel on Unsplash

Howsoever music originated thousands of years ago, it still plays a huge role in our society and connects people from around the world. It is a very precious art, so let’s keep it and let us be curios what new composers will bring in the future.

Featured image by James Sutton on Unsplash


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