A brief history of how music came to be

ByBhanuj Kappal
Jul 28, 2023 04:32 PM IST

From the oldest surviving piece of recorded music to the idea of music as a corrupting form (which goes back to ancient times), here’s how the treble started.

Manmade music has been shaping our world for tens of thousands of years, long before writing, its arguably-more-tangible cousin, was born. And for thousands of years, humans have been trying to decode our response to this kind of created sound.

A lyre depicted on a 3rd millennium BCE Sumerian artifact - essentially an engraved box - called the Standard of Ur. (Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
A lyre depicted on a 3rd millennium BCE Sumerian artifact - essentially an engraved box - called the Standard of Ur. (Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest efforts to explain music’s power were tied up in overlapping ideas of religion and magic. So were the earliest songs.

The oldest surviving piece of recorded music is a hymn to the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility Nikkal, written in cuneiform on a clay tablet dating to about 1400 BCE.

Across Ancient Egypt, India, China, Greece and Mesopotamia, songs that served important ceremonial functions survived in similar fashion, preserved on clay tablets, papyrus, and eventually paper. Like so much of music today, these ancient songs praise the Gods, invoke supernatural forces, deify those in power.

While the earliest purposes of music were likely propitiation and celebration, ideas of the place of music in the universe have varied widely.

In Ancient Greece, the 6th-century BCE mathematician Pythagoras argued that music was a reflection of cosmic harmony. In its tendency towards symmetry and unity, he argued, it was not that different from math.

A century later, Plato and then his disciple Aristotle would reject this idea of cosmic harmony, and argue that the true purposes of music was social, educational and personal. Plato argued that music was a great pedagogical tool, and was essential to the “correct” functioning of society.

Incidentally, the idea of music as a corrupting influence can be traced all the way back here. The “wrong” kind of music could be a gateway to moral corruption, Plato argued. He even wrote that the cultural influence of new music that became popular in Greece amid the Persian wars was to blame for the younger generation’s revolt against authority and social unrest in Athens. (Isn’t it uncanny, how ideas echo through millennia?)

In China, Confucius and other thinkers divided music into forms, with some considered vernacular and less valued. In India, the Natya Shastra, compiled by the sage Bharata Muni sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE, proposed that great music could cause in the listener a state of divine ecstasy, thus laying the foundation for a tradition of devotional music that endures.

The idea of Satanic music can be traced to the era of the Crusades. An increasingly rigid form of Christianity took root in Europe and the Levant, as wars were fought between soldiers of Christ and those of Islam from the 11th to 13th centuries. On both sides, music created and listened to for sensuous pleasure was declared “vulgar” by the establishment (the practice never really died out, across eras and regions).

Certain chord progressions were said to be associated with evil and with Satan (another echo that carries into our times). Some of these arrangements, including the infamous Diabolus in Musica or Devil in the Music, are still used in horror and heavy metal today, as well as in other settings helped by such a combination of chords and intervals designed to be unsettling.

Meanwhile, in the Islamic world, the Sufis challenged implicit and explicit bans on music, and developed a musical philosophy of the body and soul that still thrives across the Indian subcontinent, the Levant and Africa. Through songs of peace, love and coexistence, these mystics encourage people to use music to connect with the Divine.

All this time, though, high art fell into roughly two categories: devotion, or the imitation of nature.

This would change with the Renaissance, when 15th-century artists and philosophers began to argue that high art could have a personal purpose too: as a means of expression for the artist, and a resonant reflection of the everyday.

With that, the floodgates were opened. Each generation would craft its riffs. Elders would complain of the noise.

A beat too far?: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Frank Sinatra; Elvis Presley. (Getty Images)
A beat too far?: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Frank Sinatra; Elvis Presley. (Getty Images)

“Deplorable… a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. Fosters… negative and destructive reactions in young people”: That was Frank Sinatra (born 1915), on Elvis Presley (born 1935).

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