8 October 2015




What do you see when I say “prehistoric or ancient music”?

Lyres? Flutes? Horns? A toga? Zithers? Hanfu? Kimonos? “Egyptian” riffs?


What do you see when I say a horn was played at a procession?

Does a royal carriage or litter pass by?

Old King, young prince, old queen or young princess? Aristocrats and the upper echelons?

Soldiers and horns?                                                                             Cartoons?

"Romans in the Roman Market Braga Portugal" Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some anachronistic transplant of a royal fanfare onto another culture?

Keep it in mind as we wind through these worlds of music.

Music today is readily accessible as countless many have said already on this topic or in a musing about the digital age as a whole (ad nauseum).

To listen, we have: iTunes, radio, YouTube, CDs, LPs, old cassettes and even 8 track tapes (if you're willing to search). It's played on: news shows, TV shows, films, theatre, opera, restaurants, bookstores, washrooms, elevators, greeting cards, and children’s toothbrushes! We listen to it on our smartphones on the bus, subway, or walking to wherever it is we are going.

To play: the recorder, tin whistle and guitar are fairly affordable and available in most places.
Barring a physical instrument, we can make music on our computers with garage band or synthesizers.

It is everywhere, and there is a vast variety from which to choose from, unlike our ancestors.

But all of this is just a tiny bit of all the music we have ever produced. As many of my professors in my undergraduate years liked to explain in their introductions- most of what we know about human history has no text. The mystery of music in the past goes back tens of thousands of years ago.

Armand D'Angour used a short analogy with Verdi, the Beatles and Mozart to explain ancient music, but let me echo and expand well beyond those ideas (thematically and geographically) in my own way; including the great pitfalls of this whole endeavor.

False “Rock” Equivalences*: Worlds Lost

"Guitar" Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
We are not talking of lost songs, but entire worlds of music. We don't know the tuning, meter, scale or style.

Imagine being shown a guitar for the first time in your life without any information at all and trying to figure it out. Imagine trying to recreate rock without any music that you could read or hear, but maybe there are only just images of rock stars on stage; some of them smashing their instruments.

Then, you see a musician playing the Japanese shamisen, which looks like this “guitar” to you. Are you going to model your guitar playing after Otemoyan?


Will your idea of rock music revolve around that?

Maybe you get your hands on a blue grass recording?

They're from different backgrounds and places, but the instruments look similar after all...

...to you.

How do you know when you're finally playing this “rock” music?

It seems hopeless. But here you are with an out of tune guitar and this concept of rock music.

Are you going to just leave it and not try to play it? Will you think you know all there is to know about rock based on pictures, types, and social history? Or, will you ignore it completely, thinking that no matter what, it will never be accurate, so it is simply a lost cause?

There is much wisdom in not overextending interpretation and making up imaginative histories.

At the very core of it, you are feeling around in the dark after all.*

What will be your interpretation?

It is a silly analogy and a slightly false equivalence for effect, but think of all the popular music and instruments that existed in the prehistoric and ancient world (and any change of styles) that we know little or nothing about now.

We know, from our own world and from other cultures, past and present that music is found in ritual/ religion, entertainment, festival, ceremony, propaganda, war/ battle, philosophy, education and art. Not every culture has music in every context, but just one context is a world of difference.

Most of our music is gone and the silly dilemma of recreating “rock” with a “guitar” through the mechanisms of images, analogies* and experimentation is a reality for Palaeolithic and ancient music.

Just think about that.

That is what we have lost. That is our mystery for this month.

So here are some examples of the mystery of prehistoric and ancient music, and the attempts that have been made to rediscover it.

1. Palaeolithic flutes

Flutes are far older than one might imagine. If not the earliest one (barring the voice or impromptu sticks), bone flutes are at least the first clearly distinguishable evidence of music in our history.

Hohle Fels-Former Oldest

Declared the oldest in 2009, the griffon vulture bone flute from Hohle Fels cave was still the oldest instrument in the world, alongside the Venus of Hohle Fels; the oldest human shaped figure in the world the oldest when I was learning about it in my first year. It was and is a moment of pause.

At 40,000 years old, it was just within the time frame when humans co-existed with Neanderthals before they went extinct.

Wulf Hein playing a copy of the Hohle Fels flute:

Of course, it should be remembered that what they played is still unknown.
These reconstructions bear a bias of using music from a culture that is utterly different (remember my “rock” analogy?).

However, while playing “modern” music on replications of old instruments might cause one to be wary because of its sheer inaccuracy, note the effectiveness of showing what it can do. Flutes like these from the Palaeolithic are another way to deconstruct the myth of “primitiveness”.

Geissenkloesterle Mammoth Ivory Flute
Photo Credit: BBC
Geissenkloesterle: Oldest

Since 2012 though, the flutes from Geissenkloesterle cave have become the oldest known instruments in the world at 43,000- 42,000 years old.

One comes from a bird and the other larger one is from mammoth ivory.

The Controversy of Divje Babe

One other contender for the earliest flute in the world is the one from Divje Babe, Slovenia.

In fact, some have claimed them to be Neanderthal instruments. However, more recently, its status as an artifact at all has been questioned.

Unlike the flutes above, it is much smaller, with only two holes and is not as distinguishably as a flute. The critique now is that it may simply be the result of a hyena biting into it.

The thing is that despite this reexamination, there's even a reconstruction of what the flute might have been like now by building around the fragment already.

A case of interpretation taken too far and turning chewed up bone into a working instrument or is it actually the remains of a flute?

One researcher even extends an interpretation that that the cave was likened to a "concert hall" and that cave art was affected by this.

2. Neolithic Stone Lithophone/ “Chimes”

Erik Gonthier. Photo Credit: AFP/ Telegraph

Moving on to the next “Stone Age”, we have Neolithic stone lithophones. Thought to have been used for grinding grain, Erik Gonthier decided to prop them on foam before tapping on them, and discovering that they had actually been painstakingly chipped for another reason.

Video from Dailymotion.

3. Spear butt?

Much like Gonthier, Archaeologist Billy Ó Foghlú from the Australian National University reexamined a Bronze Age spear butt (though unable to see the original in person) and printed out a 3D copy of it to test out his theory. As it turns out, it may have actually have been a mouthpiece when he tested it on a horn.

To add to the “mystery” for both the reader author here, it seems strange that the actual paper refers to Iron Age horns unlike the titles of the press release and the bevy of news organizations that have picked up on the story.

Perhaps someone with the funds to purchase the journal could find out!

4. Ancient Greece

Though we know much about Ancient Greece, public perceptions are coloured by clichéd film depictions and are most likely confused with films on Rome as well. Though English accents remain the chief anachronism to the ear, the music that accompanies it also tells you very little about what the music in the past sounded like with its modern orchestras.

Based on research with notation from ancient texts (an uncommon advantage), the following is an attempt to recreate something more like the original according to D'Angour of Oxford University.

The song itself is from the Epitapth of Seikilos.

Epitapth of Seikilos Photo Credit: BBC

Here is an alternate version (no vocals) of Dr. David Creese teaching with the song in class:

5. Moche

Mural From Huaca De La Luna Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I first learned about Moche music and archaeoacoustics a little over a year ago in Peru during a late night guest lecture and probably wouldn't write this had I not heard it.

The Moche/ Mochica culture was an Andean civilization from the north coast of Peru, most famous for the gold from Sipan, but they are obviously much more varied than that.

As Professor Swenson might tell you (I'm paraphrasing) if you take his classes in the Archaeology department, it is one of the most exciting cultures to study right now as new knowledge of the culture is being discovered and revised.

Here is Dr. Diane Scullin's Moche Music project blog with a few recordings.

6. Chavin De Huantar

Earlier than the Moche was another Andean culture (amongst many); the Chavin.

At the moment there is an archaeoacoustic project going on at the culture’s most famous site: Chavin de Huantar, headed by Dr. Miriam Kolar. By recreating the context of sound and music, they analyze the acoustics and experience of the site when it was "alive".

There is only a small teaser video for the project, but it may perhaps be an interesting look for the reader on archaeoacoustics.

More unknowns:

These are the reconstructions that I've been able to find with audio and video samples but there are plenty more instruments from the past out there that have no continuity with the present and which we have barely a clue about.

In other cases, even when we can easily recognize relatively ancestors to instruments used today, their songs are gone.

To wax poetic: continuity in form is not continuity in song (see image below).

Eastern Han Guqin (Compare with the first image) Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even for these reconstructions, there isn't the space here for their context in society.

Nor is there time to talk about the fact that music changes frequently within these cultures in time and space.

Still, I do hope that I've sparked some interest.

Conclusion: Undeciphered language and over interpretation

Now I ask again...

What do you imagine when I ask you to imagine “prehistoric”/ ancient music?

Lyres? Flutes? Horns?

What do you imagine when I say a horn was played at a procession?

We can talk a lot about how we think they fit in society or its designs, like undeciphered tablets.
And yet, just like undeciphered languages, we can only interpret them superficially in so many ways. What they actually mean and all the little nuances are unknown.

But that won't stop the most ardent experimenters or researchers.

In fact, it can be dangerous as wild theories can throw off our perception.

And yet, while they might not be wholly accurate, it is an intriguing exercise that might share with us something of our ancestors.

* Analogical reasoning is one of the great problems when using cross cultural comparisons. Every culture is different and changes differently in no specific direction or order and a direct analogy between them leads to all sorts of modern myths.


Since the next post won't come until after Halloween...

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