Music history

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Music History


Music in Ancient Times 3

Ancient Chinese Music 3

The Hurrian Hymn to Nikal 4

Ancient Hebrew Music 4

Ancient Greek Music 5

Western Music 6

Literature 11

Music in Ancient Times

Our knowledge of musical practice before 200 A.D. is extremely limited
because few attempts were made by ancient cultures to preserve music
using notation systems. Iconography in music is the study of graphical
representations of musical activities. Archaeologists have discovered
artefacts and drawings dating to prehistoric times which depict
musicians performing on various instruments. Early musical instruments
have also been discovered. For example, a recent dig in the Ukraine
uncovered musical instruments made from the bones of a woolly mammoth
dating back to 18,000 B.C. It is likely that music evolved as a
communications medium for early humans in hunter-gatherer groups. Drums
and primitive horns made from shells and animal parts are used by
primitive peoples even today to communicate over great distances. It is
possible that early humans were impressed with the power of such
communication and found the sounds to be pleasing as well. As
hunter-gatherer groups evolved into agrarian cultures, music may have
had a place in religious ceremonies and as a welcome rhythmic
accompaniment to the tedious labour of farming. Music was almost
certainly placed in a supportive role in human activities. Scholars
consider it unlikely that music was ever an independent activity in
prehistoric civilizations.

Ancient Chinese Music

Historical records of Chinese music history date back to the Shang
dynasty circa 1600–1000 B.C. Chinese philosophers like Confucius
(551–479 B.C.) regarded music as essential in maintaining order in the
universe and in human society. Emperor Han Wudi, who reigned from 140 to
87 B.C., went so far as to create an Imperial Office of Music. The
ancient Chinese were the first to develop a science of acoustics and
placed a high value on the accurate tuning of instruments. Ancient
Chinese music was monophonic and based on a five-tone scale similar to
the western Pentatonic scale (CDEGA is one example). Expression in
Chinese music performance emphasizes subtle changes in timbre on
individual tones. Inflection, in Chinese music and language, is
extremely important in the interpretation of content. Ancient literature
describes a variety of tuned chimes, drums, bells, wind instruments, and
string instruments in use in ancient Chinese music. Chinese traditional
music has remained unusually stable throughout the millennia and sheds
light on the musical practices of other ancient civilizations.

The Hurrian Hymn to Nikal

In the 1950’s an archaeological dig in Syria uncovered a set of clay
tablets with cuneiform characters in the ancient Hurrian language.
Hurrian was a language used by the citizens of the ancient city of
Ugarit which occupied the land now used by the village of Ras Shamra and
the small harbour of Minet-el-Beida, about six miles north of Latakia,
in north-western Syria. The tablets date back to approximately 1400 B.C.
and contain a hymn to the moon god’s wife, Nikal. Remarkably, the
tablets also contain detailed performance instructions for a singer
accompanied by a harpist as well as instructions on how to tune the
harp. From this evidence, musicologists have produced a credible
realization of the hymn performed in harmony with thirds, sixths,
fourths, and fifths. This rare example of polyphony in ancient music
appears to shatter the long held belief that harmony did not evolve in
human musical expression until the middle ages. It is possible that
further archaeological evidence of early polyphony will be unearthed in
the future.

Ancient Hebrew Music

The importance of music in the lives of the Hebrew peoples is well
documented in the Old Testament. Psalms were sung during religious
ceremonies in call-response (soloist followed by congregation) or
antiphonally (one group followed by another). Wind, string, and
percussion instruments are mentioned in the old Testament. The only
traditional instrument still used in Jewish ceremonies today is the
shofar, a primitive trumpet made from a ram’s horn. In some of the Old
Testament scrolls, small markings appear above the text of the psalms. A
Parisian scholar, Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, has translated those markings
into a system of music notation called «Tanami». This system of marking
the text with symbols denoting melodic outlines is strikingly similar to
the earliest neumatic systems of notation used in Christian plainchant.
The connection is extremely plausible given that early Christians are
often considered as a messianic sect of Judaism, retaining Jewish
customs and practices while gradually creating a new Christian identity.

Ancient Greek Music

The early Greeks considered music to be of mathematical and cosmic
significance as well. Pythagoras of Samos (circa 500 B.C.) discovered
the frequency proportions that define the intervals we hear today. For
example, two notes whose frequencies are in a ratio of 2 to 1, sound one
octave apart. A ratio of 3 to 2 produces a fifth, a ratio of 4 to 3
produces a fourth, and a ratio of 9 to 8 produces a major second. Greek
musicians and philosophers used a single-string instrument, known as the
monochord, to produce the various intervals. Pythagorean philosophers
believed that these ratios also governed the movement of celestial
bodies and other cosmic matters. Thus, music came to be revered as the
highest of intellectual and artistic pursuits. Music theorists of the
second century A.D. such as Nicomachus of Gerasa and Claudius Ptolemy
wrote extensively about the mathematical, moral, and cosmic significance
of music. Ptolemy’s treatise, Harmonics, is the most useful extant
reference on ancient Greek music theory. Interpretations of ancient
treatises have yielded common ground on the matter of rhythmic notation
but much disagreement and speculation on the interpretation of pitch.
The Greeks used a system of modes known as tonoi which may or may not be
similar in concept to the scales we use today.

Music of the Early Roman Church

There is little evidence that Ancient Romans contributed much to music
history other than the development of brass instruments used in the
military. The Romans conquered Greece in 146 B.C. and assimilated and
adapted Greek music and religion. Writings of Cicero, Quintilian, and
others document the use of music for purely entertainment purposes at
large festivals with choruses and instrumental ensembles. The gradual
decline of Rome after 200 A.D. took place as the popularity of
Christianity was increasing. The emperor Constantine I, who ruled from
306 to 337 A.D., adopted Christianity and legalized it for the first
time in the Roman empire. Rome had for centuries exerted a peaceful and
unifying influence on Europe but that was gradually disintegrating as
barbarians increasingly threatened the security of the empire. When the
Roman empire was permanently divided in 395 A.D., Christianity became
the only major cultural force unifying the still vital eastern empire in
Byzantium with the rapidly dissolving western empire in Europe. By the
time the last Roman emperor, the young Romulus Augustulus, was finally
deposed in 476, the papacy had established itself in Rome and was
asserting jurisdiction over the Christian church. The music of the
Christian church was for centuries the only cultivated art music in
existence in Europe. Early Christian music, largely monophonic chant
influenced by the Jewish cantorial tradition, was entirely vocal as the
church attempted to purge the masses of the instrumental music
associated with competing religions. Latin translations by Boethius
(circa 480–524) and Cassiodorus (circa 490–585) of Greek literature on
music theory also contributed to the theoretical foundations of early
Christian chant. It is from these origins that the history of western
art music properly begins.

Western Music

Music in the Western Culture is the result of various influences,
including the formalization of improvised traditions; the growth of
notation; the development of tuning systems; the treatment of text;
innovative approaches to form; the role of patronage; the absorption of
various cultures into the style; the growth of technology;
investigations of performance practice; and various other factors.

Western music also benefits from various dualities: sacred and secular
traditions; monophonic and polyphonic textures; conservative and
progressive tendencies; popularism and elitism; canon and non-canonic
works; and other polarities. The western tradition is complicated by
these various influences and perspectives, and formal musicological
study often becomes a point of departure for other, more individualized
investigations of music.

The western tradition of music has its origins in the chant tradition of
the early Christian era. The monophonic music of chant dominated the
middle ages, and included the composition of sequences and tropes. In
the high middle ages, organum emerged, thus introducing polyphonic
textures into liturgical music. By the thirteenth century, the motet
became a seminal polyphonic composition and included liturgical and
secular texts as well as a chant cantus firmus. In the Ars Nova of the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, secular music was composed
polyphonically, and resulted in elaborate contrapuntal devices and
notational practices.

In the fifteenth century the early Renaissance polyphony showed evidence
of a new style influenced on fauxbourdon and based on previously
improvised traditions. At this time textures grew from a reliance on
lower voices to treble-dominated textures. Renaissance motets and
madrigals have their origins in the music of the Netherlands composers
(Obrecht, Ockeghem, Busnois, Binchois) and the idiom culminates in the
work of Josquin Desprez. With the late Renaissance, more national and
secular music emerged, as found with the English madrigal and the French

The late sixteenth-century music included attempts to return to Greek
drama. The latter resulted in the formulation of monody for declaiming
music which was at the core of early opera (Caccini, Peri) and became a
vehicle for composers like Monteverdi to take forward the nascent genre
of opera. Italian opera (opera seria, opera buffa) soon dominated the
early baroque style of the seventeenth century, which extended to the
composition of oratorios on sacred subjects. In France opera soon took
root, and a national style evolved starting with Lully.

In the seventeenth century instrumental music developed on its own,
treble dominated texture of vocal music was supported by the basso
continuo tradition of accompaniment. Works for instruments included
keyboard suites (Froberger, Kerll) and sonatas, organ music
(Frescobaldi), including various partitas and fugues, and trio sonatas
(Corelli, et al.) for various combinations of instruments. Music for
orchestra included sinfonias and concertos, including the concerto

The high baroque music of the eighteenth century was dominated by the
genius of Bach and Handel. Bach composed music for almost every genre
except opera; he left a corpus of liturgical music, including cantatas,
that show the influence of the Reformation on musical style. Handel, as
a German – born composer who studied in Italy and worked many years in
England, shows the international aspects of the baroque style. Like
Bach, he wrote in almost every genre, including opera seria and

While Bach and Handel yet composed, a style change was taking place in
the early eighteenth century. Rococo preferences moved toward simpler
harmonies and more transparent textures, as well as a tendency toward
instrumental music (C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Joseph Haydn). Later in the
century, the Classic style of Haydn and Mozart dominated the music of
Western Europe, with the symphony, sonata, and string quartet
predominating, and the sonata principle at the core of musical
structure. The opera seria of Handel and his generation gave way to
opera buffa, as found with Mozart and others. The bel canto tradition in
opera seria metamorphosed with Mozart and emerged later in the operas of
Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.

The classical style may be seen to culminate in the music of Beethoven,
who is perceived as the link between the classic and romantic style.
This distinction is important for the so-called common practice era from
ca. 1725 to 1900, that is the period of the defining tradition of
western music. Beethoven contributed to almost every genre of music at
the time, including piano sonata, string quartet, and symphony. He
expanded the symphony with regard to form, orchestration, texture, and
aesthetics, contributing programmatic elements to an otherwise
self-contained style.

As the link to the romantic era that dominated the nineteenth century,
Beethoven is a point of departure for many of the trends that existed in
the era. The so-called Romantic style includes the growth of a number of
varied and often antithetical influences. These include the development
of the symphony as a genre; program music and the ideal of absolute
music; grand opera; lieder; character pieces for piano; the piano
sonata; national musical style; and the expansion of tonality and
harmonic practice. The early Romantic composers include Schubert, Weber,
Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin; among the later ones are
Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, and Verdi.

With Wagner romantic opera expanded in terms of the orchestra, the scope
of subject matter, the demands on voices, and the overall length. As a
controversial figure, Wagner influenced the musical establishment, such
that affinities were aligned with him and the music of the future, or
with more conservative trends that reached back to Beethoven. Wagner’s
harmonic and timbral idiom was critical for the late romantic
efflorescence at the end of the century that led to the so called end of
tonality as it was generally understood in the nineteenth century.

With Wagner, the dominance of the Austro-German tradition in
nineteenth-century music became apparent. The extended harmonic and
formal practices of Mahler, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, and others
preceded the freer treatment of dissonance in the twelve-tone music of
the New Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. At the same
time, the Impressionism of the French composers Debussy and Ravel were
based on non-functional harmonic principles. Composers like Bartok
introduced folk elements into music.

Twentieth-century music includes many different styles and tendencies,
including neoclassicism (Stravinsky) – an important type of 20th century
music is neoclassical. «Neo» means new, so neoclassical music is new
music that is similar to music of the Classical period. While
neoclassical music sounds modern in many ways, it is written following
the basic forms and ideals of the Classical period.

A famous neoclassical composer is Igor Stravinsky. His music uses many
different key signatures and time signatures, and sometimes more than
one at a time. One example is the Rite of Spring;

expressionism (Berg, Webern);

serialism (Boulez);

electronic music (Stockhausen);

aleatoric music and indeterminacy (Cage) – the composer leaves a lot up
to the performer. For example a composer might give each player in the
band four different sheets of music. On the director’s signal each
player in the band could play any one of the four sheets of music,
starting and stopping whenever he or she wished. Chance music is
interesting because each performance is different. One important
composer of chance music was John Cage. His Imaginary Landscape No. 4,
consists of 12 radios all playing at the same time, but all tuned to
different stations; minimalism (Reich, Glass).

At the same time, the rediscovery of the past has resulted in an
explosion of interest in the authentic music of past cultures.
Similarly, the eclecticism of twentieth-century culture touches upon the
growth of ethnomusicology and the perspectives it offers to studies of
more traditional western music.


1. Griffiths, Paul. Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Music. N.p.: Thames and
Hudson, 1986.

2. Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music. New York: W.W. Norton,
1960–80. 3rd ed.

3. http://music.dartmouth.edu

4. http://www.hypermusic.ca

5. http://www.stevenestrella.com

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