She bangs the drums

When did music first appear?

An early South American flute made from a bone
An early South American flute made from a bone.

Wellcome Library, London

Music is a part of essentially all human cultures, suggesting that it is very ancient and evolved early in human history.

Early music may have relied on the human voice or basic percussion using natural materials. Some ancient artefacts may have been used to generate sounds, but the earliest unambiguously musical instrument is probably a flute discovered in Germany, which is about 36,000 years old.

Bone flutes 8,000–9,000 years old have been found in China and play notes from ancient Chinese musical systems.

Two 4,000–5,000-year-old marble statues show that well-defined musical forms had developed by the late Stone Age. They show a flute player and a musician playing a triangular lyre or harp. By the time documented civilisations appear, all have well-defined musical traditions.

What of other human species? What may be a 43,000-year-old Neanderthal flute was recently found in Slovenia, while Steven Mithen has argued in his book ‘The Singing Neanderthals’ that the anatomy of their vocal systems would have allowed them to sing. His proposal is part of a growing reassessment of Neanderthals and their culture, suggesting that they were neither as brutish nor dim as once made out.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Genetics and genomics, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
11–14, 14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development