Musical instruments are divided into three categories instruments of percussion, wind instruments, and stringed instruments. Very simple forms of these are known to every tribe on the earth, and in their simplest form may be said to lie ready to the hand of the savage. Thus almost any hard substance will furnish him with an instrument of the drum kind; the wind instrument is merely the stem of a reed or the horn of some animal; and the sonorousness of a cord or fibre in a state of tension could hardly escape observation in any land whose people numbered bows and arrows among their weapons, and the violin is no more than a surpassing development of the principle that a tightly-stretched cord can be made to produce sound by being set in vibration. These, then, are the simplest forms in the production of music-the voice; the stretched cord; the reed-pipe or horn; and the drum, clapper, or rattle, these last being but varying applications of the same principle of percussion. These primary means of producing sound are known to all the primitive peoples of the world, and by most have been carried to a varying degree of development.
Thus the ideas of solo singer or narrator alternating with a chorus, and of one body of voices alternating with another, are to found almost everywhere. The knowledge that varying-sized sonorous bodies produce varying tones is also common to early man in general, and many tribes have, from slabs of wood or stone of a specially sonorous quality, devised an instrument of the harmonicon kind. The same principle of combination has also been widely applied to the wind instruŽment; and pipes of varying size, double-pipes, pandean pipes (the syrinx of the ancients), and pipes with finger holes, are to be found in all countries. A further step has been taken in cases where there has been what might be called a cross-application of the fundamental principles of the different species of musical instrument. For instance, the discovery that the volume of sound produced from a stringed instrument can be increased by the addition of some contrivance of the sounding-board order, belongs to an early stage of development.
Such are the general types of musical instruments in use among the earliest races. They are doubtless things of age-long use; but many centuries would appear to have affected their development very little and in the same way that we are accustomed to regard the races who use them as standing but on the threshold of human life. Therefore, we may perhaps, regard instruments of today, and the vague musical systems, which started it all, as presenting an illustration of how musical art of the earliest civilisation was evolved. It should be noted that in the above statement we cannot include electronic keyboards and electric organs, common to the 21st century. When we guess at the type of musical instruments that were used by early man, we can be sure that there was no Yamaha electone organs or Roland G70 and Ketron Audya arranger keyboards.
Anyway, these modern keyboards would have been useless because they hadn't invented electricity yet. Thus it is not very difficult to imagine what music may have been like in the earliest ages of the world; but of its history in those times we know nothing; and the earliest records extant give us but brief, disconnected glimpses of an art already of high antiquity. Our oldest sources of information upon the subject of music are to be found in the sculpture work of the Assyrians, the carvings and wall-paintings of the Egyptians, the Old Testament, and Homer. From these four sources, we can obtain a great amount of information, information, however, which it is impossible to present in any certain chronological sequence. All that we can be sure of is that we see music as existing among four distinct races, and in each case, in a state of high development.
But whether the musical systems of the Assyrians, Egyptians, Israelites, and Greeks were developed separately, or whether they were varying developments of a common inheritance derived from some still earlier civilisation, or whether each race had carried on a purely independent process of evolution from the beginning of time, are questions that may never be answered. All that we know is that music undoubtedly existed among these ancient nations, and existed in a state of high development; beyond that, we can only deal in guesswork.
Michael Shaw is an organ and keyboard teacher and sells sheet music and tutor books at his websites http://www.mikesmusicroom.co.uk and http://www.keyboardsheetmusic.co.uk