Early Evolution of Musical Instruments

  January 04, 2022   Read time 3 min
Early Evolution of Musical Instruments
COMPARING the gourd or bamboo devices of early civilizations with the involved mechanisms of modern pianos and organs, one might easily come to the conclusion that instruments have developed from simple to complicated patterns and that their origins can therefore be established by tracing the various types back to their simplest forms.

Although this is true as a general statement, it is superficial and often misleading as a working hypothesis. What is simple? It is simple to cut down a bamboo stalk and to open it lengthwise in order to make a natural slitdrum. It is much less simple to fell a gigantic tree and to hollow it out by stone axes and fire. And yet we know that hollowed trees were used to make slit-drums long before smaller bamboos were used for the same purpose. Reduction and simplification as results of progressive development outside the instrumental area are well known, for instance, in language: Sanskrit has eight grammatical cases, and English only one or two. This settles the question as far as progress is concerned. But not all evolution is progressive; it is regressive in many cases. The simple pan-pipes of primitive tribes in the Pacific and South America are not prototypes of the refined pan-pipes of China, but imitations in degeneracy. We can compare instruments within a homogeneous group, for instance panpipes or slit-drums; but can we decide whether a flute is simpler than a stamping tube or a slit-drum?

Unable to decide chronology on the basis of more complicated or simpler workmanship, one might attempt to arrange peoples and tribes according to their lesser or higher degree of civilization and check their instruments. This, too, is scarcely feasible; a conscientious anthropologist would refrain from establishing such an order. There are, say, three peoples: one poor in material culture, but gifted as artists and socially well organized; the second, rich in material civilization, but poor in artistic imagination and social refinement; a third, well organized, but unskilled in handicraft. Which is the most primitive? And even if such an order could be established, would all peoples of the same cultural standard have the same instruments, notwithstanding their different mentality, social organization and the materials available in their countries? Peoples, like individuals, respond differently to emotion. One reacts as a musician, by singing or playing; another, in a different way. Musical response is weak with the Eskimos and strong with the Negroes, regardless of their cultural standard. But there is not only a difference in musical responsiveness; a similar stimulus might act in one case on the singing throat, in another on the playing hand, again independently from the level of civilization. Ancient Greece sang but neglected her instruments; East Asia excels in playing. Again, the plenty and variety of instruments depends on the habitat of the people; musical culture in the tropics is abetted by the existence of large coconuts and calabashes, and those gigantic bamboos which provide pipes, zithers, xylophones, reeds and strings.

In spite of all these difficulties a rough chronology of primitive civilizations can be made by comparing them with the stages of prehistoric evolution in Europe and other continents. In France or Spain a prehistorian excavates the dwellings and burial grounds of paleolithic hunters with their tools and weapons, and slowly reconstructs the material and even the spiritual culture of these men—an anthropologist will be able to show a similar culture among some aboriginal tribes in Australia or elsewhere. Again, the prehistorian discovers a later, neolithic civilization, in the Danube valley or in Italy, and the anthropologist finds a similar culture existing in some remote district of India, with the same shape of cabins, the same pottery, weapons, tools and instruments. Anthropology and history are drawing together, and by checking their results we can add another clue.

Unfortunately, digging in prehistoric strata yields meager information, as only instruments made of imperishable materials have been preserved. Paleolithic tombs and dwelling places produce the shells of strung rattles, bone scrapers, bone bull-roarers and bone flutes; neolithic excavations produce clay drums and end-blown shell trumpets. Whatever was made of wood or cane or bark has perished by decomposition. The picture of prehistoric music that we owe to the digging spade is not only poor but misleading, if it is not completed by anthropologic.