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Harp, lyre and lute: from 3000 BC

By the beginning of recorded history, in Mesopotamia in about 3000 BC, a sophisticated harp is in use; its form, in the shape of a bow, suggests its descent from the more primitive musical bow. The lyre, a portable version of the same kind of instrument (resting on the lap rather than the ground) evolves soon after.

By about 2000 BC a form of lute is being played in this same Middle Eastern region. A stringed instrument with a body as the sounding board and a long neck against which the strings can be pressed, the lute is the ancestor of the family which eventually includes the guitar (though the lute has a rounded back to the body).

Sounding brass and tinkling cymbal: 1500-1000 BC

The addition of metal instruments, made either of copper or bronze, completes the range available in classical civilizations. A copper trumpet of a simple kind is known in Egypt from about 1500 BC. Cymbals appear in Israel by 1000 BC.

The range of early musical instruments is most familiar to western readers through the Bible - from the harp-playing King David to the sounds of brass and tinkling cymbal criticized by St Paul - or through Greek myth, where Apollo is invariably associated with the lyre and Pan with the reed pipes. But the first society to make music a matter of state is further east, in China.

Chinese bells: from 1600 BC

Confucius selects music as his symbol of the harmony which everyone should strive for. In doing so he reinforces a long tradition in Chinese ancestor worship. Bronze bells are the preferred instruments in the ritual, and the Chinese skill in bronze-casting ensures that they are superbly made. Sonorous stone slabs and pottery flutes are also used. All have been found in tombs of the Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC).

In the ritual a set of tuned bells is suspended from a beam, to be struck by the priests in appropriate sequences. Fine-tuning is achieved by scraping metal away from the inside edge of a bell. (China at this time also makes a less solemn contribution to musical history with the invention of the Mouth organ).

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