Music is an ambiguous and subjective topic, even the history and science of different vocal techniques and instruments are debatable and uncertain. Archaeologists and musicologists do their best given the lack of written instructions and specimens that exist. Even if you are just beginning to learn how to play guitar, knowing where these instruments came from is valuable. Here is a brief and quick run through on the historical music instrument evolution, at least according to the best knowledge we currently have.
The First Instruments
The very first instruments were our voices and bodies! We used our voices to hum, for singing, to chant, whistle, and make any sound possible, and our bodies became backing drums for rhythmic movement. Music is the same as language in that we learn it through mimicry. There is no original melody, guitar chord progression, rhythm, or musical passage that we did not learn from another human or the environment.
However, despite this lack of originality, we have always been enticed to put our own creative stamp on what we mimic. And that creative drive is what has led to the evolution of music and musical instruments. Early peoples wanted to recreate the sounds they heard from each other and nature and so they began to use tools and objects to copy these sounds.
Simple bone flutes exist from nearly 30k years ago, along with drums that used skins stretched over wood or animal shells. Even animal intestines and plant fibres were used as plucked strings for simple lyres and sound vibration. Horns and eventually metal tubing were used to create simple trumpets, and each culture would influence the other so it is hard to trace any of their origins.
From Antiquity to the Middle Ages we advanced in percussive instruments like rattles and castanets and plucked strings like harps and lutes. As they say, the beat goes on! It was during the Renaissance that we started on a trajectory of inventing most of the modern instruments that we know now.
As mentioned, music is subjective so even when we classify different musical instruments there can be some arguments and crossovers. We also must question whether we are ordering our instruments by build or note range. Here we will break down music instrument families based on certain structural features and their method of sound creation.
These are mostly percussive instruments that create sound from their own vibrations, by shaking, rattling, or hitting them. Some of the earliest known instruments like rattles, claves, and xylophones were idiophones. We could strike a stone (lithophone) or a piece of wood to get a particular note. As time progressed these percussion instruments evolved into pieces that could play more than one note like a large marimba.
When we stretch a membrane over a sound hole this gives us a new style of instruments. The most obvious and early examples of this were of course drums, which come in various styles like kettle, conical, frame, and more depending on the culture. But the membranes were not always struck with the hand. Sometimes you would use mallets, sticks, or even your breath and lips. A kazoo sound is created by a vibrating membrane.
A plucked string over an acoustic space or opening will create a note depending on the tension level. Early chordophones were zithers, lyres, lutes, and harps. As woodworking technology improved these instruments evolved into violins, banjos, guitars, and the many similar offshoots. If you look at a modern guitar chord chart, it won’t look anything like the chords which would have been played in the early days. Eventually, some of the greatest chordophones evolved into the harpsichord and piano, instruments that could play polyphonic and incredibly technical music.
This is another name for a wind instrument, which the flute, horn, or animal bone, would have been the oldest. They started out with few notes but slowly evolved into more complex structures like brass and woodwind instruments. The first uses lip vibrations before the air passes through and the latter uses a wooden reed that vibrates and creates the sound. The 1800s were the heyday of instrument invention in this family with complicated trumpets, tubas, clarinets, saxophones, and much of the modern orchestra.
Musical instrument evolution completely changed by the 1900s, electricity was basically applied to all the instrument families above! We created Theremins that sounded like voices and violins, synthesizers that electrified pianos, and amplifiers for other chordophones. As of 2023, there are a variety of new versions of controllers, sound creators, and hybrid instruments that mix ancient techniques with modern tech.
The Music Is On Repeat
The deeper you study musical instrument evolution you will see that there is no consistent forward movement. It is confusing and we often wonder if ancient music was used for ritual purposes or for enjoyment. It is probably safe to say that it was a mix of both as music has quite the hold on culture. We don’t have to go that far back to see how fast people influence one another in both manners.
Even before the invention of the record player certain musical rhythms, the pentatonic scale, and syncopated beats show up across the planet. It is almost as if there is no single inventor of an instrument or a genre of music, they just appear in culture and are suddenly everywhere. It is an incredible phenomenon! Likely frustrating to historians, but clearly the people who are playing and listening to music do not care.
And ever since the record player, radio, and TV has been introduced, musical instrument evolution has been going at an incredible speed. If you look at the thousands of years that it took to build certain music trends, in the past 100 there has been a radical amount of change. Like always that creative drive to mimic has led to so many instruments, genres, and vocal styles.
But despite the recent explosion of new styles, the history of musical instruments is still not on a straightforward path. For every musician that plays a new MIDI-controlled synth, there are still folks carving flutes out of simple materials. People are still using the same basic drums and percussion instruments that have been around for a millennium. At times music doesn’t follow any evolution, it just gets heard and repeated over and over based on the next player’s interpretation.
About the Author
Shawn Leonhardt is a writer for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer. He has produced songs, written T-shirt slogans, and provided voiceovers. He specializes in teaching songwriting, lyrics, and music theory.