Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

Sign up for our Flute Newsletter


Previous PageNext Page

The Evolution of Music

How, when, and why did music develop in our culture?

This questions is a central topic for Archaeologists and Anthropologists, but it is also a great questions for developing musicians. I've been interested in this question since I first picked up a Native American Flute, and I've found that exploring how our culture developed musicality echoed, and shed light on, my own musical development. It also exposed me to the broad scope of world music and helped me break out of the narrow focus of Western classical music that I was taught when I was young.

So take a trip down this page into our musical, cultural past. Survey some of the ideas and thoughts about how music came to our culture, and listen to some great musical samples related to those ideas.

The next pages:

… look at the specific historical development of the flute in those regions.

Walking and Tools

Walking Animated imageFrom a fact-finding perspective, we can only guess about the dawn of music. But walking … left and right, steady tempo, beautifully symmetric … it's hard to imagine that walking didn't play a key role in the development of rhythm.

Humans began walking about 1.5 million years ago ([Harmon 2009]), and this advance was a major step forward (pardon the pun) in man's development. Walking saved us energy, freed our arms to carry food, and eventually allowed us to make and play flutes!

As adults, we don't usually think of walking as a musical activity, but listen to this extended essay on walking by the great music educator, W. A. Mathieu, from The Listening Book:

Walking (excerpt)

W. A. Mathieu. The Listening Book.

Another early human activity, possibly even earlier than walking, was the use of tools and the processing of food. Think about the repetitive task of pounding seeds into meal. It provides a steady rhythm as well as trains the workers as Ice Age drummers.

The earliest archaeological evidence of tools dates back at least 2.6 million years to hand axes found in Ethiopia ([Semaw 2003]). However, since both humans and wild chimpanzees use tools today, it is widely assumed that the first routine use of tools took place prior to the divergence between the two species ([Whiten 1999] and [Panger 2002]), now believed to have been about 5 to 7 million years ago.


Zoomusicology is the study of the musicality of animals as well as how music affects animals. It gives us a look at how animal use vocalization for territorialism, hunting (luring animals), defense, or mating, and how those vocalization may have developed into music.

Here is an excerpt from the classic On the Origin of Species: ([Darwin 1909], page 212):

I willingly admit that a great number of male animals, as all our most gorgeous birds, some fishes, reptiles, and mammals, and a host of magnificently coloured butterflies, have been rendered beautiful for beauty's sake; but this has been effected through sexual selection, that is, by the more beautiful males having been continually preferred by the females, and not for the delight of man. So it is with the music of birds. We may infer from all this that a nearly similar taste for beautiful colours and for musical sounds runs through a large part of the animal kingdom.

Here is an excerpt from The Sounds of Life, a BBC-4 series with Aubrey Manning. In this episode, Manning surveys some of the vast array of animal sounds that happen at sunrise around the world:

Morning Sounds (excerpt)

Aubrey Manning. The Sounds of Life.

Bird songs, whale songs, and “songs” of many other animals may not sound like songs to humans, but they certainly are an example of musicality, or at least musical potential.

But are these really songs? To us, they may not sound like songs because of they are out of our frequency range, such as in the case of bats where their vocalizations are at too high a frequency for us to hear. In other cases, the speed of the song may be too fast or too slow for us to recognize as a “song”. Here is another Aubrey Manning excerpt from The Sounds of Life that explores this phenomenon:

Song Speed (excerpt)

Aubrey Manning. The Sounds of Life.

Vocal Traditions from Isolated Cultures

The study of music in isolated and preliterate cultures gives us some clues about how music might have emerged in early man.

Tuvan Throat Singing

Tuvan “throat singing” is a great example of how close an isolated culture can get to emulating the sounds of nature. The Republic of Tuva is located in the Tannu Mountains on the Southern Siberian border in Northwestern Mongolia. Their style of singing include imitation of animal and other natural sounds, whistles and wheezes, sounds produced by rapid lip vibrations, voicings in imitation of jew’s harp, low sounds using chest resonances, and high sounds like apparent falsettos.

This example is an excerpt from a track on the CD Voices from the Center of Asia, Pan Records, 1991, available from Smithsonian Folkways. It demonstrates various styles of Tuvan singing:

Borbannadir with finger strokes across lips (excerpt)

Voices from the Center of Asia (1991).

From the liner notes of Voices from the Center of Asia:

"To an outsider, the most striking music in Tuva is that which the Tuvans call khoomei, from a Mongolian word that means ‘throat.’ Khoomei (sometimes transliterated as xöömij, xomei, or hoomi) is generally translated as ‘throat-singing,’ but Western musicians and researchers have also referred to the same phenomenon as overtone singing, biphonic and diphonic singing, and harmonic singing. The principal [sic] in all cases is the same: a single vocalist produces two, and occasionally three, distinct notes simultaneously. By precise movements of the lips, tongue, jaw, velum, and larynx, singers can selectively intensify vocally produced harmonics."

The traditional throat singing has been carried on and developed by younger singers and aspects have been brought into contemporary sound poetry by artists like Sainkho Namtchylak. She is a respected performer in the world of European performance art and sound poetry who draws from her heritage and birthplace in the Republic of Tuva. Her training allowed her to combine the various vocal techniques of traditional Tuvan throat singing and Western principles of overtone music. She explored jazz and experimental, avant-garde music.

This example of her solo singing style is excerpted from the Night Birds track on the CD Lost Rivers (FMP CD 42) from 1992:

Night Birds (excerpt)

Sainkho Namtchylak. Lost Rivers (1992).

All of this was music that was very close to natural sound in timbre and texture, and even melodically.

Inuit Games

Katadjak (also spelled "katajjak", "katadjaq", and "katajjaq"), is a form of vocal game that uses throat-singing techniques. It is practiced by many of the Inuit cultures, and may have been inherited from the Ainu culture of Japan, who had a similar vocal tradition called “rekuhkara” (also spelled “rekukkara”, “レクッカラ” in Japanese) ([Nattiez 1983]).

The vocal game is generally played by two women facing off against each other in a form of friendly competition. Bruno Deschênes describes the game in his article in The Magazine for Traditional Music throughout the World:

… two women face each other; they may be standing or crouching down; one is leading, while the other responds; the leader produces a short rhythmic motif that she repeats with a short silent gap in-between, while the other is rhythmically filling in the gaps. The game is such that both singers try to show their vocal abilities in competition, by exchanging these vocal motives. The first to run out of breath or be unable to maintain the pace of the other singer will start to laugh or simply stop and will thus lose the game. It generally lasts between one and three minutes. The winner is the singer who beats the largest number of people.
Originally, the lips of the two women were almost touching, each one using the other's mouth cavity as a resonator . Today, most singers stand straight, facing one another and holding each other's arms. Sometimes they will do some kind of dance movements while singing (e.g., balancing from right to left). The sounds used include voiced sounds as well as unvoiced ones, both through inhalation or exhalation. Because of this, singers develop a breathing technique, somewhat comparable to circular breathing used by some players of wind instruments. In this way, they can go on for hours.
Words and meaningless syllables are used in the songs. When words are used, no particular poetical meaning or regular meaning are assigned to them. These words can simply be names of ancestors, a word or name meaningful at the time the games are taking place, or other common words. The meaningless syllables generally portray sounds of nature or cries of animals or birds, or sounds of everyday life. These songs are generally identified by the first word, meaningful or not, of the game. In some regions, throat-songs may recount a story of some sort, though in Northern Quebec no stories are recounted, and may even include some improvisation.

This excerpt of katadjak could easily be mistaken for a flock of Canada Geese. It is from the CD Inuit Games and Songs, from the UNESCO series of Musics & Musicians of the World (D8032):

Imitation of Canada Geese (excerpt)

Imitation of Canada Geese. Inuit Games and Songs.

In addition to imitating geese, we hear a very structured, call-and-response form of duet between the singing partners that comes up again and again in world music.

Play the Camel

Jamming with two Tuareg drummersIn April 2007 Vera and I spent a few days in Ouarzazate, on the edge of the Sahara in central Morocco. Aside from being the center of the Moroccan film industry, it also seemed to be the place where random musicians show up to sell, trade, and jam. It's not hard to find folks who want to jam with a white flute player from the U.S., and pretty soon I was trying to keep up with a horrendously complex rhythm laid down by two guys who called themselves “Tuaregs”.

After two hours the core rhythm became wonderfully hypnotic and got burned into my brain. But because of the language barrier, I had no idea what the rhythm was called. I finally found a French guy who spoke their lingo and got the scoop on what we were playing:

Traditional Tamashek (aka “Tuareg”) music uses the “Takamba” rhythm, which is based on the gait of a camel. Back in Marrakesh I was able to find a track called Takamba Super Onze by Sahloum Yehya and 11 Tamashek musicians that is based on this rhythm. Here's an excerpt:

Takamba Super Onze (excerpt)

Sahloum Yehya and 11 Tamashek musicians. Festival in the Desert.

So here was music that was close to nature in a very rhythmic way.


Digging deeper into Tamashek music in Marrakesh, we heard about Fadimata walett Oumar and a group called Tarit, from Tombouctou in Mali. Luckily, they were performing a few days later, and we were treated to what was a combination of the imitation of the timbres and rhythms of natural sound, as well as a group call-and-response style of music.

This is an excerpt from their track Tihar Bayatin, published by Divano Productions:

Tihar Bayatin (excerpt)

Fadimata walett Oumar and Tarit.


The pattern of the beats and the major pulses in the rhythm of a piece of music is called the “meter” of the music. To find the meter of a piece of music, first tap your hand or foot in sync with the beats of the music. Then find the beats that are emphasized, often called the "downbeats" or the "pulse" beats. You can count "one" on the pulse beats and "two three four ..." on the other beats. The meter is simply the number of beats from one pulse to another.

If you listen to the rhythm of most music, and you're likely to be about to count the pulses and beats of the rhythm to match “one two one two” or “one two three four one two three four”. This means that the music is in a two-meter or a four-meter. These meters divisible by two are called “duple meters” and are very common in Western music.

Now listen to the rhythm of this music and see what you come up with for a meter. Synchronize your hand or foot tapping to the shaker/rattle, and then see where you think the downbeats or pulses are:

4/4 Time

4/4 Time.

It's an excerpt from the Shawnee Stomp Dance ([LaserLight 1995]) that has two groups of singers in a call-and-response duet. You probably counted this as “one two three four one two three four” or “one two one two” - a fairly standard four-meter or two-meter.

Next listen to this excerpt, and try the same exercise:

7/4 Time

7/4 Time.

Not as easy? This is an excerpt from a different section of Shawnee Stomp Dance, but they've changed the meter. Maybe you counted it as

one two three four five six seven one two three four five six seven”

or maybe

one two three four one two three one two three four one two three”

(if not, go back and listen again and see if those ways of counting work for you).

This second excerpt from Shawnee Stomp Dance is in a complex meter – either seven-meter or an alternating four-meter and three-meter, depending on how you like to count it.

Odd meters like seven-meter and five-meters are popular in jazz (the very popular Take Five by Paul Desmond) and show tunes (Try Not to Get Worried, from Jesus Christ, Superstar), but these songs often stay in the same meter for the whole song. The full track of the Shawnee Stomp Dance changes meter from four-meter to seven-meter to six-meter and back again.

Early Ethnomusicologists

The Shawnee Stomp Dance recording excerpted above appeared on Authentic Native American Music ([LaserLight 1995]), released in 1995, so it was recorded fairly recently. What about traditional music, developed before major Western influences? We don't have a lot of recordings, but we do have some great insights from the Ethnomusicologists who studied Native American music in the 19th century.

Alice C. Fletcher (1838-1923) was an anthropologist who became a a pioneer of long-term ethnological field investigations. She established working relationships with the Omaha, Winnebago, and Dakota of the Rosebud Reservation. She is particularly significant for her study of ceremonial life and, with John Comfort Fillmore (1843-1898), pioneered the study of Indian music

Fillmore was a well-know musician, a teacher at the Milwaukee School of Music, and writer of music textbooks, was Fletcher's first assistant (info from Indian Story and Song from North America).

In “Music of the Vancouver Indians” ([Fillmore 1893a] Music of the Vancouver Indians), an anonymous writer (most likely W. S. B. Mathews, the editor of the magazine) describes a paper delivered by Fillmore. Here are excerpts, with emphasis added:

The singing was accompanied by rapid patting with the hand, the pats being considerably more numerous than the rhythmical units of the songs. Dr. Boas and myself made several attempts to count the pats in each melodic phrase. I found myself unable in some of the phrases, at least, to count them two alike. Dr. Boas, who had had long experience with these Indians, felt convinced that there were ten pulses in the song against sixteen beats of the hand.
… Prof. Fillmore spoke of the difficult rhythms, which among the Vancouvers reached in one instance a five-part measure, with rests of the first and third, against a four-part measure of the song. This extremely complicated relation the Indians themselves were not able to do without great care and many experiments. The explanation of anything so elaborate having been evolved among a people so little advanced is to be found in the fact that the singing and the drumming are not generally performed by the same persons. … This is also probably the explanation of the development of the compound rhythms of two's against three's among the Omahas.

In “Indian Songs: Personal Studies of Indian Life” ([Fletcher 1894a] Indian Songs — Personal Studies of Indian Life), Alice C Fletcher writes (page 425 ¶3, emphasis added):

The native ear is precise as to time … Syncopation is common, and the ease with which an Indian will sing syncopated passages in three-four time to the two-four beat of a drum is remarkable. One of our own race could hardly do this without careful training and much practice. An Indian's ear is as keen for time as his eye for tracks in the forest.

It is particularly significant that these ethnologists did not follow the opinions of the popular authorities of the times about the musical abilities of Native Americans. In The Hunting Grounds of the Great West ([Dodge 1878] The Hunting Grounds of the Great West — A Description of the Plains, Game, and Indians of the Great North American Desert, Second Edition), Richard Irving Dodge writes (page 332 ¶5):

The singing of the Indian consists in the monotonous repetition of a few half-guttural, half-nasal sounds (notes they can scarcely be called, as they form no music), varied by an occasional yell. Whatever the occasion, the ‘song’ is the same, however varied the accompaniment.

Steps and Scales

Does melody develop in particular steps? How big are the steps? Do human melodies naturally develop in a scale such as the diatonic or pentatonic scale?

The development of Western Classical music has established a particular arrangement of pitches, called “twelve-tone equal-temperament”, as the de facto standard for today's music. However, it is far from universal. Many world music traditions use different scales, and there are examples of traditional cultures that have vocal traditions that do not even use steps.

Continuous-Tone Vocal Traditions

In 2003 Mickey Houlihan and renowned cellist David Darling were on a concert tour. They took a side-trip and visited the Wulu Bunun tribe, an isolated culture in central Taiwan. Their charming and refreshing vocal traditions inspired a CD, Mudanin Kata, that was popular on the European popular music scene (especially for a ethnic-centric recording from Taiwan and New Age cello).

This extended excerpt if from the track Pasibutbut from Mudanin Kata that demonstrates this vocal tradition (David joins them on cello at the end of the selection):

Pasibutbut (excerpt)

David Darling and the Wulu Bunun. Mudanin Kata.

So we have a highly harmonic vocal tradition sung by all members of the village (including children) who sing in continuously rising tones. They also construct a Shepard-Risset glissando - an acoustic illusion created from a series of overlapping ascending scales - as well as make use of microtonal harmony and dissonance techniques. Not bad for a musically isolated culture!

This type of microtonal dissonance techniques began to be used in avant garde music of the 1960s in pieces such as Lux Aeterna by György Ligeti (which Stanley Kubrick used for the sound of the monolith in the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

But more than just a vocal technique, this style of music virtually eliminates melody and rhythm, focusing instead on the timbre of the music, in part created by the microtonal harmonies.


While some cultures do practice continuous-tone singing, most cultures do establish a set of steps to create melodic music. While these steps do have particular pitches, or frequencies, the human ear primarily hears the relationship between different pitches.

When a culture develops a set of steps for creating melodies, we say that those steps form a scale. A scale is simply a set of notes, in order of increasing pitch, that form the basis for a set of melodies and harmonies.

The distance between two successive notes in a scale is called a scale step.

One very important relationship beteween pitches is the octave relationship. Sing the first two notes of "Somewhere over the Rainbow". The pitches of "Some" and "-where" are an octave apart.

The relationship of two notes that are an octave apart is straightforward: The higher note has double the frequency (cycles-per-second, or Hertz (Hz.)) of the lower note.

The octave relationship is so important, that most scales are "octave-repeating", meaning the scale includes the note an octave higher and the relationship between the pitches is the same in every octave. These octave-repeating scales have steps that go up and up in pitch, as far as needed. However, If a scale has, say, five steps in each octave (including the first note, but excluding the note an octave higher) we say that it is a "five-tone scale".

Now it doesn't matter all that much what pitch you start singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - what does matter is the relationship between the pitches. We identify melodies primarily by the relationship between the pitches.

In many musical circumstances, a specific note of the scale will be chosen as the "tonic" or "tonal center". This is the central and most stable note of the scale, the note on which melodies often begin and end.

Given that basis, we can get back to our questions of the development of scales in cultures.

Western Classiscal music, after much research, experimentation, angst, and compromise during the 17th century, settled on a system of twelve musical tones in each octave. This compromise was based partially on the needs of instrument makers, who had been called on to build instruments with many many more notes per octave to handle various situations.

The effect of nature sounds on human musicality. Was early music inspired from naturally occuring sounds? Here's another excerpt from The Sounds of Life that seems to beg for human accompaniment:

Fish Chorus (excerpt)

Aubrey Manning. The Sounds of Life.

There are many examples of music that is tightly integrated with the sounds of nature. Here is a song that Vera and I found in 1997 when working in Zimbabwe. (The title is "Pra" and the attribution is to "Various Artists" … I don't have more information on this track):

Pra track from Zimbabwe 1997

Clint Goss.

The Singing Neanderthals

Cover of [Mithen 2005] Larger image

Early musical instruments. It is likely that the first musical instrument was the voice. In humans, the voice can make a vast array of sounds, from singing, humming and whistling through to clicking, coughing and yawning ([Mithen 2005]).

One of the key apects of human anatomy that is needed for speech and articulate singing is the hyoid bone, which is a fixed part of the jaw that enables certain complex tongue motions. The oldest known Neanderthal hyoid bone with the modern human form has been dated to be 60,000 years old, ([Arensburg 1989]), which predates the oldest known musical instruments.

We think of the voice as primarily a melodic instrument, but listening to the music of isolated and preliterate cultures we hear a tremendous amout of vocal rhythm. Were the first non-vocal instruments rhythm or percussion instruments to accompany the voice? The challenge with percussion instruments - stones, shakers, drums - is that it is very difficult to confirm that they were used for music. However, an object that looks like a flute tends to be convincingly and unambiguously a musical instrument.

These questions are all central to our own development at musicians. In the way that the development of an embryo into an adult echoes the evolutionary development of that species, the development of a person's musicality echoes the historical develop of music in our culture. So studying these historical development gives us insight into our path as musicians.

Previous PageNext Page


To cite this page on Wikipedia: <ref name="Goss_2022_evolution_music"> {{cite web |last=Goss |first=Clint |title=The Evolution of Music - Flutopedia.com |url=http://www.Flutopedia.com/evolution_music.htm |date=7 June 2022 |website=Flutopedia |access-date=<YOUR RETRIEVAL DATE> }}</ref>