The Birth of Music and Theory

  February 19, 2024   Read time 4 min
The Birth of Music and Theory
One of the most important things to remember about music theory is that music came first. Music existed for thousands of years before theory came along to explain what people were trying to accomplish by pounding on their drums. So, don’t ever think that you can’t be a good musician just because you’ve never taken a theory class.

In fact, if you are a good musician, you already know a lot of theory. You just may not know the words or scientific formulas for what you’re doing. The concepts and rules that make up music theory are very much like the grammatical rules that govern written language — which also came along after people had successfully learned how to talk to one another. Just as being able to transcribe language made it possible for people far away to “hear” conversations and stories the way the author intended, being able to transcribe music makes it possible for other musicians to read and play compositions exactly as the composer intended. Learning to read music is almost exactly like learning a new language, to the point where a fluent person can “hear” a musical “conversation” when reading a piece of sheet music.

There are plenty of people in the world who can’t read or write but can communicate their thoughts and feelings verbally just fine. In the same way, there are plenty of intuitive, self-taught musicians out there who have never learned to read or write music and find the whole idea of learning music theory tedious and unnecessary. However, just like the educational leaps that can come with learning to read and write, music theory can help musicians learn new techniques, perform unfamiliar styles of music, and develop the confidence they may need to try new things.

If you didn’t know better, you might think that music was something that could start on any note, go wherever it wanted to, and just stop whenever the performer felt like getting up for a glass of iced tea. Although it’s true that many of us have been to musical performances that actually do follow that style of “composition,” for the most part those performances are confusing, annoyingly self-indulgent, and feel a little pointless. The only people who can pull off a spontaneous jam well are people who know music thoroughly enough to stack chords and notes next to one another so that they make sense to listeners. And, because music is inherently a form of communication, connecting with your listeners is the important thing. Learning about music theory is also incredibly inspiring. There’s just no describing the light bulb that goes off in your head when you suddenly know how to put a 12-bar blues progression together and build a really good song out of it. Or when you can look at a piece of classical music and find yourself looking forward to playing through it for the first time. Or the first time you sit down to jam with your friends and find you have the confidence to take the lead.

From what we can tell, by the time the ancient world was beginning to establish itself — approximately 7000 B.C. — musical instruments had already achieved a complexity in design that would be carried all the way into the present. Bone flutes with five to eight drilled holes were being produced in the Henan Province in China that could play notes in both the five-note Xia Zhi scale and the seven-note Qing Shang scales of the ancient Chinese musical system. Some of the flutes found from this time period are still playable, and short performances have been recorded on them for modern listeners to hear. All over the world, people were playing music — and not just on bone whistles and empty turtle shells.

Pictographs and funerary ornaments have shown that by 3500 B.C., Egyptians had invented the harp — or at least were using it a lot — as well as double-reed clarinets, lyres, and their own version of the flute. By 2500 B.C., their neighbors across the Mediterranean, the Cycladians, eventually responsible for forming Greek culture, had adopted the lyre as well, while in faraway Denmark, the Danes had invented the first known trumpet. By 1500 B.C., the Hittites of northern Syria had modified the traditional lute/harp design of the Egyptians and invented the first two-stringed guitar, with a long, fretted neck, tuning pegs at the top of the neck, and a hollow soundboard to amplify the sound of the strings being plucked.

Guitars may look a lot sexier now and have a few more strings, but they follow the same basic design laid out more than 3,000 years ago. There are a lot of unanswered questions about ancient music, not the least being why so many different cultures came up with so many of the same tonal qualities in their music completely independent of one another. Many theorists have concluded that certain patterns of notes just sound right to listeners, and certain patterns don’t. Music theory, then, very simply, could be said to be a search for how and why music sounds right or wrong. It’s only common sense to assume that if a Neanderthal, say, built a really awesome flute or laid out a catchy rhythm on the ol’ hollow log, there had to be someone nearby who asked, “How the heck did you do that?” Voila! The birth of music theory. The purpose of music theory is to both explain why something sounded the way it did, and how that sound can be made again.

Write your comment