History of Music Pre-Renaissance Music: The Evolution of Instruments and Theory Prehistoric Music



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History of Music

Pre-Renaissance Music: The Evolution of Instruments and Theory

Prehistoric Music

The earliest forms of music were probably drum-based, percussion instruments being the most readily available at the time (i.e. rocks, sticks). These simplest of simple instruments are thought to have been used in religious ceremonies as representations of animals. There was no notation or writing of this kind of "music" and its sounds can only be extrapolated from the music of (South) American Indians and African natives who still adhere to some of the ancient religious practices.

As for the more advanced instruments, their evolution was slow and steady. It is known that by 4000 BC, the Egyptians had created harps and flutes. By 3500 BC, lyres and double-reed clarinets had been developed.

In Denmark, by 2500 BC, an early form of the trumpet had been developed. This trumpet is what is now known as a "natural trumpet." It has no valves and depends completely on manipulation of the lips to change pitch.

One of the most popular instruments today was created in 1500 BC by the Hittites. I am talking about the guitar. This was a great step; the use of frets to change the pitch of a vibrating string would lead to later instruments such as the violin and harpsichord.

In 800 BC, the first recovered piece of recorded music was found. It was written in cuneiform and was a religious hymn. It should be noted that cuneiform is not a type of musical notation.

By 700 BC, there are records of songs that include vocals with instrumentals. This added a whole new dimension to music: accompaniment.

Music in Ancient Rome and Greece

Greece was the root of all Classical art, so it's no coincidence that Classical music is rooted in Grecian innovations. In 600 BC, famed mathematician Pythagoras dissected music as a science and developed the keystone of modern music: the octave scale. The importance of this event is obvious. Music was a passion of the Greeks. With their surplus of leisure time (thanks to slave labour), they were able to cultivate great artistic skills. Trumpet competitions were common spectator events in Greece by 400 BC. It was in Greece that the first bricks in music theory's foundation were laid. Aristotle wrote on music theory scientifically, and brought about a method of notation in 350 BC. The work of that genius is still studied today.

The next significant step in music's evolution was by Boethius. In 521 AD he brought the Greek system of notation to Western Europe, allowing the musicians there to scribe accurately the folk songs of their lands. Incidentally, it was Boethius who first wrote on the idea of the opera.

Music in the Middle Ages

Most of the music created after Rome fell was commissioned by the church. The Catholic religion has a long history of involvement (for better or worse) with the musical arts. In 600 AD Pope Gregory had the Schola Cantarum built. This was the first music school in Europe.

Meanwhile in China, music was progressing also: it was reported that in 612 AD, there were orchestras with hundreds of musicians performing for the assorted dynasties. Although the specific music from this period in China is unknown, the distinct style supposed to have developed there is reflected even in recent orchestral Asiatic pieces.

In 650 AD, a new system of writing music was developed using "neumes" as a notation for groups of notes in music.

144 years after the Schola Cantarum was built, a singing school opened in the Monastery of Fuda, fueling the interest in musical vocation. By 790 AD, there were splinters of the Schola Cantarum in Paris, Cologne and Metz. In 800 AD, the great unifier, Charlemagne, had poems and psalms set to music. In 850 AD, Catholic musicians had a breakthrough by inventing the church "modes." These modes would later metamorphose into today's major and minor scales. In 855 AD, the first polyphonic (2 unrelated melodies/voices at once) piece was recorded, and by 1056 this polyphonic style replaced Gregorian chants as the music of choice (even after the Church made polyphonic music "illegal"; this ban was later lifted). In 980 AD, the great tome Antiphononium Codex Montpellier was scribed.

In 1000 AD, Guido D'Arezzo made many improvements in music theory. He first improved and reworked standard notation to be more user-friendly by adding time signatures. Then he invented solfege. This is the vocal note scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la ,ti, do. This innovation has affected almost every modern vocalist.

In 1100 AD, a new secular movement began. This separation of Church from music was a straddling one, and soon this new "folk" music was looked down upon as pagan and borderline blasphemous.

The Renaissance

On the dawn of the Renaissance in 1465, the printing press was first used to print music. By using a press, a composer could organize his pieces and profit from them with great ease. In 1490, Boethius's writings on opera were republished in Italian.

With the onset of the Renaissance, the rules of music were about to change drastically. This was the beginning of a new enlightened age that would showcase some of the greatest musical minds ever produced.

The history of music at this point is best told by the styles that emerged and the composers who lived after the Renaissance.



Baroque Style

For its time, Baroque was crazy and uninhibited. The music of this period is emotional and filled with little frills and decorations that shocked and amazed its listeners. Baroque was often fast paced with great and quick use of scales and violent changes in volume and melody. Today you might not think of it as an exciting type of music, but if you compare it to the Classical style, you can tell immediately that Baroque did have more action in its pieces. Some say the greatest composer of all time wrote in this period: Johann Bach.



Classical Style

We wish we could have found this on our own, but a book we researched with (Classical Music for Everybody) had the perfect quote to explain what music of the Classical style was like, and we'd like to reprint that here:

“... there is music wherever there is harmony, order or proportion.”
—Sir Thomas Bown

Ancient Greek art and culture had always been loved and emulated by European artists. This is especially evident in the Classical style (hence the name). The mathematical approach to music of Pythagoras and Aristotle took precedence in this period. It was the aim of Classical composers to achieve "perfect" music. That is, music that was completely perfect from a technical standpoint. This restriction led to very conservative music; strong but not really emotional. This is how most of Classical style music went and how the composers composed it (with the notable exception of Beethoven). Don't get the wrong idea about this; the music Mozart gave us is beautiful and moving and he was a born and bred Classical composer. Conservative does not mean boring. There are many notable examples of the Classical style, including the musical stereotype that is Beethoven's 5th symphony.



Romantic Style

This was a stark reversal of the Classical style of music; Romantic music was full of emotions and had no concern for Classical rules. It is said that Beethoven was almost singly responsible for the transition from Classical style to Romantic. Beethoven bridged the gap by infusing his later works with much emotion, yet keeping within the Classical bounds. Soon the emotion overran the Classical bounds and Romanticism was born. There are many great composers of this era, including Carl Maria von Weber, Fredric Chopin, Hector Berlioz, and Johannes Brahms. Romantic music created two smaller movements in music: music about legends and nationalistic music.



Music About Legends

Storytelling was and is the prime directive of many musicians. Music has always been a medium for portraying legends and myths. In Romantic music, this is no different. There have been many compositions telling the story of heroes (like King Arthur) and demons (especially Mephistopheles). This is just the logical outgrowth of the folk singers and wandering minstrels who had performed since the time of Beowulf. Wagner wrote many pieces on the basis of a story or myth. His famous "Ride of the Valkyries" is a great example.



Nationalistic Music

Nationalism had been a growing craze after Napoleon's fall and Germany's unification and this nationalism which led to World War I, also led to some of the most inspiring music out there. Composers like Bedrich, Smetana and Jan Sibelius wrote beautiful music to praise their homelands. In fact, Jan Sibelius is considered a national hero for the Finnish people. But if there was to be an epitome of nationalistic music, it would be Peter Tchaikovsky, whose music about Russia defined a country's composing style for almost a century.


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