Music of the Ancients

Music of the Ancients
Music of the Ancients

It’s music history day again, and we are going to look at the music of the ancients. I know some of you think that anything that happened over a week ago is ancient, but we’re looking back a lot further than that! Ancient music history deals with anything we know about music before 400 A.D. And yes, there was music long before that!

Music of Ancient Mesopotamia

The Standard of Ur is an ancient artifact from about 2500 B.C. It shows a picture of a person playing the lyre and a singer, both entertaining the king at a feast. Other artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia show that they had harps, lutes, wooden flutes, reed pipes, drums, and tambourines.

Music of Ancient India

The Vedas, the sacred writings of Hinduism, were written in ancient India about 1500 B.C. Instead of just reciting the Vedas, it seems that people chanted, or sang them. Sometimes instruments accompanied the chanting of the Vedas. The ravanatha, an ancient Indian bowed string instrument, was made from a coconut shell and bamboo.  The veena was a stringed instrument that was plucked. Ancient Indians also had a double-sided drum called a mridangam.

Music of Ancient China

Music was very important to the ancient Chinese. One of their ancient philosophers (great thinkers) said that music reflected the fundamental order of the universe. The ancient Chinese even had a department of the government for music. The Imperial Bureau of Music regulated all the court and military music in ancient China. Chinese opera developed in the 3rd century B.C. And no, Chinese opera is not at all like the opera we know today! The Chinese used zithers, flutes, bells, chime stones, and shengs – like mouth organs, but made from bamboo. Here is a link to what people think ancient Chinese music sounded like:

Music of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians thought music was very important. They used music in their religious ceremonies and rituals. Music was also important for their official government ceremonies. They had music for dancing, music for love, and even music for death. Archaeologists have found pictures of ancient Egyptians playing instruments and dancing. Here is a link to what people think ancient Egyptian music sounded like:

Music of the Ancient Hebrews

The Old Testament of the The Bible tells us much of the history of the Hebrew (Jewish) people. The Bible contains many references to music and musicians in the Old Testament. The worship in the tabernacle and the temple included a set group of musicians and singers. King David was a skilled harp player. The priests blew trumpets when they marched around the city of Jericho. The book of Psalms mentions singers and musicians repeatedly. Psalm 150 lists several of instruments: trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, organs, cymbals. Where did they learn about all these instruments? Abraham came out of Mesopotamia. The Hebrew people spent time in ancient Egypt. They interacted with other cultures around them. Music spreads.

Music of Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks believed that music was very important to all aspects of life. They thought that music was both a science and an art, and they developed themes and systems about music. Remember learning about Pythagoras in math class? Pythagoras established the mathematical foundations of music. He set out the laws of proportion in music and introduced the seven-tone scale. Even Plato (a famous Greek thinker) was a big supporter of music. He believed that rhythm and melody produce a certain mental harmony important to a person’s well-being. The ancient Greeks invented the organ. They used water to pressurize the air to make the organ function. You could even say that the Greeks invented the musical – the ancient Greek dramas were all accompanied by music, choral singing, and even their own version of “rap” (called declaiming). The most important musical innovation of the Greeks was the invention of musical notation. This wasn’t really like the notation we have today, but the ancient Greeks did assign letters (24 of them!) to represent different tones.

Music of Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans were really into the organ – they had the organ accompany the gladiator contests! They improved on the organ as well. Instead of using water pressure for the organ, they moved to a system of leather bellows for the air. In 350 A.D. the church in Rome set up a School of Singing.


Scholars and archaeologists discovered pictures from the ancient times of people performing music. They found written literature from ancient times discussing music. They also found artifacts from ancient times of instruments used to make music. Unfortunately, they have only found a couple fragments of actual music from the ancient times. For that reason, music of the ancient times isn’t really included in music history.


Music History Eras

Did you know? Just like the history you learn about in school has different time periods, or eras, so does the history of music. And each music history era has different characteristics and different changes in how the music was written and played. Even though the first music history era starts in 500 A.D., that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any music before that. Music existed long before that time; it just wasn’t classified into a specific time period for music history. So let’s look at these different time periods and some very basic characteristics for each one.

Music History Eras
Music History Eras

Early Music (also known as Medieval Music)

This period of music history corresponds to the Middle Ages, about 500-1400. Most music then was vocal music, written to be sung in the church. There were not very many instruments available. The main instruments were the recorder, the trumpet, the bagpipe, and the shawm (somewhat similar to the oboe). During this time people were just beginning to develop the ideas of how to write music on paper.

Renaissance Music

This music history era was the same time as the Renaissance era in world history, from about 1400-1600. During this time people explored new ideas and new worlds,  and discovered, or rediscovered, new things in art and music. Most of the music was still vocal music, but it was not all just for use in the church any more. Also, the printing press was developed during this time, so people were able to print and distribute music.

Baroque Music

The Baroque period of music history happened about the same time as the Pilgrims, exploration, and colonization (1600-1750). This was the same time period that the American colonies began. During the Baroque era composers wrote much more instrumental music and non-church music. The first versions of the modern orchestra were started. Composers also started writing operas and oratorios.

Classical Period

The Classical period of music history happened at about the same time as the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment, about 1750-1830. During this time composers started writing string quartets, sonatas, and orchestral symphonies. More instruments were added to orchestras. Also, the modern piano was developed and popularized during this time.

Romantic Period

The Romantic Era lasted from about 1830-1900, about the same time as the Industrial Revolution. The music from this time featured intense energy and passion. Composers tried to express scenes from real life in their music. Musical rules of the past had to be rethought and changed to support new ideas of writing music. New musical developments included tone poems, descriptive overtures, major symphonies, dramatic operas, and virtuosic piano music.

Twentieth Century and Beyond

This era of music history began about 1900 and continues through today. Composers during this time tried to be radical and different, and rebelled  against some of the established musical ideas. So, new styles and forms of music developed. Classical music composers included ideas from jazz and folk music into their new music. This era also includes music for film scores and video games.

If you want to know a little bit more about music history, check out

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