The History of Music: Cultural Evolution Throughout the Ages


The evolution of music closely follows the evolution of humans. Primitive humans produced primitive music. As hunter-gatherers, people spent the vast majority of their time and effort on surviving. Hunting. Gathering. And defending themselves against predators. With the development of communities, and later civilizations, more time was found for cultural pursuits. Art, philosophy, and music developed as people changed over time.

The history of music can be separated into three categories.

  • Primitive Music
  • Western Art Music
  • Modern Music

Each category reflects the development of culture in a historic period.

Primitive Music: Basic Rhythms

Music is thought to be as old as mankind. Simple music, such as tapping a rock on a piece of wood led to the creation of pleasing rhythms and chanting songs in the local language. Music in its most basic form was created this way. Primitive music, also called prehistoric music, arose prior to 1500 B.C. Music existed before reading and writing and was used by ancient cultures to preserve information, to be passed to future generations. With the development of reading and writing, music began to be codified so that the notes could be replicated by singers and musicians despite never hearing the original work. This development led to the expansion of music and is the basis for music heard today.

Western Art Music: Music Becomes More Complex

With the establishment of music as an art form came the evolution of instruments and their incorporation into complete musical works. Music created during this period is called Western Art Music and can be broken into five subcategories, each adding to its predecessor as music became more and more complex.

  • Medieval Music
  • Renaissance Music
  • Baroque
  • Classical
  • Romantic

This is the era of famous composers such as Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Music was comissioned by the wealthy and noble. Musicians were recognized as artists and entertainers. This influx of interest led to a patronage system which allowed creative and talented musicians to subsist wholly on their talent, allowing for even more sophisticated music to be created.

Modern Music: A Celebration of Diversity and Technology

Much like humans, today’s music bears little resemblance to its prehistoric ancestors. The styles of music popular now are too numerous to list and are in a constant state of evolution. Technology has played a large role in this development. Recording devices made music accessible to the masses. From wax record to audio files, music has become portable and accessible. Instruments can now be mass produced, allowing for anyone to become a musician. These advances have eliminated barriers to producing music and to having that music heard by an increasingly large audience. Rock and roll, jazz, the blues, and rap are just a few of the subgenres being explored and refined.

Music Continues to Evolve

Music has mirrored the evolution of musicians. From primitive beats to sophisticated electronic melodies, music continues to reflect the progress of the people from which it comes.