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Visitors can "compose" music on virtual instruments from around the world in a playful computer interactive called "Pitch Canvas."

©AMNH / Rod Mickens


Music is a form of expression that uses sound but does not require words. No one knows if music was invented before language, after language or at the same time. Both are expressions of a more general human capacity for sophisticated cultural expression--indeed, certain brain regions are used in both language and music. But music also uses parts of the brain not used in language, implying that music has unique functions and, at least in part, a distinct evolutionary history--possibly even one predating Homo sapiens.

How And Why Did Music Originate?

Music might have served many functions for early humans. Music could have been used for courtship, territorial claims and uniting social groups, much as calls and songs are used by whales, birds and apes. Music might have helped soothe infants or unify groups before a hunt, battle or religious ceremony. Whatever its original uses, music is now present in every human culture, implying that a biological capacity for music evolved early in our species' history.

Did Neanderthals Make Music?

Some scientists have speculated that Neanderthals may have had some kind of musical sense. A flutelike object Homo sapiens entered Europe and = that was found in a Neanderthal site has been tested and works well as a flute. However, scratches indicate the holes could have been made by the teeth of a carnivore, and there is little other evidence that Neanderthals made instruments. The debate continues over whether this object is really a Neanderthal flute.

Hard Evidence

Among the oldest known musical instruments, this bone flute shows that humans made music well over 30,000 years ago. The bone flute follows the same basic design as modern instruments. Of course, people could have made music much earlier without instruments, or with instruments made from materials that were not preserved.

Instrument or Not?

It is not always easy to tell whether something is a musical instrument. This conch shell was made into a horn by adding a hole. But experts disagree about whether the holes in the "flute" above were made by Neanderthals or by the teeth of a carnivore.


© Yvette Taborin & Monique Olive

Etiolles Lithophone


Long before modern drums such as this were invented, humans could have clapped their hands or struck resonating objects to produce rhythmic or other sounds. Later, skins were stretched over the ends of hollow logs to make drums.

Rock Music?

These long stone blades were found at a 12,000-year-old site in Etiolles, France. Their precise function is not known, but it has been speculated that they were struck to make musical tones.

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