For most of human history, music wasn’t a commodity. It was purely performative and often religious. Communicated only in person, music was tradition, culture, and the soul of a society. It traveled — it lived — only through the artists, passed down through the generations.
In economic terms, this meant that the music itself had no intrinsic value. It wasn’t a product at all — it was the result of a service. Any value that could be earned through music came from its performance — and once played, the music was gone forever. It was an absolute consumable, irreproducible and transient. It was also indissociable from the performance. Music didn’t exist in a vacuum. In many ways, music as we know it didn’t exist at all. It was a key part of the performance, but so was dance, poetry, and ritual.
This made performers respected members of their community, and their services very valuable. They trained apprentices, formed schools, and bid for patronage — but their performances were always live, and what records of them we have are recorded visually, or in written accounts. Even after the development of written language, capturing music was impossible. The subjectivities of pitch, tone, rhythm and cadence were too complex to record, and so music remained one of the mysteries.
Indeed, much of music history can only be deduced from archaeology, anthropology, and modern experimentation. It makes sense, in its way. Painting is reproducing what we see — visual experience translated to visual records. Writing is not just capturing what we hear — it’s capturing meaning, and much of the meaning can also be reproduced visually. But music? How does one write a tone or a rhythm?
That took a little longer to evolve.
The earliest forms of musical notation, like the earliest forms of writing, were found on Sumerian cuneiform tablets from ca. 1400 BCE. These tablets show an early, fragmentary set of instructions for performing music, based around the named strings on a lyre. It wasn’t a true notation, yet, but it was a beginning.
The Greeks made further inroads, formalizing a type of notation and beginning the science of music. Traditionally, this began in the 6th century BCE with the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras. He has been credited with the discovery that tones could be expressed objectively — although expressed in mathematics because that was his thing. According to the legend, he discovered the foundations of musical tuning (and through that, a means to define and express in writing the values of musical notes) by listening to the sounds coming from a blacksmith’s shop.
The various versions of the legend have him banging hammers together or striking bars of different length to produce different tones, and from those tones calculating the frequency of the vibrations which define each tone. These legends are generally false from a physics point of view, but what is accepted is that he laid down the first true representation of sound through math — and through that, defined how music could be recorded in writing.
Regardless of how it came about, his discoveries lent his name to Pythagorean tuning, a form of musical tuning widely used until the sixteenth century. Mathematical expression of the frequencies of vibration wasn’t a form of reliable notation, but it was the necessary first step.
Learning to score
And as it went, step by gradual step, musical notation evolved into something almost standardized, but it was still incomplete. Early attempts could show the subjective interrelationships of tone that defined each melody, but couldn’t capture objective pitch or rhythm. In the West, the Catholic Church turned their attention to standardizing the notation, to ensure that the plainsong chants of the monks could be shared amongst the monasteries.
Musical notation became more universal when the standard music stave was developed by an Italian Benedictine monk called Guido d’Arezzo near the end of the tenth century. He used the first syllable of each line in a common hymn to create the familiar scale of Ut (later Do), Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si (or Ti), to read notated music. It still wasn’t perfect, and rhythm was still being resolved, but it was at least a consistent convention.
By Mediaeval times music had reached the page, but it was incomplete and labor-intensive to produce. Just like the books of the times, music could be copied and shared, but only by hand, and at great expense. Still, as the Middle Ages rolled into the Renaissance, great things were afoot in art, science, and music — and then in 1439, it all changed.
When Gutenberg introduced the moveable type press to Europe, a new music industry was born. No more was music just performative — now, it was published. Written music became a commodity, and the world’s musical horizons grew.
Curious to know more? Join our Discord or Telegram group — UtopiaGenesis.