Do you think you know everything there is about music? Can you name the oldest known musical instruments? Check out this post and let us know if you can guess them all!
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5. Stone lithophones; 3,000-10,000 years old 

Around the end of the Paleolithic period, humans started chipping and shaping rocks into lithophones, the ancestors of modern-day xylophones. The first of these found was in 1949 in Vietnam. Many more examples have since been found of these ancient đàn đá, which means “stone instrument.” Playing đàn đá is a Vietnamese cultural tradition that is still observed today in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and đàn đá are preserved as family treasures.

4. Conch shells; 17,000 years old 

Imagine you’re hanging out at your place, painting and making music, and happen to make world history. That’s what some human beings did 17,000 years ago. The world’s oldest wind instrument is a conch shell with red paint fingerprints found in a Pyrenees Mountain cave in 1931. It sat cataloged in a French museum for 80 years. Modern-day museum staff recently took a closer look to find that the shell apex most likely held a mouthpiece. It was even still covered with some brown, glue-like substance. A team of scientists recorded the shell played by a professional horn player, and it produced three distinct notes.

18th century Tibetan conch shell trumpet with gilt copper and semi-precious stones. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons (public domain image) 

3. Bullroarers; the Upper Paleolithic period, which ended about 10,000 years ago 

Also known as a rhombus or turndun, the bullroarer has been found in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Indian sub-continent, the Americas, and Australia. It consists of a weighted airfoil attached to a rope spun to produce sound. The oldest bullroarers have been dated to the Upper Paleolithic era, which ended about 10,000 years ago. They were used as musical instruments and long-range communication devices. The bullroarer was also used to drive animals, and some cultures believed it had apotropaic uses. The sound of a bullroarer seems to change in pitch as it moves toward and away from the listener. This effect is known scientifically known as the Doppler Effect. Cultures still use the bullroarer in modern times, primarily to communicate over long distances.

1908 illustration of a bullroarer. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons (public domain image)

2. Flutes; 60,000 years old

The oldest known flute was discovered in a Slovenian cave in 1995, which was fashioned out of a bear’s thigh bone with stone tools. It is the only musical instrument in the world made by Neanderthals, 20,000 years older than any other flute that has been excavated. Scientists determined the age by performing electron spin resonance on bear teeth found in the cave next to the flute and stone tools. Flutes created later were made of bone, as well, by humans exactly like we are today, and many bone flute artifacts have been preserved.

1876 illustration of a Mayan flute excavated from Palenque, Chiapas in Mexico. Photo credit: Project Gutenberg (Musical Instruments by Carl Engel, 1876).

1. The Human Voice.

The human voice is as old as the human race and all the ways to express it vocally could fill up numerous blogs! People can also find creative ways to make sound and express rhythm with their bodies, like clapping hands, stomping feet, mouth drumming and beatboxing. These are examples of body percussion and vocal percussion.

Honorable mention: Percussion 

As we know them today, drums are “membranophones” because they consist of a vibrating membrane, usually animal hide, stretched over a frame, and tuned. The oldest recovered drum artifact used alligator hide as its membrane and was found in the Yellow River Valley. It is approximately 5,500 years old and would have been developed chronologically alongside reed flutes and the earliest stringed instruments. Idiophones are percussion instruments that require striking, shaking, or scraping to produce a sound. Their designs are ancient, simple, and cross over cultural lines. Examples of idiophones would be rattles, stamping sticks, split drums, boards, bells, and gongs. They could be made from many different materials. For instance, Native Americans constructed rattles of turtle shells, while a terracotta clay rattle in the shape of a pig was found on the island of Cypress and was dated as being from about 200 B.C.

1876 illustration of a Chinese pien-tchung instrument (16 té-tchung bells). Photo credit: Project Gutenberg (Musical Instruments by Carl Engel, 1876).


Musical Instruments of the World: An illustrated encyclopedia with more than 4,000 original drawings (1997). Sterling Publishing Co. Inc. New York, NY.