The Art of Music in Prehistoric Times

by J. F. Rowbotham

[Extracted from  JAI 10 (1881) 380-89.]

The following paper was read by the author:

'Certain Reasons for believing that the Art of Music in Prehistoric Times passed through Three Distinct Stages of Development, each characterized by the Invention of a New Form of Instrument, and that these stages invariably succeeded one another in the same order in various parts of the World.'

Musical instruments, though their varieties may be counted by hundreds, are yet really reducible under three distinct types: 1, the drum type; 2, the pipe type; 3, the lyre type. Under the first head fall drums, rattles, tambourines, gongs, triangles, castanets—in a word, all instruments of percussion. Under the second head fall flutes, horns, trumpets, fifes, hautboys, bugles—all wind instruments. And under the third head fall all stringed instruments, comprising the harp, lyre, lute, violin, dulcimer, piano, &c., &c. Now these three types are representative of three distinct stages of development through which prehistoric music has passed—and the stages occur in the order named. That is to say, the first stage in the development of instrumental music was the drum stage, in which drums and drums alone were used by man.1 The second stage was the pipe stage, in which pipes as well as drums were used. The third stage was the lyre stage, in which lyres were added to the stock. And as in the geological history of the globe, the chalk is never found below the oolite nor the oolite [p.381] below the coal, so in the musical history of mankind is the lyre stage never found to precede the pipe stage, nor the pipe stage to precede the drum stage.

That this should be the order of development seems natural, since it corresponds to the constitution of the factors of which instrumental music is composed— rhythm, melody, and harmony. Rhythm is the most elementary,—now the instrument of rhythm is the drum. Melody is an advance on rhythm, and was given by the pipe; while harmony, which is the most advanced of all, was ushered in by the lyre.2

And not only to their constitution but to their chronology, as a glance at what is going on around us will reveal. For in the development of the musical sense first comes the appreciation of rhythm, of melody next, of harmony last—first, the power to beat time with the foot to a tune in a concert room; next, the power to appreciate the melody independent of its rhythm; lastly the comprehension and appreciation of the harmony. So in pianoforte playing, first time then the right hand, which takes the melody, then the left hand which gives the harmony. Thus also in the history of modern music, an era of rhythm came first under Bach; an era of melody next under Haydn and Mozart; Beethoven bridges over the transition to the era of harmony which has attained its climax under Wagner and Liszt.

There is another reason why drum, pipe, and lyre should have been the order of the stages in prehistoric time—I allude to the evidence furnished by the mechanical complexity of the instruments themselves. The drum is evidently the simplest of all; the pipe is more complex than the drum; but the lyre, which consists of strings stretched on pegs is the most complex of all.

In keeping with this is the fact that savages sometimes have the drum alone, but never the pipe alone or the lyre alone; for if they have the pipe, they always have the drum too; and if they have the lyre, they always have both pipe and drum.

Meeting at the bottom of the ladder with the Veddahs of Ceylon,3 the Mincopies of the Andamans,4 and the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego5 who have no musical instruments at all, we find the drum to be the only musical instrument known [p.382] among the Australians6 (with whom it appears in its most rudimentary form), the Esquimaux,7 and the Behring's nations generally,8 the Samoyedes, and the other Siberian tribes,9 and, until a comparatively recent date, the Laplanders.10

With the Polynesian Malays11 and the Papuans,12 the pipe makes its appearance, while in no single instance is the drum found wanting. The same holds good of the South American Indians. Both pipe and drum are in use among the tribes on the Upper Amazon,13 the Indians of the Rio Negro14 and the Uaupιs,15 the Tupis,16 the Omaguas,17 and neighbouring tribes,18 the Artaneses,19 and Yucunas,20 the Itatines,21 and generally the rest of the Brazilian tribes,22 the aborigines of Guiana,23 the [p.383] Aymara Indians of Bolivia and Peru,24 the Huacho Indians of Peru,25 the Abipones of Paraguay,26 and the Patagonians.27 These are all the cases I have examined in South America, and they all yield the same result—that is to say, the pipe is nowhere to be found without the drum being likewise present.28 And what is true of the South American Indians is equally true of the North American Indians.29

But where the lyre appears, there both pipe and drum are also found as its never falling complement, as with the Dyaks of Borneo,30 the Khonds of Khondistan,31 the Maories of New Zealand,32 the Finns,33 the Tartars,34 the Cossacks,35 the Turko-mans,36 the Hindus,37 and the nations of history,38

These facts would seem to do much towards confirming the [p.384] opinion that the drum is the oldest, the pipe the next, and the lyre the youngest of the three. But there is another reason why we should adopt a chronology which assigns the seniority to the drum. Archaic types are preserved in the amber of religion. The vestments of the clergy gives us valuable aid in studying the antiquities of costume, and what we may call

The Evidence of Ritual

Is of equal value in studying the antiquities of music. And as far as I have been able to gather, the instrument of ritual among savage nations is invariably the drum. Throughout Africa where both pipe and lyre are known, if an instrument is employed at all in the fetish ceremonies it is invariably the drum. The fetish ceremony among the Camma negroes, which Du Chaillu mentions is a case in point, and other instances of the use occur in his book.39 Throughout the South Sea Islands the drum is the instrument of the priests.40 Catlin mentions it as appropriated to religious ceremony among the Assineboins,41 Mandans,42 Crows,43 and Sioux,44 and Schoolcraft mentions its use among the Medawin, who pervade the whole body of the tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.45 It is the instrument of the priests in Guiana,46 and forms an essential element in the ritual of the Patagonian wizards;47 similarly used among the Abipones,48 and other South American tribes, particularly the Guaycurus,49 and not to mention its use in ritual among the Peruvians and Mexicans, a glance at ancient history will remind us of the sistrum of the Egyptian priests, and the cymbals of the Assyrian and Hebrew priests; and coming down to a later date, we shall find the case precisely the same. With the Greeks, for instance, the drum, in its various forms of drum, tambourine, cymbal, and rattle, was regularly employed at the Cotytia and Bendideia of the Thracians,50 the Orphic rites,51 and by the Corybantes, Cabeiri, Idoean Dactyli, and Curetes at the rites of Cybele, and [p.385] the Idoean Zeus,52 and at the rites of Dionysus,53 and that metal drum which we suspend in our own churches, and which we call a bell, may be taken in to swell the list.54

The next species of evidence which I shall bring forward, is

The Evidence of Mythology.

The legends of savages, as far as I have been able to gather any, all testify to the high antiquity of the drum. But the mythology of civilised peoples is a far more fertile field for the present subject, and gives many valuable hints about the succession of the stages. And it is singularly confirmatory of our theory, that whenever a definite sequence is alluded to in legend, or can be gathered from it by the comparative method, the lyre is always made to follow the pipe, and the pipe to follow the drum. Minerva invented the flute, but afterwards threw it away, because it distorted her features, and took to the lyre instead. When Apollo received the lyre from Mercury, he praised the wonderful sound which neither gods nor men had heard before, "for up till then he had been contented with the amorous sighing of the flute.''55 The struggle between the two instruments for supremacy is adumbrated in the legends of Apollo and Marsyas, and Apollo and Pan, and it is in keeping with our theory, that in both cases the contest ended in the victory of the lyre over the superannuated pipe, Marsyas being flayed for his impertinence, and Midas being but an ass for awarding the palm to Pan.56 But long before Athena's flute or Apollo's lyre was heard, music had come into being with the cymbals of the Curetes, says the [p.386] legend in Herodotus57 and from these simple elements all Greek music, it avers, was subsequently derived. This is a plain enough suggestion that the drum was the oldest form, and the idea is kept up in the story in Floridus Sabinus, which makes the first music ever heard in the world to have been the music of the anvil. The passage in the Bacchae of Euripides, which alludes to the legendary origin of the drum and pipe, will, I think, be allowed, without much pressing, to concede the seniority to the former.58 The legends of Egypt tell the same tale as those of Greece. Osiris invented the flute and Isis the sistrum; but it was the Egyptian Hermes or Thoth, a deity of later date than either of them, who was credited with the invention of the lyre.59 And Indian legend keeps up the order of succession. Vishnu was the inventor of the trumpet, and in his avatar as Krishna of the flute; but it was Nareda, the son of Brahma, who belongs to the second generation of gods, that first invented the lyre.60

Droppings Out

This is a thing which sometimes happens, that one of the forms drops out of use. Thus we have evidence of the existence of the drum in Lapland from time immemorial; and we know for a fact that drums were used there as late as the year 1600.61 Yet by 1732 the drum had died out so completely that Linnaeus, who travelled through Lapland in that year, could write, "The Laplanders know no musical instrument except the lur (a sort of trumpet), and pipes made of the bark of the quicken tree or mountain ash."62 The Muras of the Amazon have at the present day no instrument but the horn;63 but the fact that they are a Tupi tribe, and that all the Tupis have the drum, seems to prove that this solitary exception is a case where the drum, from some cause or other, has dropped out of use. The same method of reasoning may be applied to the Caishdnas, who at the present day have no instrument but the pipe.64 Only 400 in number, they are an insignificant branch of the Shumanas, who, along with the Passes, Juris, Mauhes, and Tucunas, form a network of intimately connected tribes. Now all these tribes have the drum. It is, therefore, highly probable that the Caishanas at one time had it too. In the same way, in the teeth of the fact that both drum and pipe were known to the Celts, we find both [p.387] instruments to have dropped out completely in Iceland (which was colonised by Celtic Christians from Ireland, in the year 795), and the only form known there 300 years ago to be the lyre.65

It will be noticed that if a dropping out occurs, it is always the drum which drops out in presence of the pipe, and the pipe and drum in presence of the lyre. And since there is no instance of the pipe giving place to the drum, or the lyre giving place to either of them, it seems highly probable that the drum stage, the pipe stage, and the lyre stage, were three progressive stages of musical development.

The embryology of the art ends with the evolution or introduction of the three forms of instrument; but in order to discover what laws governed the development of the embryo, we may be allowed to avail ourselves of any hints which the history of the full-fledged art has to offer, and when we bear in mind that the strolling pipers had spread all over medieval Europe long before the strolling fiddler was heard of,66 and that the drummers and trumpeters formed respectable and influential guilds before the time of either,67 that the history of the modem orchestra has proceeded on the same principle—regular orchestras in the sixteenth century consisting of 12 wind and percussion instruments to 2 strings;68 in the seventeenth century, of 25 wind and percussion to 19 strings,69 but by the time of Beethoven, of only 14 wind and percussion to 47 strings; that the history of the composite instruments tells the same tale, the organ, the composite pipe, coming first, attaining its full maturity, and being on the high-road to decline before the piano, the composite string, had well commenced its existence.70 I think these hints, conjoined with the bearings of the facts mentioned before, will go to confirm our original position as to the order of the three stages in the development of prehistoric music—the drum stage, the pipe stage, and the lyre stage—which, it seems to me, are to the historian of music what the stone, bronze, and iron ages are to the archaeologist. And though it is to the [p.388] history of music that they are chiefly valuable, they are by no means without import in the spheres of archaeology and ethnology. And what that import particularly is it will be my business in some future contribution to attempt to show.


The President supported in a general way the author's view that the succession of musical instruments has been—1, drum class; 2, pipe class; 3, harp class. He presumed that Mr. Rowbotham, in speaking of harmony in connection with the lyre, meant the word in its ancient sense, not as what we now call harmony in part-music or accompaniment. He thought exception might be taken as to the way the absence of an instrument was argued on, so as to prove a case either way. On the one hand the absence of pipe and lyre in a tribe having drums was construed to mean that the tribe had never got beyond the drum. But, on the other hand, with a more civilised people having the lyre and no pipe, it was argued that they had had the pipe, but given it up.

Mr. C. Roberts remarked that having travelled among the red races of the far west of Canada, and the native races of Queensland and New South Wales, he had learnt to associate in his mind the sound of the drum with darkness and night; and he had observed that many of the Asiatic races, especially in India, make the night hideous with their drums, while they seem to make little use of them by day. He was inclined to think, therefore, that the drum was originally used for the purpose of signalling, and that it was afterwards developed into a musical instrument.

Mr. Rowbotham, in reply, stated that he had purposely avoided entering into the question of the construction or origin of the instruments. He might, however, be allowed to remark, in illustration of one or two allusions made by one of the speakers to superstitions connected with the drum, that he had lately advanced the theory (in the "Contemporary Review" for October) that instrumental music originated as a form of fetishism, its secularisation into an art, as we understand it now, being a later phase in its development. 8uch a theory, though perhaps a little bold, had the advantage that it explained much that was otherwise inexplicable; for instance, the Maraca cult of the Brazilians, the drum fetishism of the Lapps, the superstitions clinging to the instrument all through the North and South American tribes, among the Esquimaux, the Samoyedes, and other Siberian tribes, which might, indeed, be traced in an unbroken line from Lapland, all along the north coast of Asia, crossing over at the Fox Islands into America, and descending through both 'continents to the bottom of Patagonia. The hypothesis of the drum, and therefore all instrumental music, having originated as a fetish, furnished a convenient explanation for much of this; and for the further fact that the drum, when used solo, is never used among savages as a musical instrument, but always cut a fetish, or at the least a quasi-fetish—its employment as a musical instrument being limited to its applied use as an accompaniment to the dance or song.

In reply to Mr. Roberts' suggestion that the drum originated as a signal, Mr. Rowbotham said that a complex system of drum signalling certainly existed throughout a pretty extensive area in the interior of Africa, which he believed Commander Cameron was the first to call attention to before the British Association in 1878; but it stopped there, and being limited to specific tribes on one particular continent was scarcely sufficient to warrant the general induction that the drum originated all the world over as a signal, if, indeed, it was correct to assume that, even in the signalling district, it so originated. Signalling looked much more like a practical afterthought than an original use, and certainly presupposed a much higher degree of intelligence than is attained by those tribes that are as yet in the drum stage. Besides Africa there was only one other instance of the signalling use that he knew of, and that was among the Yucunas of the Yapara.

In reply to some objections taken to the description of the lyre in his paper as "ushering in harmony," Mr. Rowbotham remarked that he used the word harmony in its simplest sense, understanding by it Aristotle's [Greek] simple unison or octave between a voice and an instrument. Harmony is merely accompaniment, and was impossible in the pipe stage, for the pipe bound the mouth. But the lyre set it at liberty, and enabled the player to sing and play at the same time. Accompanying the voice by the drum was not melodic accompaniment, and need not be taken into consideration.

In conclusion, the author pointed out the bearings of the theory, if it were ultimately accepted, on the Cave Period. Whistles had been discovered in the caves, and if it were a necessity for the drum to precede the pipe, the cave men must have been acquainted with the drum.


1 Understand by "drum," instruments of percussion, from the rudest possible form of two pieces of stick beaten together, for instance, to the developed drum or rattle as we have it to-day.

2  In speaking of the "harmony" of prehistoric music, I am merely using the word in the sense of the Greek [Greek], which, though very different from what we understand by "harmony," was, nevertheless, the undoubted embryo from which modern harmony grew.

3 Tennent's "History of Ceylon."

4 Mowat's "Andaman Islands."

5 "Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. 'Adventure' and 'Beagle.'"

6 Eyre's "Discoveries in Central Australia," II, pp. 228, 237;" Grey's "Journal of Two Expeditions of Discovery in N.W. and W. Australia," II, p. 305.

7 Parry's "Second Voyage," p. 530; Crantz's "History of Greenland," I, p. 176.

8 Whymper's "Alaska," p. 143.

9 Richardson's "Polar Regions," p. 335; Smith's "Wonders of Nature and Art," London, 1803, II, IV, pp. 277, 264, etc.

10 That is to say, till within about 300 years ago. See Scheffer's "History of Lapland."

11 For the Society Islands, see "Captain Cook's Voyages." Published by John Tallis, I, p. 87. For the Navigator Isles, Turner: "Nineteen Years in Polynesia," p. 211. For the Friendly Isles, "Cook," I, p. 427, and in the common edition, 1st Voyage, p. 397; see also Mariner's "Tonga Islands," II, 214, 218. For the Marquesas, Melville's "Life in the Marquesas," p. 185. For the Sandwich Islands, where, however, the pipe is absent, "Cook," II, 250. And for the Maories of New Zealand, " Captain Cook," I, 196, who, in addition to the pipe and drum have also the lyre: Dumont d'Urville's "Voyage de l'Astrolabe II," 446.

12 For the Papuans, see Williams' "Fiji and the Fijians," I, 163; Turner's "Nineteen Years in Polynesia," p. 90; Jukes' "Voyage of H.M.S. 'Fly' (for the Erroob Papuans), II, 176; for the Papuans of New Guinea, I, 274, and plate I, 277. Cf. Rosenberg's "Reistochten naar de Geelvinkbaai of Niew Guinea," Amsterdam, 1870, p. 93; and for the drum form in the Papuan Archipelago, Schouten's "Voyage in Purchas: His Pilgrimes," I, 2, 100.

13 Bates' "Amazons," II, 201; Wallace's "Travels on the Amazon," 504.

14 Wallace, "Travels on the Amazon," 259.

15 Ibid., 282.

16 Bates' "Amazons," I, 311.

17 Southey's "History of Brazil," I, 89, 90.

18 Ibid. f 84, 95. Orellana, in his narrative of his expedition down the Maranon, speaks of one of the tribes having "three-stringed rebecks;" but such a statement, coming from such an authority, is, in presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, comparatively worthless. Herrera gives cogent reasons for suspecting the truth of Orellana's narrative in many of its details, and, indeed, no one can read it without being aware of innumerable bouncers. But even should the statements prove true, it does not militate against our theory for an instant, for in the same sentence he speaks of the same tribe having also pipes and drums.

19 Southey's "Brazil," I, 139.

20 Ibid., Ill, 720.

21 Ibid., I, 341.

22 Ibid., I, 206, which bears out Bates' general remark about the Tupis.

23 Brett's "Indian Tribes of Guiana," 320, 154 (plate).

24 Forbes, 'On the Aymara Indians of Bolivia and Peru,' in "Transactions of the Ethnological Society," 1869, p. 233.

25 Stevenson's "Travels in South America," I, 403.

26 Dobrizhoffer's "History of the Abipones," II, 70, 209, 217.

27 "Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. 'Adventure' and 'Beagle,' II, p. 162; R, Brown's "Races of Mankind" plate; Musters' "At Home among the Patagonians," p. 77.

28 But see infra.

29 Catlin's "North American Indians," I, 238, 243; Schoolcraft, II, 514; III, 486. Catlin even speaks about "lutes" being found among them, but, provokingly enough, though he mentions "lutes" twice in his book (I, 142; and 1, 88); he goes into no details, nor even gives a description in the place where he deals with the other instruments—on the contrary, omits them entirely from his list. But to this existence of "lutes" among the North American Tribes, Schoolcraft says, No; and on all counts, Schoolcraft's seems the probable view. For, by the way, Catlin talks of "lutes" [Greek]. Speaking with great reserve on so delicate a question, I refrain from even hinting my opinion in plain English.

30 Campbell's "Narrative of Thirteen Years' Service among the Wild Tribes of Khondistan," pp. 16, 164.

31 Supra.

32 Pinkerton, I, 473.

33 Mary Holdemess' "Notes relating to the Manners and Customs of the Crim Tartars;' Clark's "Travels in Russia, Tartary, and Turkey," 316; "New Edinburgh Review," 1822, p. 518.

34 Atkinson's "Travels on the Upper and Lower Amoor," p. 167.

35 Chodzko's "Popular Poetry of Persia," pp. 62, 419.

36 "New Edinburgh Review," 1822, p. 525.

37 Pursuing the enquiry among those semi-civilised nations which meet us on the threshold of history, such as the Celts, for instance, it is only to find that what is true of others is likewise true of them. For the three forms among the Celts, see Jones' "Welsh Bards," folio, p. 90; in Ancient Scotland, ibid., 75, Buchanan's "History of Scotland," Lib. I; in Ireland, Jones, ibid., and "Transactions of the Royal Irish Society," VIII, "Antiquities," p. 11 (which proves that the pipe-form was known). Africa, which is the bugbear of theorists, offers some slight difficulty, from the fact that among some few of the tribes the drum and lyre are found alone, the pipe being wanting. It will be observed that I have made no mention of Africa in the above, as I intend in some subsequent contribution to endeavour to prove that the lyre was passed down into Africa from Egypt while the majority of the tribes were yet in the drum stage.

38 Du Chaillu, p. 241, etc.

39 Ellis' "Polynesian Researches," I, 282.

40 Catlin's "North American Indians," I, 55.

41 Ibid., 126.

42 Ibid., 189.

43 Ibid,, 238.

44 Schoolcraft, I, 360.

45 Purchas: His Pilgrimes, IV, 1274.

46 "Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. 'Adventure' and 'Beagle,'" II, 262.

47 Dohizhoffer, II, 65, 84, 278-9.

48 Southey's "Brazil," I, 121.

49  Strabo, X, ii, 16.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Strabo, X, iii, 7, 11.

53 Plutarch "De Iside," LXIX, p. 378.

54 An examination of legal formularies, which are also, like religious ceremonies, a repository of the old, would no doubt yield a similar result. Thus, Thornton tells us in his "History of China," that the phrase "Keih-yuen," by which the officers call attention in the Chinese law courts, means literally "strike the drum." Throughout Africa scarcely any legal formulary exists without drum-beating forming a special clause in it. At the paying of the hongo, or tribute, the drums beat the "satisfaction," e.g., at M'ganga (Speke's "Source of the Nile," p. 121) and at Uzinza (Ibid., 126), &c., &c. A performance with drums and drumsticks formed part of an old ceremony of swearing fealty at Karague (Ibid., 224). But 1 have neither looked much into this species of evidence, nor do I attach much value to it.

55 "[Greek]." Hymn to Mercury, 443.

56 "Calamis agrestibus insonat ille.
Barbaricoque Midanβ delenit carmiuc."—Met. XI, 162, seq.

57 I cannot find the passage in Herodotus, but my authority for the quotation is Dr. Burney, I, 261.

58 Bacchae, 125.

59 Burney, I, 194, 201, cf . 202.

60 Coleman's "Mythology of the Hindus," pp. 7, 15, pl. 12, fig. 2.

61 Scheffer's "History of Lapland," p. 58.

62 Linnaeus' "Tour in Lapland," II, 51.

63 Bates' "Amazons," II, 10.

64 Ibid., 376.

65 Von Troll's "Letters on Iceland" in Pinkerton, I, 652.

66 Kastlin's "Geschichte der Musik," I, ii. 2, Β§3; Becker's "Hausmusik in Deutschland," p. 18.

67 Reissmann's "Geschichte der Musik," II, 8; Becker, ibid.

68 Brendel's "Geschichte der Musik," 77.

69 Ibid.

70 The organ began its development in the Dark Ages, and reached its maturity about the beginning of the eighteenth century, since the middle of which it has rapidly decline. The harpsichord and virginal, in their very rudest form, cannot be put back earlier than the middle, or, at the utmost, the beginning of the sixteenth century Nothing was done on the harpsichord till the time of young Scarlatti and old Bach, that is, till the beginning of the eighteenth century. The piano, as is known, was not till later.