Musical notation is a unique, versatile language which can capture the versatility and magic of nearly every instrument it is possible to play.
Whilst modern notation systems date back to 11th Century Catholic monasteries and this forms the basis of modern music score printing, the history of humankind writing down songs dates back thousands of years further.
Exactly how far back has yet to be discovered, but the first complete piece of sheet music dates back over 2500 years, to Ancient Greece.
When Man Discovered Music
Whilst it is most likely that any remains of the first-ever musician and musical instrument have long since decayed out of existence, the first known musical instruments were two flutes made over 42,000 years ago, out of bird bone and mammoth ivory.
At this point, we were a mere 35,000 years away from the first written languages, so for those intervening years music was passed along through an oral tradition of sharing ideas and copying from others. Unfortunately, this means any music before the invention of writing is lost to history.
Hymn To Nikkal
The first known form of musical notation is a stone tablet found in Ugarit, an ancient city in the north of Syria, dating back to around 1400BC.
The song itself, theHurrian Hymn to Nikkal(Goddess of Orchards), is the earliest known musical score in the history of any significant size. Another 35 hymns were found in the same cuneiform writing but theHymn to Nikkalwas the only one that survives relatively complete.
The way in which the notation system worked was that one tablet showed how to tune a Babylonian lyre, another referred to musical intervals, and the notation stone itself had both the lyrics and instruction for a singer and a nine-stringed lyre.
Interestingly, it was committed to stone at a time when Hurrian as a language was dying out, so it appears it was trying to preserve not only a divine song but a language which was precious to the hearts of people in the region, which should be kept for future generations.
The oldest complete song, with lyrics and notation to be found, was inscribed on a tombstone in Turkey and dates back to some time between the 2nd Century BC and 2nd Century AD (most likely the latter).
The song, theSeikilos Epitaph, is a short composition, with most modern performances lasting around 42 seconds. However, it is complete, and surprisingly complex, with sections for both a harp and a recorder or flute-like instrument.
The notation appears above the lyrics, which talk about the briefness of life and the importance to shine and not to grieve, as well as a dedication by Seikilos to his wife (or perhaps the Muse of Music) Euterpe.
Interestingly Seikilos’ Epitaph has appeared in several other locations, most notably the computer gamesCivilisation Vand aGreekMythology Editionof Minecraft, both greatly expanding the original short melody into full-length musical tracks.
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Hymn To Nikkal
The first known form of musical notation is a stone tablet found in Ugarit, an ancient city in the north of Syria, dating back to around 1400BC. The song itself, the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal (Goddess of Orchards), is the earliest known musical score in the history of any significant size.
“Hurrian Hymn No. 6” is considered the world's earliest melody, but the oldest musical composition to have survived in its entirety is a first century A.D. Greek tune known as the “Seikilos Epitaph.” The song was found engraved on an ancient marble column used to mark a woman's gravesite in Turkey.Where is the first piece of music? ›
The oldest surviving written music is the Hurrian songs from Ugarit, Syria.When was sheet music first printed? ›
The first printed sheet music made with a printing press was made in 1473. Sheet music is the basic form in which Western classical music is notated so that it can be learned and performed by solo singers or instrumentalists or musical ensembles.Who invented the first sheet music? ›
The founder of what is now considered the standard music staff was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from about 991 until after 1033.Who first wrote sheet music? ›
In 650 AD, St Isidore developed a new system of writing music, using a notation called 'neumes'. Vocal chants (the popular music of the time) would be written on parchment with the text, above which neumes would be notated, indicating the contour of the melody.What was the 1st song ever recorded? ›
1888: 'The Lost Chord'
This is the earliest recording of music known to exist. In 1888 a recording of Arthur Sullivan's song 'The Lost Chord' was etched onto a phonograph cylinder. Sullivan was astounded at this new technology, but had his reservations too.
The melody, known as “Hurrian Hymn no. 6,” is thought to be from around the 14th century B.C.E. To give you an idea of just how old it is, it predates the use of the Gregorian Calendar (the system we actually still use today).What is an original piece of music called? ›
Musical composition can refer to an original piece or work of music, either vocal or instrumental, the structure of a musical piece or to the process of creating or writing a new piece of music. People who create new compositions are called composers.When did music start music? ›
Making music is a universal human trait that goes back to at least 35,000 years ago. Explore the evidence for some of the world's earliest musical instruments.
The first known printed book meant to include music is the Psalterium, printed by Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, Gutenberg's associates, at Mainz, in 1457. Only the text and three black lines of the staff were printed; the fourth line was drawn by hand in red, and the notes were also written in manually.What is the oldest piano sheet? ›
The earliest music definitely written and published specifically for the piano were twelve Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti (Florence, 1732) by Lodovico Giustini (1685–1743), dedicated to Don Antonio of Portugal, uncle of Maria Barbara and another student of Scarlatti.What is the oldest surviving sheet music? ›
The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world.What musician couldn t read sheet music? ›
One of the most famous film composers in music history, Hans Zimmer cannot read conventional music notation. He started out playing piano for bands before becoming a jingle writer, which is where he credits the development of his compositional skills.What was the best selling sheet music? ›
|Year||Composer / Lyricist||Title|
|1942||Irving Berlin||"White Christmas"|
|1900||Harry Von Tilzer Arthur J. Lamb||"A Bird in a Gilded Cage"|
|1911||Irving Berlin||"Alexander's Ragtime Band"|
|1917||George M. Cohan||"Over There"|
The oldest object that some scholars refer to as a musical instrument, a simple flute, dates back as far as 50,000–60,000 years. Some consensus dates early flutes to about 40,000 years ago.Who started music? ›
The short answer is: No one knows who invented music. No historical evidence exists to tell us exactly who sang the first song, or whistled the first tune, or made the first rhythmic sounds that resembled what we know today as music. But researchers do know it happened thousands of years ago.What is the most popular song ever? ›
According to Guinness World Records, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (1942) as performed by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single worldwide, with estimated sales of over 50 million copies.Who had the first number one song? ›
Al Martino's "Here In My Heart" was the track to Top the first ever chart (Nov 1952) so, technically, this was the first track to debut at Number 1. But ignoring this, the first artist to enter at Number 1 in the established chart was Elvis Presley ("Jailhouse Rock", Jan 1958).Who is the first best singer in the world? ›
The first major pop stars as such were the crooners of the 1930s and '40s. Bing Crosby sold millions of records, as did Frank Sinatra (arguably the first modern pop star, with screaming teenage female fans - the bobbysoxers), and in Britain, Al Bowly.Who is the most famous singer in the world? ›
Abel Tesfaye, more commonly known as The Weeknd, is statistically the most popular musician on the planet, and no one else even comes close. The 33-year-old Canadian singer's success has seen him set two new Guinness World Records titles: Most monthly listeners on Spotify – 111.4 million (as of 20 March 2023)What is the oldest music genre? ›
Perhaps this is because classical music is the oldest musical genre and thought to be a treasure trove of masterpieces that has been 500 years in the making.What is the oldest piano sheet music? ›
The earliest music definitely written and published specifically for the piano were twelve Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti (Florence, 1732) by Lodovico Giustini (1685–1743), dedicated to Don Antonio of Portugal, uncle of Maria Barbara and another student of Scarlatti.Did the Beatles learn sheet music? ›
“None of us could read music… None of us can write it.” John Lennon admitted this about the band in a 1980 Playboy interview, “but as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they [Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr] are as good as anybody.”
One of the greatest Jazz Pianists and composers of all time, Dave Brubeck, couldn't read music.What is a good first song to play on piano? ›
Bach's Prelude in C Major is one of the best easy piano songs to learn when you want to start playing some classical music on the piano.What is the longest solo piano piece? ›
The longest known piano piece is Erik Satie's Vexations, if we we overlook the requirement for a piece of music to be “non-repetitive”. Though undated, scholars predict the piece to be dated to around 1893-1894.Did Paul McCartney know sheet music? ›
The former Beatle and prolific songwriter, Paul McCartney is yet another legendary musician that does not read sheet music. What is this? Describing it like 'dots on a page,' he said the other Beatles couldn't read it either. They came up with the sounds together and didn't feel the need to write them down.Who is the famous guitarist that can't read music? ›
Eric Clapton is famed for his guitar skills, but he mentioned in his autobiography that he was nervous to perform with the late Aretha Franklin because everyone was looking at sheet music and he didn't know how to read it.
While he couldn't read or write music and had no formal lessons, he was a natural musician and played everything by ear. He could often hear a song, pick up an instrument, and play. He often played an instrument in his recordings, and always produced his own music.