Sound on! From conch shells to bone flutes, humans have been making musical instruments for tens of thousands of years. What did prehistoric music sound like? Follow us on a journey to find the oldest musical instruments and combine them into one big orchestra of human history.
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BRIAN GUTIERREZ: So the first thing I want to do here, Amy, is just just play you something …
AMY BRIGGS: OK.
GUTIERREZ: … Out of the blue.
(Plays sound of “Au Clair de Lune”)
AMY BRIGGS: OK, so that is not Chewbacca, right?
BRIGGS: Just OK, let's clear that up right now.
GUTIERREZ: You like the oldies, right?
BRIGGS: Yeah, but not that old. Oldies—people think like 1950s and no way that is 1950s.
GUTIERREZ: Well, actually, it is from the ‘50s, just not the century you're thinking of.
BRIGGS: OK, what century?
GUTIERREZ: The 1850s.
BRIGGS: That's from the 1850s? OK, so this is—that's before Edison. Was that like one of those wax cylinder things?
GUTIERREZ: Edison was the inventor of the wax cylinder.
GUTIERREZ: And for a long time people thought, Oh, Edison is the guy who invented recorded sound …
BRIGGS: Wait wait wait wait. Is this one of those cases where Edison's taking credit for somebody else's invention? Or did someone else just get there before him and nobody knew about it?
GUTIERREZ: Someone got there before him, and nobody knew about it, including the guy who invented it.
BRIGGS: Wait. What did he think he was doing then?
GUTIERREZ: So 20 years before Edison invented the phonograph, there's this guy in France. His name is Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.
GUTIERREZ: He made a thing that he thought kind of looked like a human eardrum.
GUTIERREZ: To the middle of this eardrum he attached a boar's hair. And on the tip of that boar's hair, he attached a little bit of feather.
GUTIERREZ: And he used that feather to draw lines in soot, either on paper or on glass.
GUTIERREZ: … and it would scratch out what—what the vibrations were.
BRIGGS: Oh my god, it sounds like an EKG.
GUTIERREZ: Yeah, yeah. It looks a lot like an EKG. And his idea was that, you know, maybe this could be like the 1850s version of speech-to-text.
BRIGGS: Ah, OK.
GUTIERREZ: He was hoping that by making these squiggly lines, with enough training and if you, like, really studied it, you can look at those squiggles and read them like you would read shorthand. And so he wasn't really all that concerned that you could play it back, because you never had the intention of playing it back.
BRIGGS: OK, so how do we get from—how could I hear that recording? What was the next step?
GUTIERREZ: For 150 years, these things were just squiggles on sooty paper. You really can't play them back without doing some serious audio processing. It loops back on itself. You know, sometimes the stylus would flick off the page.
BRIGGS: Sheet music it is not.
GUTIERREZ: But there’s this team—a group of scientists and historians—they call themselves First Sounds, and they figured out how to turn that squiggle into something that could be played back.
And here is the first sound that has ever been recorded by humanity.
GUTIERREZ: So, Amy, that song was pretty old—it's from 1857.
But we can go much older than that.
BRIGGS: No, we can't. You said that was the first recorded sound.
GUTIERREZ: Amy, I'm on a quest. I'm on a quest.
BRIGG: Oh no ...
GUTIERREZ: … to find the oldest oldie. And I've spent the last couple of weeks talking to archaeologists, historians, musicians. I'm trying to find the oldest music humanity has ever made, from all over the world.
GUTIERREZ: And I have this kind of goofy dream where I want to take these sounds and combine them into one song. This sort of time-machine orchestra of human history. I think it could sound pretty cool, but it might also be a dumb idea. What do you think?
BRIGGS: Well, it's definitely not a dumb idea. No, but at the same time I’m like OK, but like, how do you start?
GUTIERREZ: Well, I guess we'll go into it now.
GUTIERREZ: But first, I kind of wanted to do the little introduction thing.
GUTIERREZ: I'm Brian Gutierrez.
BRIGGS: And I'm Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine. And this is Overheard.
GUTIERREZ: A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
BRIGGS: So let me get this straight. We're going to go back in time, all over the world. We're going to collect different musical instruments, put them together into one big, crazy song. Is that right?
GUTIERREZ: That's the plan.
BRIGGS: All right. I'm so curious to see if we do it.
GUTIERREZ: More after the break?
BRIGGS: More after the break. (Laughs.)
GUTIERREZ: OK, Amy, so our first stop on this wild musical history tour is ancient Greece.
GUTIERREZ: I had a chance to talk with somebody who specializes in recreating music from that era.
BRIGGS: Apollo, the god of music? Or somebody else?
GUTIERREZ: Actually, her name is Bettina Joy de Guzman.
BETTINA JOY DE GUZMAN: I am a researcher and academic historian, a teacher.
GUTIERREZ: The thing that I wanted to talk with Bettina about was this special artifact called the stone of Seikilos.
DE GUZMAN: That particular tombstone says, “I am a stone icon set here by Seikilos for the remembering of all time.” There's so many unknowns. And yet what we do have is it's the oldest complete piece of music with lyrics, and that's what's so fascinating about it.
BRIGGS: OK, so I have a question.
BRIGGS: How do we know it's a song and not a poem?
GUTIERREZ: Because it has music. Let me show you a picture of it.
GUTIERREZ: It doesn't look like sheet music, really.
BRIGGS: No, it looks nothing like sheet music, but I can see like the letters on it; I can see the ancient Greek. Not that I can read ancient Greek, but I could look at that and recognize it as text.
BRIGGS: But there are some funky little symbols sort of above and around the text.
GUTIERREZ: Right. Those are the notes that tell you what the next note in the melody is.
BRIGGS: Do you know if it was designed for any particular instrument?
GUTIERREZ: This is just the melody and the lyrics. But she had a replica lyre. It’s made out of a tortoiseshell.
DE GUZMAN: There's this fabulous fun story called the Hymn to Hermes—OK, disclaimer—that the new baby Hermes suddenly develops into this little boy, who is strong enough to see a tortoise and go, “Oh wow, look at you. You're very interesting.” And he kills it, cracks it open, and guts it, and then makes the very first lyre out of it.
GUTIERREZ: Bettina pulled out this tortoiseshell lyre—it wasn't a real tortoiseshell, it was a replica—and played the “Song of Seikilos.”
(de Guzman plays “Song of Seikilos”)
GUTIERREZ: Do you want to know what it means?
BRIGGS: Yes. Tell me what it means.
GUTIERREZ: Bettina translated it as:
DE GUZMAN: While you live, shine. Hoson zeis, phainou. Because basically life is short and time demands, and we don't have life for long, my friend. That's what it's saying.
BRIGGS: I love bits of history like that, that are less about like the great big people who did great big things.
BRIGGS: You know, this is about‚ you know, there's something very personal and touching about someone in ancient Greece—had the same concerns about living and dying and making good use of your life as we do now.
BRIGGS You know, that that's sort of eternal and common to, you know, all humans. I love those little bits. And actually hearing it sung, it just—it cuts right through.
GUTIERREZ: I felt that sense of connection to the past when I learned about this tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng.
BRIGGS: OK, who's that?
GUTIERREZ: He is one of the most significant archaeological finds of the last century.
BRIGGS: What's so significant about it?
GUTIERREZ: It's kind of like King Tut in that it is a tomb of somebody that nobody had ever heard of before, but obviously he was an important person because he was buried in this large, ornate tomb. It was set out like a palace would have been back in the day, with big rooms inside of it. And each of these things is full of, you know, 7,000 artifacts of what life was like in Bronze Age China. And one of the most important finds was that in that great hall where he would have in life entertained guests and held court was a full Bronze Age orchestra.
GUTIERREZ: It had flutes, it had drums, it had zithers, which is kind of like a string instrument. And there was this complete set of these 65 bronze bells.
BRIGGS: OK. Are we talking like big, giant, like Notre-Dame-sized bells? Or are we talking like jingle bells, hand bells? What do they look like?
GUTIERREZ: The full gamut. They were, as you know, almost as big as a human being all the way to handbell size. And instrument players would go up and they would hit them with mallets.
BRIGGS: OK, so like chimes?
GUTIERREZ: Exactly. But they're shaped kind of like regular bells, except instead of a circle, they're oval shaped. They were labeled really clearly: hit here for this tone, hit here for this sound. So you get two tones out of one bell.
BRIGGS: OK, so wait. You're an archaeologist ...
GUTIERREZ: In my dream world.
BRIGGS: … and you uncover an orchestra.
BRIGGS: But it's an artifact, and probably you can't. You have to treat it with care and gently. But like when do they test the instruments and play them and figure out what noises they make and under what conditions, because they're probably not doing it in the tomb, I would imagine.
GUTIERREZ: Occasionally, they're played just for scientific reasons, and then they try to record them. I found one set of bells that are not these particular bells, but they’re the same style of bell that are at the Smithsonian. The last time they played them was in 1991.
(Bells being played)
BRIGGS: The thing about those bells that's cool is the fact that you can get multiple tones out of them.
GUTIERREZ: Right, yeah. And it was actually pretty important for them to be able to play a lot of different kinds of sounds. Because music was really deeply ingrained in the political proceedings of the time. So they had to be really careful about getting it right. So we know exactly when the Marquis Yi’s tomb was buried—that was in 433 B.C. and around the same time on the other side of the world in pre-Incan Peru, there was this very different musical tradition that was underway.
That’s coming up after the break.
GUTIERREZ: Usually how we start is with a quick introduction. Could you say your name and what you do?
JOHN RICK: I'm John Rick, emeritus professor at Stanford University, and I'm an archaeologist by profession.
GUTIERREZ: John’s spent most of his career investigating this one site in Peru, Chavín.
RICK: Chavín is really a series of temples. They take the form of platform mounds, with a very strong but solid internal mass that is perforated by a series of tunnels we call galleries.
GUTIERREZ: You've been in some of these galleries. What was that like?
RICK: A really interesting environment. It's very quiet. On the other hand, when there is noise, it tends to get distorted in such a way that you can’t use normal echolocation.
GUTIERREZ: John explained that this disorienting effect of underground echoes might have been intentional.
RICK: Let's say you have a sound that's coming from 20 feet away. You might hear it as coming from four feet away, or you might hear it as coming from almost an infinite distance. And from what we can tell, at least it seems fairly probable that the people who built these underground spaces either were striving to achieve specific acoustic effects, or they were trying to get acoustic anomalies and uneasinesses that would be upsetting to people.
GUTIERREZ: In 2001 he had been asked by the Peruvian government to excavate one of the smaller chambers.
RICK: And we'd only been working a few days before we hit our first complete conch shell trumpet. And it—you know, we could pick it up once it was fully excavated and documented. And once we cleared the dirt from the sounding hole, we could blow it.
(Sound of conch shell)
So this was a stunning experience, and we went on to find another 19 complete shells and quite a number of broken-up shell trumpets.
BRIGGS: Wait, wait, wait. Back up. How did he know they were trumpets?
GUTIERREZ: Do you know what a conch is?
BRIGGS: Yes, I know what a conch is. It's a big shell.
GUTIERREZ: In order to convert the shell into an instrument you can play, you have to break off the spire in a very particular way. It could happen accidentally, but for it to happen 20 times in a row …
BRIGGS: Yeah, all of the conch shells that were in that chamber. Yeah, it's a little bit of a weird coincidence.
GUTIERREZ: And one thing that he and his colleagues have found out is that there are certain ducts that seem designed to amplify the sounds of these conch shell trumpets.
RICK: My colleague Miriam Kolar was able to demonstrate that one particular duct leading into the gallery was specifically designed to promote a number of frequencies. And it just turns out that the frequency range that she could document as being amplified by the duct corresponds to the central range of tone of the strombus trumpets.
GUTIERREZ: “Strombus” is just the scientific name for conch. The sounds of the conch you’re hearing now are part of a performance study recorded by archaeoacoustics Miriam Kolar and her colleagues on the shell trumpets that were found by John Rick and his team.
So, we've hit some pretty old instruments so far.
GUTIERREZ: But we can go a lot older than that.
GUTIERREZ: There is one instrument I want to share with you, and this comes from one of our explorers.
JAHAWI BERTOLLI: My name is Jahawi Bertolli. I am a wildlife cameraman, but I'm also a music producer.
He had been out in the Serengeti filming a documentary when he came across this ancient musical instrument.
BERTOLLI: We walked up to this outcrop, which has this incredible view of the savanna, and perched on top of the outcrop was this this other rock. And it was a bizarre sight because it's not like that rock eroded and ended up there. And a colleague of mine, he was telling me that this is a rock gong.
BRIGGS: A rock gong?
GUTIERREZ: Yeah, exactly. There are these stones that have certain wear patterns that show that people have been hitting them over and over again. And archaeologists think they were used as percussion instruments.
BERTOLLI (in the field): And so we’re just trying to find a place with as little wind as possible …
BERTOLLI: When you think you're going to hit a rock against a rock, you expect just to get that kind of like tapping. But then to tap against this thing and hear this incredible tone that came out of it—it almost sounded like the rock was almost hollow or resonant.
BERTOLLI (in the field): So here we are at a rock ...
(Sound of rock gong)
… Wow. Amazing sound.
BRIGGS: Two questions.
BRIGGS: How big are they? And like, were they—do they think that they were there naturally or that people moved them there?
GUTIERREZ: They think they were moved, and they're massive. They are, you know, they're boulders.
BRIGGS: I don't know they're boulders. You're telling me the story.
GUTIERREZ: They look to be about maybe three or four feet in diameter.
BRIGGS: And I would guess, you know, more than a ton, maybe two tons.
BERTOLLI: One of the most fascinating things was the fact that the tribe that live in this area—the Hadza they’re one of the last true hunter-gatherer tribes left in the world. However, they didn't play the rock gongs. For them, these were played by the people who inhabited this valley before them. And I mean, it's estimated that the Hadza could have been, you know, in that area for 40 to 50,000 years. So I mean, just hearing that—that these could have been played that long ago was just, I mean, it was mind-blowing.
GUTIERREZ: So there is an oral tradition that says they might be very old, but we really can't tell.
BRIGGS: Wow. So tens of thousands of years old. How many tens of thousands, we don't know. But centuries are a rounding error at this point.
GUTIERREZ: Right. And you know, these aren't the only examples of rock gongs. It's a fairly frequent occurrence. In the tomb of the Marquis Yi, there were rock chimes that were obviously rocks that were designed to be hit with mallets.
GUTIERREZ: There's one last instrument, and this is the oldest man-made instrument that we know of so far. Kind of like the conch, kind of like the rock gong, something that’s sort of naturally found in nature.
BRIGGS: Naturally found in nature.
GUTIERREZ: It is natural. Maybe that's a more concise way of saying it.
BRIGGS: OK, so it's sort of a ready-made instrument, and it's not like a pan flute.
GUTIERREZ: It also has to be something that would last a long time. So like a pan flute—they may well have had them—but they're organic. And so they…
BRIGGS: All right. Give me a hint.
BRIGGS: Flute’s not a hint! So I was right. It's a wind instrument.
GUTIERREZ: Yeah. Wind instrument.
BRIGGS: Right. But what's it made of, Brian? If it's not made of something, if it's not made of like wood or reeds? What's it made out of?
BRIGGS: Oh. Ew. Animal bone or people bone?
GUTIERREZ: Well in Chavín they have found people flutes, but the oldest flute that we have is made from a vulture bone.
BRIGGS: Oh, that's right. Yeah, because bird bones are hollow.
GUTIERREZ: Bird bones are naturally hollow.
BRIGGS: OK, so where is the vulture bone from?
GUTIERREZ: This bone was actually found in a cave in southern Germany. The cave was called Hohle Fels and archaeologists think that it is 40,000 years old.
BRIGGS: Oh geez.
GUTIERREZ: That is, you know, before agriculture. This is like when Neanderthals are alive. This is when woolly mammoths are alive. They're not entirely sure how it was played. But a few people have tried to make recreations of it. And I talked to a flautist who—her name is Anna Potengowski—and she has tried to recreate what it might have sounded like.
BRIGGS: OK, so what does it sound like?
BRIGGS: When the flautist starts doing that trilling thing, I was like, Oh OK.
BRIGGS: You actually make something that sounds like modern music. So like OK, we’ve got all these instruments; what are we going to do with them?
GUTIERREZ: So I got these five instruments: flute, conch, rock gong, bells, lyre. And I've gone out—through the magic of modern audio digital music production—put them together into one big song.
GUTIERREZ: Do you mind if I give you a quick tour before we get into it?
BRIGGS: OK. What did you learn when you tried to compose a song for these five instruments from across time?
GUTIERREZ: Well, one thing that really captured my imagination was that for most of these instruments, we really have no idea how they were played.
BRIGGS: Wait wait wait. What's the other way you play a conch shell then?
GUTIERREZ: Maybe, for example, instead of just playing it like a trumpet, one of the archaeologists thought that they might have tried to use it to replicate the roar of a jaguar.
BRIGGS: Wow, so that was through a conch shell? That rawr noise?
GUTIERREZ: Yeah, by shouting into the shell, you could create all kinds of strange and eerie noises. We, as Americans, are really used to this Western tradition of music. And for this episode, I was trying to get away from that as much as I could. I wanted it to sound a little bit like it could have come from a different culture. And so one of the ideas that I had was to work a little bit with polyrhythms.
BRIGGS: So explain what polyrhythms are.
GUTIERREZ: A polyrhythm is when you have two or more different rhythms happening at the same time. But they mesh together in an interesting way.
So I found a really simple polyrhythm that I tried to incorporate with the rock gong. You'll hear that one rhythm is going as half notes and the other rhythm is going as triplets. Another idea I got was from one of the archaeoacousticians who worked with the conch shells. She told me that when you play more than one conch shell together, it creates this strange beating effect.
BRIGGS: Like a pulsating between the notes?
GUTIERREZ: Yeah, exactly. When you have two sounds that are kind of close to each other, but they aren't exactly the same, then they will create this—yeah, pulsing, almost. So let me show you what just one of these conch shells sounds like on its own.
BRIGGS: OK. Very low, very resonant.
GUTIERREZ: Yeah, well, I pitched it down a little bit, but when you play two of them together, you'll hear that beating effect.
BRIGGS: Oh, yeah, right in the middle where the two tones meet, you can hear it. It's almost like it's shaking.
GUTIERREZ: So putting all these sounds together, here's the song.
GUTIERREZ: Thank you.
BRIGGS: Brian, that's amazing.
GUTIERREZ: Thanks. I'm glad you think so. My hope is that people listen to this and maybe feel a little bit of that sense of like, there were people just like you and me, and imagining that I think was really enlightening for me.
BRIGGS: It's a fantastic way to connect to the people of the past, especially people who, you know, because they don't have written records, it can be hard to know them. But the fact that they share the same desire to be heard and create atmosphere and experience, I mean, that's tremendous. And it's a great way to connect people to who came before.
GUTIERREZ: This episode was just the tip of the rock gong. If you still have some curiosity in the tank, we’ve provided a few rabbit holes for you in the form of links to National Geographic articles.
For example, how overfishing is threatening conches in the Bahamas and the story of how a cave bear bone flute made by Neanderthals might actually be a cave bear bone chewed by hyenas.
You can find those links in our show notes.
We’ve also included links and more information about each of the instruments featured in this episode.
Plus, don’t miss Welcome to Earth—a Disney+ original series from National Geographic, where Will Smith is led on an epic adventure around the world to explore Earth’s greatest wonders. All six episodes stream December 8th, only on Disney+.
All this and more can be found in our show notes, they’re right there in your podcast app.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Marcy Thompson, and Ilana Strauss.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our senior producer is Carla Wills
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
Ted Woods sound-designed this episode and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
Special thanks to the many people who shared sounds for this episode, including
First Sounds, Bettina Joy de Guzman, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, John Rick, Miriam Kolar, Jahawi Bertolli, and Anna Potengowski.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Jahawi Bertolli.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I'm Brian Gutierrez. Thanks for listening, and see you all next time.
A conch is more than just a musical instrument. A mollusk lives in that shell, and it’s a staple food in the Bahamas—so much so that overfishing is threatening their existence, but a few simple solutions may solve the problem.
The oldest musical instrument was once thought to be a cave bear bone flute made by Neanderthals, but recent evidence suggests that the holes were made by animals rather than tools.
More information about each instrument:
The organization First Sounds found and brought to life the recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. For more information about that project, please visit www.firstsounds.org.
Bettina Joy de Guzman travels the world, composing and performing music on ancient instruments. You can read more about her work on her website: www.bettinajoydeguzman.com
More information about the bells of Bronze Age China can be found at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art. A virtual version of their collection can be viewed here: https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/resound-ancient-bells-of-china/
(Credit: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.4-9)
The conch shell sounds you heard were research recordings of the approximately 3,000-year-old Titanostrombus galeatus conch shell horn—excavated in 2018 by John Rick and team from the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site Chavín de Huántar, in Perú—from a 2019 acoustics and performance study by Miriam Kolar, Riemann Ramírez Rodríguez, Ricardo Guerrero de Luna Rueda, Obert Silva Espinoza, and Ronald San Miguel Fernández. Recordings were made at the Centro Internacional de Investigación, Conservación y Restauración de Chavín (CIICR) in the Museo Nacional Chavín as research conducted within the Programa de Investigación Arqueológica y Conservación Chavín de Huántar (PIACCdH). Site music archaeology and archaeoacoustics research information can be found on the Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics project website: https://ccrma.stanford.edu/groups/chavin/pututus.html.
National Geographic Explorer Jahawi Bertolli is collecting the sounds of rock gongs from all over the African continent. More information about his rock project can be found here: www.jahawi.com/first-rock
Flutist Anna Potengowski specializes in recreating the sounds of ancient flutes. You can hear more of her work here: open.spotify.com/artist/4a9uIQ2g8A5BIDN1VExUZq