Hear a 9,000 Year Old Flute—the World’s Oldest Playable Instrument—Get Played Again

Clas­si­cal music enthu­si­asts seem to agree that the renew­al of inter­est in peri­od instru­ments made for a notice­able change in the sound of most, if not all, orches­tral per­for­mances. But does­n’t the repli­ca­tion and use of vio­ls, oph­i­clei­des, and fortepi­anos from the times of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart raise a curios­i­ty about what peo­ple used to make music gen­er­a­tions before them, and gen­er­a­tions before that? How ear­ly can we get into ear­ly music and still find tools to use in the 21st cen­tu­ry? Since the end of the 20th, we’ve had the same answer: about nine mil­len­nia.

“Chi­nese arche­ol­o­gists have unearthed what is believed to be the old­est known playable musi­cal instru­ment,” wrote Hen­ry Foun­tain in a 1999 New York Times arti­cle on the dis­cov­ery of “a sev­en-holed flute fash­ioned 9,000 years ago from the hol­low wing bone of a large bird.”

Those holes “pro­duced a rough scale cov­er­ing a mod­ern octave, begin­ning close to the sec­ond A above mid­dle C,” and the fact of this “care­ful­ly select­ed tone scale indi­cates that the Neolith­ic musi­cians may have been able to play more than sin­gle notes, but actu­al music.”

You can hear the haunt­ing sounds of this old­est playable musi­cal instru­ment known to man in the clip above. When would those pre­his­toric humans have heard it them­selves? Foun­tain quotes eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Fred­er­ick Lau as say­ing that these flutes “almost cer­tain­ly were used in rit­u­als,” per­haps “at tem­ple fairs, buri­als and oth­er rit­u­al­is­tic events,” and pos­si­bly even for “for per­son­al enter­tain­ment.” 9,000 years ago, one sure­ly took one’s enter­tain­ment where one could find it.

If this lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence has giv­en you a taste for the real oldies — not just the AM-radio but the his­to­ry-of-mankind sense — you can also hear in our archive the 43,000-year-old “Nean­derthal flute” (found only in frag­ments, but recon­struct­ed) as well as such ancient songs as 100 BC’s “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” a com­po­si­tion by Euripi­des from a cen­tu­ry before that, and a 3,400-year-old Sumer­ian hymn known as the old­est song in the world, all of which rais­es an impor­tant ques­tion: what will the peo­ple of the year 11000 think when they unearth our DJ rigs, those arti­facts of so many of our own rit­u­al­is­tic events, and give them a spin?

You can get more infor­ma­tion on this ancient flute here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Hear the World’s Old­est Sur­viv­ing Writ­ten Song (200 BC), Orig­i­nal­ly Com­posed by Euripi­des, the Ancient Greek Play­wright

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Adrian a Firpo Vives says:

    I would líke to receive That old­est flute músic.

  • Is ver y beau­ti­ful músic.

  • Jay says:

    Very inter­est­ing.

    Thought it was impor­tant to note, that, while this may be the old­est known PLAYABLE instru­ment, it is far from the old­est instru­ment ever dis­cov­ered.

    This arti­cle from BBC.com, writ­ten May 25th, 2012, describes instru­ments found in cave in south­ern Ger­many which have car­bon dat­ed to be about 42,000–43,000 years old.

    Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-18196349

    Anoth­er arti­cle, describes what was pre­vi­ous­ly thought to be the old­est known instru­ment, found near­by in a south­west­ern Ger­man cave and dat­ed to 39,000 years old.

    Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8117915.stm

  • Jenny says:

    ‘and pos­si­bly even for for per­son­al enter­tain­ment.’

    “Pos­si­bly even…”??? Seri­ous­ly? You have nev­er lived in small rur­al com­mu­ni­ties? Think of how the fid­dle, bohdran, harp and flute are used just in Ire­land… AT THE PUB!! Or for that mat­ter the draw­ing room pianoforte, where peo­ple would enter­tain one anoth­er with music and song of an ordi­nary social evening.

    Humans are social ani­mals ans we require social gath­er­ings where, using cul­ture, we bond in friend­ship, heal rifts and find friends and lovers.

    How many “rit­u­als” and “buri­als” did you attend this month? Com­pare this to
    How many social engage­ments that includ­ed “per­son­al enter­tain­ment”?

    Tomor­row I go to a rou­tine rur­al off-grid social gath­er­ing of my “tribe” where there will be shared food and a small open mic after din­ner to enter­tain each oth­er . Why would this have been any dif­fer­ent for humans 45,000 years ago?

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