Ancient Chinese flute

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.”


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