Introduction | World of Music | Classical

In order to put Western classical music into a global and historical context, one must survey the music of ancient civilizations as well as the traditions of the non-Western world.

From what is known of this music it was – and is – performed in a vast range of cultural environments and with many functions other than for entertainment in a concert hall. Music is a vital element in ritual, worship, celebration, in coping with life’s crises, work and warfare.

Archeological findings suggest that humans have made music from earliest times and that music, dance and ritual were inseparable in many prehistoric cultures. Excavations have unearthed many sound-producing artefacts and rock paintings depicting primitive instruments. The great civilizations of China, India, Mesopotamia and Egypt elaborated the role music played in prehistoric times. Although very little is known about how this ancient music actually sounded, archeologists have found clues as to the circumstances and meaning of this music-making. Depictions of an arched harp have been found in Sumeria and the Indus Valley, suggesting a historical link between two of the world’s oldest civilizations. Images in ancient Egyptian tombs tell of supposed music in the afterlife. In other parts of the world, information comes from more recent records, such as those of the sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors of the New World, or James Cook’s eighteenth-century accounts of his explorations in the Pacific. The discovery and study of these artefacts has increased our understanding of the meaning and role of music in the ancient world.

Most musical compositions and theories about music have been preserved over the generations in oral tradition. The great musical traditions of Africa, and those of indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia, have been sustained through word of mouth alone. In other ancient civilizations – India, China, Persia, Arabia – complex written treatises have amplified and elucidated music that was relayed from teacher to student. Such is the case for Western classical music, which relies on both oral and written tradition.

References to music in writings, such as the Vedas in India and the works attributed to Confucius in China, set out the role of music in life and religion, in the state and in entertainment. The Natyasastra (‘Treatise on Drama’, probably second century ad), an early Indian treatise, explains the theory, functions and meaning of music and the arts, and also serves as a production manual for plays and dances. In China and Greece, independent yet comparable systems were devised to divide the octave into 12 intervals. The Chinese used the cutting and blowing of pipes, whereas Pythagoras in Greece made his calculations by sub-dividing the lengths of a string. Musical notation has been most thoroughly developed in the West, although other cultures use tablature, cipher notation and other rudimentary systems. The instruments found in Western classical music have kindred types in many other cultures, whereas in the West they are classified according to the material from which they are made and the way in which they...

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