Music has been a part of human culture since time immemorial. The first musicians developed instruments that evolved substantially over time. Some instruments, however, stood the test of time and continue to be used in various forms today.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 19 of the oldest instruments in the world, with histories dating back to ancient civilizations and cultures.
These instruments offer a glimpse into the rich musical traditions of the past and the enduring power of music to bring people together. Let’s get started.
1. The Neanderthal Flute
Up first on our list of very old musical instruments is the Neanderthal Flute. But this isn’t the modern concert flute we recognize today. It’s The Neanderthal Flute that was discovered in 1995 in a cave in Slovenia.
It’s thought to be around 60,000 years old. It’s literally the oldest instrument in the world! It is made from the bone of a cave bear and has four tone holes which would have been used to change the pitch of the notes.
Its discovery led to a debate between scientists and archaeologists. They argued over the musical abilities of Neanderthals and their level of cultural development.
Some believe that the flute is evidence of a sophisticated culture and the ability to create and appreciate music. Others argue that it could have been used for non-musical purposes, such as signaling or communication.
Despite the debate, the Neanderthal Flute is a fascinating piece of history. It gives us a glimpse into the past and the cultural practices of our ancient ancestors. It is a testament to music’s enduring power and its role in human culture for thousands of years.
Up next is the Bullroarer, an ancient musical instrument that dates back to 18,000 BC. It can be found all over the globe. It’s usually a flat plank of wood in an elliptical shape with a long string attached to it. The wood ranges in size from four to 14 inches, some even as long as 28 inches.
To use a bullroarer, a person holds the string and whirls the plank of wood. The movement makes a low-frequency sound that travels very far. The movement also produces a distinctive loud vibrato tone with audible sound variations.
There are many recorded uses for this instrument. It was a part of ritual practices, including initiations and burials. In some cultures, the sound was associated with a supernatural being or the natural world such as thunder.
In other times, a bullroarer served to scare away or herd animals. Sometimes it was used as a plaything. But in many traditions, the bullroarer was the perfect instrument to communicate across long distances.
3. Jiahu Gǔdí
Our next instrument is one that can be traced back to roughly 6000 BCE in China. This makes the Jiahu Gǔdí the oldest musical instrument from this country.
To give you a little bit of context, the burial grounds of Jiahu in the Henan Province of central China contained artistic remains, including bone flutes. Six complete bone flutes and fragments of 30 more were discovered.
The Jiahu Gǔdí are constructed from the bones of the red-crowned crane. The flute has a V-shaped mouthpiece and five to eight holes, which produce different sounds.
Hunters used the oldest bone flutes to imitate a bird’s sound. Apparently, the sound lured the crane to a hunter. Later on, people played music using the Jiahu Gǔdí to commemorate a good hunt. The other uses of the instruments included being a vital part of rituals and ceremonies.
4. Tutankhamun’s Trumpets
Another very old instrument is Tutankhamun’s trumpets which were discovered in Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. They originated around 5000 BC.
Archaeologist Howard Carter was credited with having discovered the trumpets in 1922. One trumpet was about 19 inches in length and made of bronze. The other was silver and 22.5 inches long.
The trumpet could create three notes. The highest note was thought to be the most difficult to play, seeing as the trumpet’s structure was not durable enough to tolerate it.
It wasn’t clear as to what the trumpets were used for exactly. But experts believed that they were used as a military call instrument. Another usage of the trumpets was to make sure the workers weren’t slacking off.
Another Chinese instrument makes an appearance on our list. The Xun was a famous instrument in ancient China. The one discovered in Zhejiang was 7000 years old and is considered the oldest Xun artifact. Other Xun instruments were also discovered in other places, such as Henan.
Xun is an egg-shaped clay sculpture with no more than ten holes on the exterior. Think of it as a dragon egg. Surprisingly, the Xun originated from stone or mud balls used for hunting practices. Later on, people learned to blow air into them, and they became the Xun we know today.
To use the Xun, hold it in both hands. Then, position your bottom lip against the edge of the blowing slot. Blow softly directly into the blowhole with your fingers covering the holes based on the note you want to make. The sound it makes is similar to that made by an ocarina, another wind instrument.
Aside from hunting, the Xun was also used in temple ceremonies in later years. It was the perfect instrument to play heartbreaking tones or solemn palace music.
If it’s called a prehistoric instrument, then you know it’s really old. The Lithophone, also known as the “rock gong,” is a percussion instrument made up of rocks. It’s believed to have been invented between 8000 and 2500 BC.
The oldest lithophone was discovered in Vietnam in 1949, consisting of 11 slabs of stones. Lithophones were also found in other regions of the world, including Africa and South America, basically in places where prehistoric people lived.
Marble, fossilized coral, petrified wood, and jade are among the materials used to build the instrument.
When Lithophone was first discovered, people thought it was used for other purposes than music, such as graining. But upon closer examination, it became clear that people used it as an instrument.
The Lithophone can be compared to other percussion instruments such as the xylophone and marimba.
7. Lyres Of Ur
Four lyres were discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, which was once part of ancient Mesopotamia. As they are over 4,500 years old, the Lyres of Ur are the oldest stringed instruments.
Each lyre had an animal head on the front of the sound box to identify its pitch. All of these are box lyres, meaning they have a boxlike body.
The performer plays by having both hands pluck the strings in an upright stance. Each lyre has 11 strings to play on, culminating in a buzzing sound that recurs throughout the song.
The lyres are thought to have been used in burial rituals to perform songs. This is based on how they were discovered, as they were found buried with the bodies of ten women.
Our next entry is an ancient Greek wind instrument. The Auloi were invented around 2450 BC. The Auloi have two separate pipes, each double-reed, and played at the same time. That is why some would call them a double flute. Later, people would perform using only one pipe.
The early Auloi were made from wood or bone. Later on, other materials were used, such as cane, hardwood, and steel. Note that the Greeks used double reeds made of cane, which were fixed in the pipes by spherical slots.
The Auloi have three or four finger holes, and the sound is similar to bagpipes. They were primarily used for martial music since the sound of a double reed could reach distances.
Other uses include different settings, such as birth and death ceremonies and dramas. They were also used for sports competitions. In particular, wrestling matches and discus throwing.
9. Bow Harp
The Bow harp, also known as benet, is a type of harp that originated in ancient Egypt. Throughout pharaonic history, it was one of the most popular musical instruments. Bow harps were said to originate in the 1st dynasty, making them a very old instrument.
Harps were already in existence around 2500 BC. By then, they were the kind of harp consisting of a shovel-shaped resonance box and curving neck. When the five strings were plucked, the sound box would resonate.
The bow hard was also used by other cultures, such as the Ennanga in Uganda and Mesopotamian civilizations. The harp was lost in other civilizations, but it remained in Egypt. In the olden days, players play a bow harp solo or in ensembles. In some cases, it accompanies men’s singing.
Up next is the Shofar, a Jewish instrument traditionally made from the ram’s horn. The shapes and sizes differ depending on the animal and construction.
The Shofar is blown like a trumpet. Notably, it has no pitch-altering mechanisms. The pitch control is done by modulating the player’s breath control using the lips, tongue, and teeth.
In Biblical times, the earliest reference to Shofar was in Exodus 19, when Israelites heard its sound from Mount Sinai. In Numbers 29:1, the Shofar was used as a call to war and to signal freedom. In other places, it was to gather people or call for repentance.
In modern times, this is still practiced during inaugurations. In fact, the use of Shofar is embraced by Christians as well. They use it to mark celebrations and announce events.
Another wind instrument that deserves a place on our list is the Didgeridoo. The aboriginal people of northern Australia used the first Didgeridoos about 40,000 years ago.
Typically, a Didgeridoo is made from hollow wood. The ones that the aboriginal people of Australia used were made from eucalyptus branches that termites hollowed out. The modern ones are usually made from bamboo, agave, and eucalyptus.
Notably, the Didgeridoo is a pitched instrument and a percussion instrument. To play, the performer constantly vibrates the lips to generate a constant buzz. He has to use a particular breathing method known as circular breathing. This is used to sustain continual exhalation.
Traditionally, the didgeridoo was used in cultural ceremonies. It was also used for solos or recreational purposes. In modern times, didgeridoos are used in beatboxing, dance music, and meditation.
Yet another percussion instrument on our list is the Daf, a frame drum from the Middle East. As it dates more than 3000 years, it’s one of the oldest musical instruments.
The Daf is similar to a tambourine but is much larger, about 13-21 inches in diameter. It consists of a drum head made of animal skin or plastic, a wooden rim, and chains. Animal hide was used to make the original Daf.
The Daf is normally held in the left hand of the player. He then begins banging on the drum head with the five fingers of his right hand. The four fingers of his left hand will be gripping the instrument.
This instrument was common in folk music. It became an integral part of Persian music, used for spiritual chanting. In Afghanistan, women used it to accompany singing and dancing. Men use it to add a slight vibrato by waving it in front of their mouths. In addition, the Daf was used in wedding processions.
Up next is Mbira, or thumb piano, which originated in Zimbabwe. It appeared along the Zambezi River (the present Zimbabwe and Malawi) about 1,300 years ago.
The Mbira has metal strips, or “keys,” on a wooden board, mostly with a resonator. The keys have differing lengths, but the longer ones are in the middle. The length tells the key’s pitch. This means that the long keys have a lower pitch, and the shorter keys have a higher pitch.
To play, one holds the resonator with his fingers and then uses his thumbs to manipulate the keys. The sound created is pleasant and calming. The player can create a variety of sounds by pressing the keys at the same time or alternating.
The Mbira was used for spiritual activities as well as ritualistic occasions. We’re talking about marriages, burials, and honoring prominent individuals. Some used it to summon spirits and receive their guidance.
Our next ancient instrument is one that dates back thousands of years. The Veena is an Indian instrument used for Carnatic and Hindustani music.
The Veena has a long neck, a pear-shaped body, and a downward-curving tuning mechanism. It consists of seven strings stretched over 24 fixed frets. Four of these strings are melodic. The remaining three are drone strings.
It measures 3.5 to four feet in length, with a hollow body and two resonating gourds, one on each end. The instrument is played cross-legged, with the Veena to the player’s right, in a manner similar to the sitar.
The Veena is a sacred and important instrument in classical Carnatic music. In the same way, it is a vital part of Indian classical music. In fact, Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, is shown in illustrations to play the Veena.
15. Water Organ
Up next on the list is the Water organ. This water-powered instrument originated in ancient Greece during the 3rd century BC. First called the hydraulis, It’s thought to be the first keyboard instrument ever made.
The Water organ uses a method to manage airflow derived from the flowing of water. An alternative that can be used is deploying air storage within a water source. This is to sustain airflow in conjunction with water pressure. Water from a natural source, such as waterfalls, can also be used as a power source.
The organ is activated by turning on the tap above the entry pipe. If there’s a constant flow of water, the organ will operate until the faucet is shut. The player then operates keys that allow air into the pipes.
Apparently, Water organs were used to imitate birdsong and create the sounds of the Colossi of Memnon. The latter refers to the two huge stone structures of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. In some cases, the instrument was used to imitate other musical instruments.
16. Sámi Drum
The first mention of our next instrument, the Sámi drum, was in a short history of Norway in the late 12th century. These drums are used by the Sámi people of Northern Europe for shamanic rituals.
The drum is an oval wooden frame or bowl with wood as a base and reindeer skin coverings for the face. Each drum has its own identity and soul, which matches the shaman’s character. The Sámi shaman would then draw their personal unique map of the spirit realm on the drumhead.
To play the instrument, the player grips the drum with one hand and pounds on it with the other. The drum is sometimes played with a drum hammer.
In many cultures and places, drums are a big part of celebrations and rituals. The same can be said with Sámi drums. Shamans use them to induce meditation or acquire knowledge from the future or other realms.
Our next oldest instrument, the Koto, came from the Chinese guzheng, which was introduced to Japan in the early Nara period (8th century). Minor changes were made before the guzheng became the Koto. It’s recognized to be Japan’s national instrument.
The Koto is a long Japanese wooden zither with 13 silk strings placed along a hollowed-out wood base. The body is 74 inches long and made of paulownia wood. In modern times, people use synthetic strings and adjustable bridges.
The right hand’s thumb and first two fingers strum the strings on the Koto using tsume, or fingerpicks. The left hand can change the tone or sound of the strings by adjusting the strings to the left of the bridges.
Originally, the instrument was performed for court music. Following that, Buddhist monks began to play it and then it spread to the public.
18. Wooden Fish
The Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC) introduced percussion instruments, including the Wooden fish. This is also known as the Mokugyo in Japan or the Chinese wooden block.
The Wooden fish is typically made out of walnut, ebony, or camphor. The drum’s head is engraved with a fish. Fish represents alertness and attentiveness, particularly since fish doesn’t shut their eyes.
This instrument ranges from six inches to almost four feet in size, depending on usage. The different size makes different tones.
During Buddhist practices, the drum is used for cadence and to accompany chanting. It creates a sense of attentiveness that keeps meditators from drifting off to sleep. No surprise there, as when struck, the Wooden fish creates a loud sound.
The Ney is one of the oldest flutes still in use in folk and classical traditions of Persian, Turkish, and Arabic music. It has been played for more than 4,500 years in ancient Egypt, reserving Ney a spot on our list.
The Persian Ney flute is the most widespread, with five holes on the front and one on the back. The majority of ney flutes are constructed of reed. However, others are made of metal or hide. It’s sometimes equipped with a mouthpiece that protects the blowing edge and makes playing easier.
To play, place the Ney about four inches away from your mouth while keeping your head straight. Then you blow and put the Ney to your lips.
These flutes have always been a vital part of religious and Sufi ceremonies. The Ney is also the only wind instrument in classical Arabic music.
Summing Up Our List Of Oldest Instruments
Music is a universal language that can be found all over the world in many different cultures. And it’s through these instruments that people made and continue to make music.
Whatever their purpose is, the ones above influenced modern instruments in some ways. And these are here to stay, continuing to refine, define, and connect diverse cultures.
We may not be able to see these instruments in person, but we hope that through this compilation, you have more appreciation and respect for these almost-forgotten instruments. After all, music will not be what it is today without these instruments.