6 Ancient Inventions Associated with Music All Technophiles Should Know

Processing chip


What drives innovation and invention? Sometimes the need to survive sparks innovation. At other times, inventions result from a desire to conquer another’s land—a common goal in stories like David Benioff’s Game of Thrones. Periodically, inventions are the result of a mistake.

The playful wonderland behind great inventions” is the title of a TED talk by Steven Johnson that discusses the origin of programmable computing. Johnson states that programmable computing ranks among the most important inventions in use today.

Many believe that military technology gave birth to computers during wartime to decode intelligence and to calculate missile trajectories. However, Johnson says the origin of programmable computing is much older, dating back 43,000 years with the discovery of a prehistoric flute made from a mammoth bone.

A bone flute is a curious artifact to find at that period of human development. Why would early humans create a flute which is not essential to survival? One possible reason is communication. Another plausible reason is entertainment. This is an interesting question, but more background is needed to explore it further. I will retrace the line of inventions connecting the bone flute to programmable computing.

43,000 year-old flute

Oldest instrument discovered

Millennia passed with no advances toward programmable computing. That changed during the 3rd century before the common era (B.C.E.). Now, instead of a single flute, humans invented an instrument containing many flutes of different sizes powered by water called a hydraulis.

A water organ

Hydraulis (water pipe organ)

The hydraulis required the invention of the manual (keyboard). When the player’s finger presses a key (lever), it opens one end of the pipe (flute) allowing air to enter and produce sound.

Lever & fulcrum

The lever

Johnson stressed that many inventions closely associated with play had a profound effect on society. The line of programmable computing splits into a short and a long line of innovations. The short line extends from the keyboard of the keyboard instruments to the mid-1800s when a group of inventors applied the keyboard technology to trigger letters instead of pitches that they called the writing harpsichord, but commonly known as the typewriter.

The first typewriter

Originally called the writing harpsichord

The long line of innovations begins during the zenith of the Islamic Renaissance in Baghdad in the 9th century when the three Banū Musā brothers invented a mechanical organ that played by itself—a music box. The Mūsā brother’s music box contained a rotating metal cylinder encoded with raised pins that plucked tuned lamellae (teeth) of the steel comb.

First music box

The Banū Musā brother’s device that continuously plays music by itself.

During the 18th century, Jacques Vaucanson (1709-1782) applied the Mūsā brother’s encoded cylinder to play music and to control the movements of a mounted figure called the automata (1737) played the flute and the tabor.

Flute playing music box

A music box with an encoded cylinder that controlled the music and a figure’s movements.

A few years later, Vaucanson designed the programmable loom that linked the encoded cylinder to specific colors of fabric instead of pitches. The encoded cylinder was expensive and time-consuming to make inhibiting production.

Jacquard's loom

Jacquard’s loom that replaced the encoded cylinder with punch cards

In 1804, Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the first power loom that used a “chain of cards” (punched cards) that replaced the expensive encoded cylinder. His innovation enabled the automatic production of unlimited woven patterns. The use of punched cards was a tremendous technological advance because using paper was inexpensive and provided greater programming flexibility. Punch cards were so successful they remained in use until the late 1970s. Jacquard’s loom inspired Charles Babbage, who invented an analytical engine (1843). This was the first real programmable computer that used punch cards.

Babbage's analytical engine

The first apparatus that performed calculations. Babbage called it his Analytical Engine.

TED Talk panelist, Steven Johnson concludes by recognizing the important contributions of the U.S. military but stresses that the source of innovation is not limited to a need or a desire to conquer or defend. His main point is that innovation can also spring from a playful state of mind which is intrinsically curious and open to exploration.

Johnson presents a strong argument, but I do not agree with a playful state of mind is not contingent on music. Conversely, music will not always encourage a playful mental state. That view assigns music to a utilitarian role. In other words, the to achieve a non-music end.

If music were limited to utilitarian purposes alone, why would it survive millennia? Communication was one of the possible reasons to explain why our early ancestors created a bone flute. However, verbal communication and sign language are more precise than using music to communicate complex ideas.

Johnson’s lecture omits two important agents. The first concerns the functions that music plays in society and the second involves the motivation to make and experience music. Rather than a playful mental state, the desire for an aesthetic experience and entertainment are other sources of innovation.

According to Alan Parkhurst Merriam, there are ten ways that people in every culture use music for instances, entertainment, emotional expression, communication, physical response, and aesthetic enjoyment. Music performs the same ten functions in ancient and modern societies. Although, Johnson’s lecture included all ten functions.

Johnson stated that early humans used music to communicate which gave them advantages over their competition. However, Merriam argues that music is not universally understood. In other words, the information communicated by music will be understood only by members of the culture that made the music. Musical information is culture-dependent.

If early humans used music to communicate and strengthen bonds, they also used it for entertainment and aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience results from a person’s interaction and response to the intrinsic expressive qualities in a given musical composition. Expressed another way, the music itself can arouse feelings, images, emotions, sensations, and other mental states. Aesthetic experiences are important philosophical considerations of civilization.

All of the music related innovations in Johnson’s talk were used for enjoyment, draw people together, religious rituals, and emotional expression. Enjoyment is a way that humans frequently experience music and early humans probably used music for this purpose.

Motivation theory explains what drives behavior. Music entertainment and aesthetic enjoyment are the only two of Merriam’s functions that are not utilitarian. The answer to what motivates humans to make and experience music is for entertainment and the pursuit of an aesthetic experience.

This article was first published on The Huffington Post. You will find it here.