Music in the Upper Paleolithic?

This blog addresses some of the great questions that we've received on using
prehistoric sound production as an entry point for young learners.

Question: “How can discussions about Paleolithic caves support music education?"

Answer: In Around the World in Twenty-One Trumpets, students are introduced to the concept of the "practice cave." This is a place that students literally go to learn and play their instrument (such as a bedroom, office, or classroom). For our prehistoric ancestors, caves were places of safety and refuge, and in them were found the earliest objects believed to be musical instruments. These include flutes made from the bones of bears and vultures as well as from mammoth ivory, dated to over 40,000 BCE. Prehistoric humans used caves as places to work, think, experiment, dream, and express themselves. Evidence of ingenuity, creativity, and sound-making is found there, and the more we learn about our Paleolithic ancestors, the more we find we have in common with them.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, humans' ears were attuned to the sounds of nature and man: of wind, rain, animals, insects, water, fire, and other humans. Other less-common sounds, like the acoustic effects of echo and resonance heard in caves, the song of a bone flute, ring of a stalactite when struck, the pluck of a hunting bow, or the howl of a conch trumpet, were possibly experienced as otherworldly, not from nature. They were produced by humans in cooperation and interdependence with nature.

Into the Classroom

In "Unit I: The First Trumpeter," students learn about the sound world of our prehistoric ancestors. In Chapter 2, students are introduced to the concept of the "practice cave." They are encouraged to think about the type of sounds that our historic ancestors may have made, and the reasons for making them in the first place. Ragnar, our Paleolithic caveperson, is of course a fictional character, and although no one can ever know what sounds prehistoric humans made, there is extant evidence of sound making instruments in prehistory, including lip-blown instruments. Ragnar's story helps students to consider the possible significance, impact, and utility of sound making for our prehistoric ancestors.

For example, when considering the Bison horn as a signaling instrument, students are asked to improvise with a prompt, such as to alert everyone in school that it’s time for recess. Students are given time to come up with ideas, and then asked to share them with the class (and given two or three tries to play their call clearly). Once clear, the whole class practices it together. Teachers can keep track of the better examples by writing down or recording them. In subsequent classes, students are asked to recall them. This is a great way to challenge their memory and lay the groundwork for understanding the need for music notation. Practicing these calls at the end of each class gives students a chance to develop a sense of ensemble, and asking students to critique and refine their performance puts them in the driver seat, empowering them to make musical decisions. As students hear improvement, they become eager to perform. Other improvisation prompts could include a morning or lunch bell fanfare, scaring off a dangerous predator, or a warning about an impending attack of Neanderthals from another school.

Discussing the need for a signal to be clearly defined and performed in order to be easily recognizable helps students to understand the need for practice and repetition. Music making in our modern world is also a form of communication, and to convey meaning through music, it must also be clearly defined and performed. For our Paleolithic ancestors—and up until only a few hundred years ago—the signals of a horn or trumpet could mean life or death. These signals could also be sounds of celebration and jubilation. Lip-blown instruments have been used as a form of musical communication for thousands of years. Check out Chapter 2 and experience it for yourself!

Click icon to hear dramatization of Ragnar’s story by British Actor Karl Davies.