Bird Bone Flute

Ancient Aurignacian Flutes: Earliest Use of the Pentatonic Scale

Do you ever wonder how music was first discovered? Did early civilization divine it through gentle yet compelling birdsong or the howling of winds through caves? This could be a never-ending exercise of the imagination, yet the evidence of musical instruments that date back to at least 40,000 years ago provide a small window of perception into some of the earliest music.

Geißenklösterle is one of many caves in Southern Germany along the Danube River where just such art objects have been discovered. These Aurignacian flutes were made from the ivory of mammoth tusks (shown above) and the wing bones of griffon vultures (shown below). Possibly the most intriguing, even tell-tale aspect of these flutes is that they feature the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic scale is the backbone to blues, Gamelan of Indonesia, the majority of scales in Chinese music and myriad other genres and scales. It sits at the root of music’s dominant intervals and this has not changed in over 40,000 years. Does this tell us something about the innate human relationship to music? While that may be hard to answer, this video of Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival reveals just how natural the pentatonic scale is to all of us.

How we create music has progressed in too many ways to name, yet our relationship to musical intervals seems to be quite well intact from our earliest ancestors. Maybe these intervals hold a key to the inner workings of the human race, something yet to be understood that which can shape a more harmonically connected future. If nothing else, it reminds us that something deep inside of us connects us all together.

To learn more about these ancient flutes, watch this short clip from Werner Herzog’z 2010 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

More info:
Music sample:
Paleolithic Flute from Geißenklösterle 37000 BP
Article from the journal, nature
New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany