A Brief History of Music Theory: From Prehistory to Film

This series on music theory wouldn’t be complete without a brief exploration of its history. This is not exactly the same as the history of music itself, a subject that is dealt with in countless volumes of books. What we are looking at here is a side of history that is somewhat overlooked: the history of what musicians, philosophers, and scholars thought of (and wrote about) music throughout the centuries.

This is a longer article than usual. Here’s what to expect (feel free to jump to any section you like).

  • In prehistoric times, music and musical instruments emerge early on in the development of a society
  • Major ancient civilizations had musical theory knowledge of tunings, intervals, and scales. Among others, the depictions of musical instruments is evidence.
  • They used music in rituals and religious ceremonies. Various thinkers (such as Pythagoras in Greece, Confucius in China, al-Farabi in the Arab world) attempt to codify and theorize on their culture’s use of music. Their students or followers tend to go further, studying the emotional and psychological effects of music on an audience.
  • The music of the western Middle Ages were dominated by hymns and chants. The idea of two melodies at once developed towards the end of the era.
  • The Renaissance was a time of immense development in music theory: from harmony to rhythm, form and musical instruments. Here we see musicians laying the foundations for the music we recognize nowadays.
  • The Baroque era saw the standardization of the tonal system, creating a new musical language out of the major and minor scales.
  • The Classical era crystallized the tonal system, bringing the ideals of proportion and balance to their zenith.
  • In reaction to Classical principles, the Romantics put musical expression above all. This meant an expansion of all known theories for the sake of emotion.
  • In the Modern era, tonal principles expanded to a breaking point, ushering in a century of incredible innovation in all musical elements.
  • Post-modern and contemporary music exhibit a wide range of styles and compositional methods. The internet has democratized both the creation and dissemination of music.

A History of Music Theory – SchoolofComposition.com

Musical Prehistory: When did humans ‘invent’ music?

Archaeology tells us that the earliest humans go as far back as 2 million years with language making an appearance around 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. It’s not hard to imagine that with the advent of language came the discovery of the other wonders of the voice: singing, humming, and perhaps even whistling. It’s not a leap, either, to imagine that the more rhythmically-inclined of our ancestors quickly figured out that it’s fascinating to accompany these vocal experiments with clapping, stomping, the beating of sticks and stones, and other percussive sounds.

Of course, we’ll never be sure of what those times sounded like. We don’t have any recordings nor do we have any musical notation (prehistory is pre-anything-written-ever). What we do have, however, is the knowledge that music emerges in some form in every society. And luckily, we do have clues for when societies began to form.

Although it’s likely that humans always lived in small tribes, a 2014 study of skeletal remains suggests that our ancestors started showing serious signs of social tolerance and acceptance around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. Due to a reduction in testosterone production, we finally realized that being nicer to each other is in everybody’s best interest. Through cooperation, our primitive forefathers (and foremothers, of course) experienced the first cultural explosion, defined in the medical dictionary as:

“A constellation of events that occurred about 40,000 years ago in early humans, characterized by the development of social networks allowing for the rapid dissemination of new knowledge such as tool-making, killing animals and gathering edible plants.”

The Medical Dictionary

It’s around this time, too, that people began burying their dead. This is significant because burial shows respect and that’s a fairly complex emotion. In fact, the very existence of any ritual proves, to some extent, that we were already capable of sophisticated thinking and emotional processing. It is very likely that music was part of such rituals. If so, it means that even this early on, music was meaningful beyond superfluous sound – it accompanied and enhanced significant social events as it does today.

The earliest testimonies of musical invention is this 60,000-year-old flute found at Cerkno, modern-day Slovenia. It must have been a truly meaningful purpose that such a flute was to fulfil. At a time when resources are scarce and dangers are looming behind every corner, spending the time, energy, and material to carve out a bone flute seems expensive.

This ancient flute is not the only discovery. Archeologists have made many exciting findings related to music:

  • 20,000-year-old bullroarers found in modern-day Ukraine
  • 10,000-year-old stone lithophones found in modern-day Vietnam
  • 3,300-year-old (still playable) trumpets found in Tutankhamun’s tomb
  • A variety of primitive bone flutes found in nowadays Turkey, Syria, China, and many other places

So when did music start? Music began around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. The primitive societies of the time is where prehistoric music, together with art, language and technology, began its journey of thousands of years of development.

Music Theory in the Ancient World

Fast forward several thousand years and all kinds of peoples have settled all over the world spawning all kinds of cultures, each one developing its own folk music tradition. Here we are no longer talking about the prehistoric musical era. We’ve now transitioned into Ancient music, which flourished in various theories of music including the earliest attempts at notation.

The Music Theory of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is one the most important influences on European classical art music, which eventually travelled to the Americas, and is now disseminated globally. This ancient civilization emerged around the 8th Century BC and within centuries had advanced in virtually every area of life: politics, philosophy, sports, education, art, literature, architecture, military strategy, and so on. Music, of course, wasn’t any less. In fact it was very commonplace for religious ceremonies, marriages, funerals, theatre and so on.

The proof is in Greek art. It frequently portrays musicians and their instruments:

Various depictions of musical instruments in Ancient Greek art and sculptures

If you read Music Theory in 30 Days, you learned that we inherited several foundational concepts from ancient Greek music theory. Our traditional tonal system is a hierarchy in which one note, known as tonic, is the foundation. Broadly speaking, all others tones are either moving away (creating some sort of narrative) from the tonic or moving towards it (going ‘home’ for a resolution).

This hierarchy is displayed in scales, which musicians typically practice by starting and ending on the tonic:

The C major scale

The Ancient Greeks also worked with these sets of notes. Early on, theirs were based on four-note sets known as tetrachords (“tetra” meaning “four” and “chord” meaning “sound”). The outer two notes of a tetrachord were fixed and always a fourth apart. The two notes in between were arranged depending on what distances (known in music theory as intervals) a musician wanted to create between the notes.

Different modes were employed for different moods and they can be combined to create more complex sets with even more possibilities. Here is where it gets really interesting: there are two ways of putting modes together. Either by starting the second tetrachord with the very last note of the first (overlapping the modes).

Or by starting the second tetrachord a step away from the last note of the first. This method is what we inherited from these ancient musicians. The major scale, which we hear in millions of songs and pieces over our lifetime, is made up of two 4-note modes:

The major scale is composed of two tetrachords

This is our direct link to Ancient Greece.

The Greeks had also developed a system of notation in which every note was represented by a symbol, just like a letter represents a morpheme (a unique sound) in written language. Here is a song known as Seikilos’ Epitaph, discovered on a tombstone in Turkey. It is a unique artefact because it is the oldest, complete notated song ever found and it dates back to around the first century BC.

Here is the English translation of the poem:

“While you live, shine,
have no grief at all.
For your life is short,
and time will claim its toll.”

Seikilos’ Epitaph

The music theory of Ancient Greece is very much indebted to the popular individuals that pondered, experimented, and wrote about it. The mathematician Pythagoras is perhaps the most famous but he is not the only one.

Around 550 BCE, Pythagoras delved into the application of mathematics in music theory, pioneering acoustics and introducing Pythagorean tuning, a method where intervals are based on a 3:2 ratio known as the perfect fifth. This tuning was widely adopted by musicians until the 16th century, complemented by Pythagoras’ creation of the Pythagorean scale using perfect fifths and octaves.

While Pythagoras focused on the mathematical aspects of music, Plato explored the psychological impact of sounds, proposing that certain arrangements of notes can change an audience’s mood. In contrast, his student Aristotle emphasized the importance of a diverse musical education, acknowledging the psychological influence of music but advocating for “a balanced musical diet”.

Nicomachus of Gerasa, among the earliest music theorists, contributed significantly with his “Manual of Harmonics”, discussing numeric ratios in music, the connection between the universe and music (“music of the spheres”), and detailing various contemporary instruments. Cleonides and Aristoxenus, ancient Greek theorists, furthered music theory: Cleonides, in Introduction to Harmonics, examined technical aspects presented by Aristoxenus in Elements of Harmony, covering “the twenty-eight laws of melodic succession,” intervals, and the mathematics of semitones.

Music Theory in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt, with its long and rich cultural heritage, also nurtured its musical tradition. The records from that time are fragmented but the evidence we do have, sheds light on how music theory was ingrained in the societal practices and religious beliefs.

The hieroglyphs and depictions on temple walls portray musicians playing various instruments such as harps, lyres, and flutes, providing evidence of a diverse musical landscape. Some of the depictions even include musical ensembles, which implies, to some extent, that there must have been standard tuning conventions. Otherwise, creating coherent music in a group would be next to impossible.

Not only that, but there are also depictions of fretted stringed instruments. Frets mean standard notes, and standard notes imply standard tuning. That’s music theory in practice!

The ancient Egyptians believed in a cosmic order governed by the goddess Ma’at, representing truth, balance, harmony, and order. Concepts that, unsurprisingly, were sought in composition and performance.

Evidence (from ancient texts such as The Book of the Dead and The Pyramid Texts and from archaeological findings) suggests that the ancient Egyptians had a scale system based on a heptatonic (seven-note) structure, with evidence implying the existence of at least two primary scales. These scales were integral to the tuning of their instruments and the composition of music for religious ceremonies. The concept of octave equivalence, wherein notes an octave apart share a fundamental similarity, was also present in Egyptian music theory.

It’s interesting to note that many Greeks, including Pythagoras, studied in Egypt!

Music Theory in Ancient China

Ancient China is another region with a rich musical tradition deeply intertwined with its philosophical and cultural heritage. The theoretical foundations of Chinese music were laid upon Confucian and Daoist principles, which emphasize harmony, balance, and the expression of cosmic order.

The earliest known writings about Chinese music theory is in the “Yue Ji” (Record of Music). The treatise values the role of music in society, with an emphasis on its moral and educative functions. The “Yue Ji” organizes music into “junctures”, each associated with a specific emotion.

Another significant contribution to Chinese music theory is “Zhuangzi”, a Daoist text which expounds on the idea of “free and easy wandering”. It promotes spontaneous musical expression, reflecting the Daoist philosophy of embracing life’s natural flow. This concept had a profound impact on Chinese improvisational traditions.

Taoist cosmology also influenced Chinese music theory, with an emphasis on the balance between opposites (yin-yang). The concept of Yin and Yang is expressed in musical modes and tonal relationships, reflecting a dualistic nature of existence.

It’s interesting to note that the Chinese musical system was built on the (five-note) pentatonic scale, each note associated with one of the elements: wood, earth, fire, metal, and water. It was later expanded to a heptatonic (seven-note) scale.

Music Theory in the Arab World

In the ancient Arab world, music theory was similarly woven with cultural and religious contexts. Rooted in the teachings of scholars like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, Arabic music theory drew inspiration from Greek, Persian, and Indian traditions, creating a unique synthesis.

Al-Farabi, often referred to as the “Second Teacher” (after Aristotle), made profound contributions to Arab music theory in the 9th century. His work, “Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir” (The Great Book of Music), outlined the classification of musical modes, the relationship between music and mathematics, and the psychological effects of different musical scales. Al-Farabi’s emphasis on the connection between music and ethics paralleled the Greek philosophical tradition.

Ibn Sina furthered Arab music theory with his exploration of the physiological and psychological effects of music on the human body and soul. His influential work, “Kitab al-Shifa” (The Book of Healing), delved into the therapeutic aspects of music.

Today, the legacy of ancient Arab music theory endures in traditional Arabic music. Maqamat, the melodic modes defined by Al-Farabi, continue to shape improvisational practices. The quarter-tone system, a distinctive feature of Arab music theory, allows for intricate melodic expressions not found in Western musical traditions.

Moreover, the connection between music and spirituality persists, especially in genres like Sufi music, where mystical poetry is accompanied by traditional musical forms.

Music Theory in Ancient India

Music theory in ancient India has a rich history, woven into the cultural fabric of the entire subcontinent. It is rooted in ancient scriptures and treatises, reflecting a profound respect for the interplay between sound, emotion, and the cosmic order.

The foundational text that laid the groundwork for music theory in ancient India is the “Natya Shastra,” attributed to the sage Bharata Muni. This treatise, dated at around 200 BCE is a comprehensive study of the performing arts. The treatise classifies musical notes into 22 intervals, known as shrutis, forming the basis of the Indian musical scale. Each shruti is defined according to subtle variations in pitch, providing a rich palette for melodic expression.

In addition, this ancient Indian musical system is built upon the concept of the raga, a melodic framework that, like Greek modes, governs the choice of notes in a composition. In Indian music theory, Ragas are associated with specific times of the day, seasons, and emotions. The theoretical framework of ragas extends beyond mere scales, encompassing the intricate ornamentation of notes known as gamakas, which adds character to the melodic phrases.

Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass: Ragas in the Minor Scale

Another crucial element of ancient Indian music theory is “tala”, the rhythmic cycle that forms the structure of a composition. Talas organize music into specific divisions of time, providing a framework for improvisation.

Music is integral to the spiritual traditions of ancient India. Nada Brahma is the belief that God is the personification of sound. It underscores the sacred nature of music and considers musicians as spiritual practitioners. Performing music was considered a form of worship that brings humans closer to the divine.

Music Theory in the Middle Ages

The music theory of the Middle Ages, spanning from the 5th to the 13th century, was primarily guided by the church. Single-melody Latin chants in one of the church modes was the dominant style. The rhythm was quite fluid but slowly became more structured, laying the groundwork for the rhythm we understand today. To notate, teach, and preserve chants, an early system of musical notation emerged at this time.

Monophonic Music

In the Middle Ages, most music was monophonic, meaning one melody. Polyphonic (more than one melodic line) arrives closer to the end of the era.

Monophonic music was a large part of religious worship. Gregorian chants are the most famous of this type.

Gregorian chant with an older type of musical notation


At a time when music was largely monophonic, musicians began to experiment with “organum”: two vocal melodies sounded together:

  • Parallel organum, or strict organum, is the use of two voices at a fixed interval, a fifth, for example. The two voices would stay in this interval through the entire piece.
  • Free organum allows more freedom to the singers. With free organum, each voice can move either parallel (such as they do with strict organum above), or they can move in contrary motion.
  • Melismatic organum involves one part remaining static, while the second part moves freely.


The Middle Ages were also a time of great strides in musical instruments. As music theory was further explored, a greater understanding of the science behind music came to be. This helped usher in a wider variety of musical instruments capable of playing much more complex pieces to match the growth in music theory. This time saw the creation and fine-tuning of the flute, the lute, the lyra, and the dulcimer. This is proof of their practical knowledge regarding tuning, frequencies, scales, and other theoretical aspects.

Music Theory in the Renaissance

The Renaissance, roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, was a time of immense cultural growth across Europe. In the realm of music, musical instruments, genres, notation, and theory went through an impressive evolution, laying the groundwork for Western music we know today. Renaissance music came in two different styles: sacred music controlled by the church, and secular music financed by the nobility. While the former held stricter rules, the latter provided much more freedom to composers and, to some extent, opened the doors to musical experimentation.

One of the key features of Renaissance music theory was the revival of interest in ancient Greek theories of harmony and modes. Scholars such as Gioseffo Zarlino explored the writings of ancient theorists like Pythagoras and Aristoxenus, seeking to reconcile their ideas with contemporary musical practices. The concept of the Church modes remained central but composers started to apply slight changes. Eventually these led to the major and minor scale system.

The renewed interest in Pythagoras’ work also led to the refinement of tuning systems. It is during this time that equal temperament (the octave being divided into 12 equally-spaced notes) gained prominence. To some extent, this reflected a broader cultural emphasis on proportion and symmetry,

Polyphony, the art of combining several independent melodic lines, reached new peaks during the Renaissance. Composers like Palestrina mastered the intricate interplay of voices, producing rich harmonic textures in which dissonances are handled extremely carefully. Scholar of the time Johannes Tinctoris wrote extensively about these practices.

Music by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, representative of the late Renaissance

Polyphony, notation, and a revival of ancient ideals meant that the time was ripe for the birth of opera: Greek plays accompanied by a musical ensemble. The creation of this genre had a huge impact on the history of music, its reverberations are still felt today.

Music Theory in the Baroque Period

The Baroque era, 1600 to 1750, was a period of profound musical innovation in virtually every aspect of music.

One key development was “basso continuo”: a bass line with numbers and symbols over the notes, which specialized musicians interpret as chords. This marks an important departure from the strict contrapuntal rules of the Renaissance.

This innovation provided a framework for composers to explore harmonic progressions, which led to the development of the major-minor system we know today. This system, aka “tonal language”, consists of a hierarchy of chords allowing for a sense of tension and resolution and huge implications in every aspect of music composition, from melody to form.

Baroque music theory also advanced rhythm and meter inspired by the dances of the time. The use of binary and ternary forms became prevalent, providing blueprints for music composition. It is also around this time that Johann Joseph Fux published his “Gradus ad Parnassum”, an enduring treatise about the rules of counterpoint.

Driven by a narrative, the opera, oratorio, concerto, and sonata were all popularized during the Baroque period. In the case of the opera and the oratorio, there is always text set to music. In the case of the concerto, the narrative is purely instrumental, driven by a dialogue and an interaction between the two main groups: a soloist and the orchestra.

It is here that we see the first known musical stars, virtuosos with impressive technical or vocal ability, pushing the envelope for what’s possible in performance.

Music Theory in the Classical Era

The Classical era, 1750 to circa 1820, was a period of refinement in classical music. In music theory, this era witnessed a crystallization of tonal principles with a focus on balanced forms. The major-minor key system, established in the Baroque era, peaked in this period. Composers embraced the clear and functional use of tonal relationships, creating harmonically rich compositions that emphasized balance and symmetry.

Harmonic progressions in the Classical era became more predictable and formulaic compared to the exploratory nature of the Baroque period. Common harmonic patterns, such as tonic-dominant relationships, were established, providing a stable foundation for composers to build upon. The classical cadences, particularly the perfect authentic cadence, gained prominence, contributing to the sense of resolution and closure in musical phrases.

Singable and balanced melodic phrases are crucial in Classical music theory. The emergence of the “galant style” idea promoted elegance and simplicity. Composers like Mozart crafted balanced and lyrical lines, while composers like Haydn (and then Beethoven) developed their motifs systematically, creating a sense of unity and coherence in music.

The Classical era also saw the codification of dynamics and expression markings. Composers introduced a nuanced system of dynamic indications, ranging from pianissimo to fortissimo, guiding performers in their intentions. This emphasis on dynamic contrast added depth and drama to musical compositions, enhancing the emotional impact of the music.

In terms of form, the Classical era introduced standardized structures and ensembles such as the sonata, symphony, and string quartet. These forms were characterized by clear thematic development, repetition, and contrast, reflecting a desire for structural clarity. The use of contrasting themes within a movement became a defining feature, allowing for a more dynamic and engaging listening experience.

The emergence of the fortepiano as a prominent keyboard instrument in the Classical era also had implications for music theory. The instrument’s dynamic capabilities and expressive range influenced the way composers approached keyboard writing, leading to innovations in piano technique and the exploration of new tonal possibilities.

Music Theory in the Romantic Era

The Romantic era, roughly from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, was a period that embraced individualism with profound emotional expression. Romantic music departed from the structural clarity of the Classical period in favor of heightened emotional content.

One of the central features of Romantic music theory was the expansion of tonality. Composers sought to convey a wide range of emotions through rich harmonic progressions, chromaticism, and extended use of dissonance defying the classical tradition. Melody, working hand in hand with harmony, was also crucial. Rather than balance or symmetry, Romantic composers worked on expressive lines.

This emphasis on expression also means that more free-flowing musical forms were favoured over the more rigid structures of the previous era. Many pieces, in fact, are “program music”, guided by an extra-musical narrative. They tell a story or evoke a specific mood without text. This is in direct opposition to absolute music that aims for abstract music without any external influence.

Dvořák: The Water Goblin, inspired by a poem by Karel Jaromír Erben

It should be noted that the Romantics’ focus on individual expression gave rise to some fascinating contrasts. Some composers, like Chopin, wrote short pieces for solo piano. Others, like Berlioz, wrote epic symphonic pieces of several movements. Some composers, like Smetana and Dvořák became nationalists and drew inspiration from the folk music of their homeland. Others, like Bizet and Rimsky Korsakov, explored ideas from exotic, far-away lands.

Music Theory in the Modern Era

The 20th century (the modern era) was a revolutionary period in music theory, departing from tonal traditions and embracing, instead, a huge variety of composition techniques. Composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Cage, and Debussy ushered in a wonderful period of diversity in musical expression, challenging all norms and expanding the boundaries of what could considered music.

The defining characteristic of the era was the rejection of tonality (and its implications in all musical elements). This concept took shape in several ways:

  • Arnold Schoenberg popularized serialism (especially twelve-tone technique): a method of organizing all 12 pitches in a specific order, creating a tone row. The row becomes the primary source of melodies and harmonies with no one note used again until all notes in the series are used up. This set music free from traditional hierarchies, opening up new possibilities.
  • The exploration of new harmonic languages grew in parallel with serialism. Composers, like Debussy, Ravel, and Bartok rejected traditional chord progressions in favor of exotic scales and innovative chord structures. This renounced the classical ideals of consonance and dissonance, challenging audiences to engage with an unpredictable harmonic palette.
  • Rhythmic innovations were another landmark of the modern era. This is perhaps best exemplified by Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, in which the composer employs polyrhythms, asymmetrical phrasing, and unconventional time signatures, shattering predictable rhythmic structures.
Stravinsky: “Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring
  • The advent of electronic music further expanded the theoretical landscape of the Modern era. Musicians began experimenting with electronic sound synthesis, tape manipulation, and later, computer-generated music. This shift allowed for the exploration of timbres and textures that were previously unimaginable, contributing to the development of entirely new sonic possibilities.

It’s interesting to note two distinct reactions to strict serialism that sought to control musical elements:

  • In direct contrast, minimalism is characterized by repetitive patterns focusing on simplicity. Composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass rejected traditional notions of development to highlight the significance of subtle variations over time.
  • The other reaction was to allow elements of randomness in composition. Composers like John Cage explored “chance music” introducing an element of unpredictability to musical performance.

Music Theory in the Postmodern Era

Post-modern music continues the trajectory set by the Modern era, emphasizing eclecticism: borrowing from diverse genres and blurring boundaries between traditions.

Film music evolved significantly, with composers experimenting with unconventional sounds to complement diverse cinematic styles. Composers like Hans Zimmer embraced electronic elements, unconventional instrumentation, and non-traditional structures to enhance the emotional impact of films. The integration of popular music into film soundtracks also became more common.

The advent of new musical styles, including rock, metal, pop, hip hop, and electronic dance music (EDM), reshaped the global musical landscape. Rock and metal, born in the mid-20th century, diversified into subgenres like punk, grunge, and metalcore. Pop music embraced electronic production techniques, incorporating elements from various genres to create a hybrid sound. Hip hop, with its roots in urban culture, became a dominant force, influencing not only music but also fashion and language.

The rise of the internet and digital platforms profoundly impacted music consumption and production. Streaming services transformed how people accessed music, providing instant access to vast catalogs. Independent artists gained prominence, as platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube allowed them to share their work globally without the need for traditional record labels. This democratization of music production empowered a diverse range of voices and genres.

In the 21st century, the notion of genre itself became more fluid and less restrictive. Many artists embraced a fusion of styles, creating music that defied easy categorization. This is reflective of the post-modern culture in which everyone is connected to everything all the time. Collaboration became a hallmark of 21st-century music. Artists from different genres frequently collaborated, resulting in cross-genre fusions that appealed to diverse audiences.

Music Theory Since 2000

From 2000 onwards, the musical landscape continues to evolve with incredible diversity. Creating music has never been easier thanks to the proliferation of apps like Garageband and software like Musescore. Sharing music has also been democratized thanks to platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud.

Most interestingly, music experts are now embracing the music theory behind popular genres like hip-hop and rock. Musicologists like Philip Tagg have written extensively about non-classical genres, analyzing popular music for how it works, and its affects on listeners.

The most recent significant development is music created by Artificial Intelligence. While composers are still far from redundant, AI and its effects are yet to be seen…

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