Music is a huge part of human culture. It is not an overstatement to say that music permeates through all countries and cultures. But when did we begin creating music? The question may be more complicated than you think.
To determine when humans started making music, we need to determine what we define as music. Some would say that music began when humans started mimicking naturally occurring rhymes and tones. Repeated the noises a song bird makes, for example, could be the first instance of musical performance. There are many cultures that still use this kind of mimicry today, often relating to shamanistic rituals and beliefs. Mimicking the sounds animals make also have more practical applications, i.e. hunting.
However, a more refined definition of music narrows things down a bit. If we understand music to have an element of intentional emotional manipulation, we can reign in our timeline. The key word is intentional. The ability to think conceptually about the past and the future fits under the philosophical definition of intentionality. So maybe prehistoric humans only started producing music after they gained intentionality. Because this happened while humanity was preliterate (prehistoric), there is not a written account of when this dramatic step forward took place. However, there are tangible artifacts of when we turned that corner — cave paintings and jewelry. Surely our musical tastes develop alongside that cultural explosion.
Scientists posit that our intentionality developed between 30,000 – 60,000 years ago. It was in that period that we began attempt to record our history, decorate our bodies and bury our dead ceremoniously. These behaviors are all indicators of awareness and intention — both huge parts of the human experience. Music, as we know it, must to have been practiced and developed during this period.
We can look at the psychological implications of musical development. Like animals, individuals can use music to attract mates (we witness this today). Societies can use music to communicate important messages about emotion, ritual and cooperation. Creating a collective, cohesive group was crucial to survival. The key facets of evolution are sex and survival, and clearly music benefitted humanity in both of those.
So it is difficult to find a satisfying answer to the question, “When did humans start making music?” It is a complicated and multilayered area of prehistoric inquiry. What we do know is that music is integral to our species and we are better for it.