As far as I know, the "western musical scale" is a greek invention. In Indian and Arabic music you find other scales (and time signatures as well).

What sort of scales and time signatures did the ancient European societies use? If nothing is known, what is likely? I am talking Old Norse/Icelandic/Scandinavian, Old English, Old Irish, Gothic, etc.


I don't know much about old English and Irish music, and nothing at all about the others, but till someone knowledgeable shows up . . .

The Celts had a great many instruments, including the terrifying carnyx and various other horns, all of which could produce notes from the harmonic series. If an expert player had been able to reach the higher partials of the series, s/he might have been able to play at least part of a scale. That scale would have included the deliciously out-of-tune notes you can hear in the Prologue and Epilogue of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

There are claims that the crwth, which is depicted in the ninth century Bible of Charles the Bald, may have been a staple of Welsh musicians a thousand years earlier. But the few survivors had lost their strings when they were unearthed, and even if they hadn't they would have lost their tunings of course. The same is true of the Iron Age lyre (c.300 BC) found on the Isle of Skye, and the clarsach.

Even the many bone and wood whistles, pipes and pan pipes that have been found are so badly decayed that their tunings are imprecise.

There was always singing of course. The Old English epic poem Beowulf (written down around the year 1000 AD but describing events in Scandinavia in the 6th century) was possibly sung. If it was sung there is evidence it was sung to only a handful of notes, or rather, a small number of melodic formulae. [It's interesting then to speculate on whether these melodic formulae owe anything to the nomoi (melodic formulae) developed in the seventh century BC by Terpander of Lesbos, which were used to accompany recitations of the Homeric epics.]

There may be faint echoes of the bardic tradition and its scales in Welsh and Irish music, though nowadays the tunings will accord with equal temperament.

You ask, 'If nothing is known, what is likely?' We probably had various pentatonic scales, but how they sounded is a matter for conjecture. Remember that a pentatonic scale in, say, Indonesia is a quite different beast - and often a much sweeter, more expressive one - than the one you can play on a piano.

For a bit more on pentatonic scales may I refer you to my answer to a vaguely similar question here? (Why are the 4th and 7th scale degrees removed from the major scale to make the Pentatonic scale?)

Time signatures? No idea. We always walked on two feet, so I daresay two beats were always popular. And because we built Stonehenge we probably went, "PULL - two - three. PULL - two - three", introducing 3/4 to an audience already bored with 2/4! And perhaps we had a form of singing without a strict metre, in the manner of the ancient clarsach music and the more recent pibroch.

  • Thank you for this, these åre the best kind of answers. I wish every answer was like this, because many questions are hard to answer (like this). What do you mean by the last bit "PULL - two three" etc.? How did you get that?
    – Lance
    Apr 23 '20 at 10:42
  • 1
    Er, It's Tenor Horn and Strings, not Tenor, Horn and Strings. (Eats shoots and leaves) Apr 23 '20 at 11:51
  • 3
    @Brian THOMAS 'Er' no! It's as I wrote it. A tenor (who sings), a French horn and strings. Apr 23 '20 at 14:46
  • 2
    Yes, you're absolutely right. My bad. Apr 23 '20 at 16:26
  • 2
    @Lance Pollard When the neolithic people built Stonehenge they needed to drag those massive stones into position and may have used some kind of rhythm to synchronize their pulling; as sailors did, singing shanties. 3/4 time can also occur naturally: when someone snores or limps. I wanted to say that duple and triple time existed in real life from the very earliest times, and that music may have imitated real life; as cave paintings did. Thanks for your comments, btw. Apr 24 '20 at 0:38

Primitive flutes made from animal bone are sometimes found in archaeological sites, and when you try to play them you can get a clue to the type of scales they may have been designed to play. (It's reasonable to assume they made other instruments with other materials, but bone is longer lasting and therefore more likely to reach us in multiple samples, making it possible to draw more general conclusions.)

I remember some news, years ago, when a very old such flute was found in China, with a video of someone playing it... anyway, I think that's a line of research for you if you want to pursue it. For example:


And by the way, if by "Western scale" you mean e.g. major scale, minor scale, Lydian, etc.all of these were well known and in use in Indian music for, quite possibly, several thousands of years before than in the West, and that's also most likely where the Greek got them in the first place.

  • What kind of clue have you got though? I've listened eagerly whenever someone has played one, but they're so damaged that there's no way of knowing what the original pitches were. It's frustrating. I'd love to know. The problem is you'd really need two flutes with identically-positioned holes before you could say much about the sort of scales they were using. Without two all we have is a random caveman annoying the neighbours. Apr 25 '20 at 2:16
  • @Old Brix I can't find the Chinese recording, but my impression was that of a somewhat out of tune but nevertheless diatonic scale. Remember, we're talking about prehistorical times. Check this video, where the archaeologist manages to play Beethoven on a Neanderthal piece: youtube.com/watch?v=sHy9FOblt7Y (granted, with a lot of note "bending") My own personal opinion: our major and minor scales and the corresponding pentatonics, or at least something fairly similar to them, have been around for at least several thousands of years.
    – MMazzon
    Apr 27 '20 at 22:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.