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.

  • As Theodore's answer pointed out below, it is dubious that the Greeks invented the diatonic scale. Wikipedia's article on the music of ancient Mesopotamia says the diatonic scale is found there too. Unfortunately, it doesn't (at this time) specify dates (maybe check the citations), or else it would be obvious that the Greeks were not first to discover it. I wouldn't be surprised if it's always been with us, given how symmetric and easy to discover it is.
    – Coemgenus
    Feb 18, 2022 at 3:08

4 Answers 4


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.


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.

  • 1
    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, 2020 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, 2020 at 22:26

Your introductory sentences contain a few assumptions* that could each be the subject of their own interesting questions, but we don't need to resolve them to address the main question.

I think Old Brixtonian's answer is on one right track in discussing the western extreme of Europe and the Celts.

How about going to some of the other fringes of the Greco-Roman sphere? These two examples are on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


In the remote plains and woodlands at the northeast corner of Europe, the Lithuanians were the last Europeans to be Christianized (14th-15th c.) and modern Lithuanians still take pride in aspects of their pagan culture. Among them is the Sutartinė, a type of polyphonic round. Here's an example from the village of Vabalninkas:

There is a lot of scholarship available online regarding this form. This paper in particular analyzes the pitches: Tonal hierarchies in Sutartinės by Rytis Ambrazevičius and Irena Wiśniewska. The analysis identifies a scale built on a series of narrow seconds (about 180-195¢) that lead to the dissonant character.

Sutartinės can also be instrumental, and wooden trumpets are the most common instrument used:

An instrumental origin for the scales used in the vocal forms has been suggested in On Instrumental Origins of Lithuanian Polymodal "Sutartinės" by Austė Nakienė.


In the remote, mountainous southeast corner, The Georgians also have held onto a musical tradition that is believed to predate the arrival of Christianity, which occurred in Georgia much earlier (4th c.) than it did in Lithuania. Georgian polyphonic singing also deviates from the typical western modes and intonation, as analyzed here: On Georgian Scale System by Malkhaz Erkvanidze. This analysis also shows deviation from equal temperament, just, and pythagorean tunings. It looks like a nearly equal division of the perfect fifth.

Here's a modern rendition of "Shemodzakhili", which is apparently a popular table song you would hear in Eastern Georgia:

As for time signatures: When the music isn't tied to dance or to a rhythmic work task, I would expect that the most common signatures were as complex as the metrical patterns in the poetry of the culture in question.

*Some assumptions in the question:

  1. There is such a thing as "the western musical scale".
  2. That ancient Greeks invented this scale rather than merely being the first to document something older and perhaps more universal.
  3. That cultures fully abandoned their old tonal structures after contact with Roman or Greek culture.
  4. That time signatures are or were always a thing.
  5. That "Europe" is a meaningful distinction in this context.
  • I can't imagine why anyone would downvote this answer. +1 from me.
    – phoog
    Feb 14, 2022 at 16:14
  • Didn't downvote, but if I had to guess, it's because there is no short summary of the cited papers in case of link rot. +1 though overall Feb 14, 2022 at 17:13
  • @dissemin8or Thanks for the tip. I'll see if I can improve the answer. Also in retrospect my first sentence may be a bit snarky.
    – Theodore
    Feb 14, 2022 at 17:43
  • 1
    The two genres here put me in mind of ganga, which features tight clusters separated by a few cents (covered in Titon's Worlds of Music textbook, and here's a general video). One takeaway from these systems is that even the notion of selecting and assembling notes from a given scale is an assumption (or that "scale" can mean something procedurally derived). Feb 14, 2022 at 22:50
  • 1
    @AndyBonner I have heard of this, but don't know enough about it [yet] to include in my answer. Also important to note that the Croatian variant of Ganga, Ojkanje is on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
    – Theodore
    Feb 15, 2022 at 14:48

In the film Cave of Forgotten Dreams there is this segment...

...where a paleolithic flute is played.

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).

I think you want to be careful about either...

  • reading too much into the possibility of playing this or that scale on an instrument
  • or drawing too stark a contrast between scales in this or that music culture

Just because a paleothic flute can be played in a major key doesn't necessarily mean a paleothic person played that way. Likewise, Indian and Western music superficially both use diatonic scales but use them in very different ways.

Unfortunately you are asking a question about unrecorded human history. Short of some amazing new archaeological discovery we can only speculate what was ancient music.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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