Music is an ephemeral art--or it was until recording technology was invented little more than 100 years ago. As soon as a piece is performed, it vanishes into the air. For much of human history music was created and played spontaneously. In a few places the need developed to put something down as an aid to memory. Perhaps the priests wanted to be sure they got the hymn correct so the god would not be displeased. This might be the reason that the Hurrian Songs were preserved in cuneiform. Thanks to Jon Silpayamanant for the suggestion. But what are the odds that anything scholars have come up with bears any resemblance to the actual music? It is even a bit of a speculation that what we have is a musical score:
It was the unsystematic succession of the interval names, their location below apparently lyric texts, and the regular interpolation of numerals that led to the conclusion that these were notated musical compositions.But the sound of a piece of music can vary immensely even if it is a piece from the recent past. Imagine you had a simple song chart for "My Way". You might perform it this way:
Or this way:
Both ways are "My Way".
It was only in the 19th century that musicians started thinking about the music of the past. Before then, a particularly diligent composer like J. S. Bach might collect and study scores of his predecessors going back a couple of generations, but most music heard was very recent. The exception is folk music, which can be much older. So in the 19th century scholars started digging around in old libraries and unearthed scores going back a long way indeed. The Catholic Church had been preserving chants going back a millenium, but scholars discovered much, much more.
After a while, performers wanted to explore this music as well and in the 20th century a few pioneers started trying to revive Baroque and Renaissance music. At first they played it just the way they would play any music. But then the realization dawned that this music was performed very differently than Brahms, say, or Elgar. In the 1960s and 70s the Early Music Movement was born and we started hearing a whole new spectrum of musical sounds:
I have to end here, but I will post more later...