Mondays at 5:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 10 a.m., and Fridays at 8:30 a.m.

Timeline is a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition. Hosted by VPR Classical's James Stewart.

Listen to the series, Timeline: Elements, a four-part educational series based on the elements of antiquity: FIRE, WATER, EARTH and AIR.

If you'd like to go deeper, please see our suggested reading list.

Timeline is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation.

Subscribe to the Timeline podcast


Pindar was an ancient Greek poet who specialized in writing epinikia, victoy odes in honor of Olympic crown winners.
U.S. Public Domain

John Williams composed the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" for the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. The practice of celebrating sportsmanship through music and verse is almost as old as the games themselves, going all the way back to ancient Greece.

This famous painting by Rembrandt depicts young David playing the lyre for King Saul to ease the king's mind.
U.S. Public Domain

We are continuing our series of episodes based on the biographical sketches found in Lewis Holmes' book The Mystery of Music. This story dates back to ancient Israel, around 1000 BCE.

This is a scene inscribed on the tomb of Nefertari in the "Valley of the Queens," a burial site in ancient Egypt, used for centuries.
U.S. Public Domain

This next excerpt from Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music reads more like a pulp-fiction mystery novel. However, the story is preserved on 3000 year old papyri. It has torture, conspiracy, bribery and, yes, a bit of music.

This ancinet Akkadian cylinder seal depicts Inanna resting her foor on the back of a lion while other gods pay homage.
U.S. Public Domain

Let’s begin this episode with the text of a song from ancient Sumeria, sung over 4,000 years ago.

This image is taken from an ancient limestone disc depiciting Enheduanna in her place of authority as priestess.
U.S. Public Domain

At the mouth of the Euphrates River, in modern, southern Iraq, you’ll find the ruins of the ancient city of Ur. And when I say ancient, I mean very ancient. There’s evidence to suggest that this city was occupied as early as 6500 BCE, over 8000 years ago. Ur was an important center of civil and cultural life for the Sumerians, the inventors of the first written language. In this ancient tongue we find the writings of the first author and composer of record in the history of the world, the Akkadian princess Enheduanna.

HomoCosmicos / ISTOCK

Welcome to our first episode looking at the lives of ancient musicians as detailed in Lewis Holmes’ new book The Mystery of Music. The book gives brief biographical sketches of 30 musicians and composers from many different cultures and we’ll look at a few of them together. Let’s begin with one of the earliest musicians we know by name, a flutist to Pharaoh in the Old Kingdom of Egypt over 4,500 years ago, Ipi.

Lewis M. Holmes / Used with permission

Lewis Holmes: I think musicality is universal, that is the ability to enjoy music, to make music, that’s universal. But there are a lot of differences between the types of music that you find in different societies. The interactions between one musical system and another has strengthened both systems.

U.S. Public Domain / Pixabay

For the past few episodes we’ve been exploring different aspects of music therapy. We’ve talked about how music is being used to treat those with chronic pain, dementia, memory loss and ADHD. This episode, we thought it would be nice to talk to a practitioner of the growing field…

U.S. Public Domain

The ancient King of Israel, Saul, was said to have suffered from intense insomnia and a troubled mind. He employed a young musician named David, to play the lyre and help him find peace, rest and sleep. The story of David and Saul demonstrates that we’ve always understood the healing qualities of music; it’s ability to alleviate pain and ease the mind. However, it’s only been in the past few decades that we’ve truly begun to study music’s true palliative power.

U.S. Public Domain

Simply type “study music” into a google search and you’ll get about three billion results; from videos and tracks of original pieces that use alpha waves to help you focus, to long playlists of classical music for study and concentration. There are entire genres and branches of the music industry devoted to providing music as a backdrop for other activities. Do they work? Yes, yes they do. As Rebecca West of the Music Institute of Chicago stated, “Rhythm, melody and tempo are tools used to target non-musical behaviors, to catapult change throughout the body. A change in rhythm can trigger a reaction in the brain.”

U.S. Public Domain

German philosopher Immanuel Kant called music “The Quickening Art.” Oliver Sacks uses this quote often when explaining how music can jump-start the human brain. Music employs so many different parts of the mind at once. It can trigger responses that may have seemed dormant or even lost forever. Sometimes, the effect of music on the mind can even appear miraculous. I’ve seen it, firsthand.

U.S. Public Domain

For the past few months we’ve been exploring the way that music affects us physically, emotionally, socially and neurologically. Along the way we’ve hinted at how these concepts and studies have been translated into therapies designed to address particular needs of patients. Music therapy has become a well-established health profession dedicated to the use of musical invention to address the wellness of individuals.

U.S. Public Domain

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

All Images Public Domain - Collage by James Stewart

We all know that listening to music is enjoyable, pleasurable, emotional… in short, it feels good. Why though? Why do we react to music this way?

U.S. Public Domain

In an earlier episode we spent a great deal of time debunking the “Mozart Effect,” the idea that passively listening to music can increase the IQ or cognitive functions of an infant or an individual. We repeated over and over again that music should not exist just for the benefits it brings to other disciplines. Music has intrinsic value on its own. I want to make that perfectly clear; the beauty of music itself is enough reason to continue the practice.

All Images Public Domain - Collage by James Stewart

Our ability to hear patterns, recognize words and focus our auditory perception is thanks, in large part, to a very specific region of the brain, the superior temporal gyrus. It’s located just behind and above each ear. It’s the site of our auditory association cortex, in other words it’s the place that helps us understand language, speech and music.

Timeline: Synesthesia

Apr 15, 2019
U.S. Public Domain

1915 saw the New York premiere of Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poem of Fire. The performance featured a new instrument of Scriabin’s invention, the clavier à lumières, a keyboard with lights. Rather than playing music or sound, this instrument emitted a different color of light based on the note pressed on the keyboard. Some say that Scriabin created this instrument to express his own synesthesia.

U.S. Public Domain

December 6, 1997, Japanese television aired the 38th episode of the uber-popular animated program Pokemon, entitled “Denno Senshi Porigon.” In the middle of the episode there was a short, five second shot of flashing red and blue lights accompanied by a high-pitch sound. This visual and audio stimulus caused some watching to experience photosensitive epileptic seizures. Over 700 children ended up in the hospital with countless others reporting side effects such as; headaches, dizziness and nausea. It’s estimated that 10 percent of those who viewed the broadcast were affected in some way. As a result, the Japanese government made new rules around their animated programs and the company Nintendo took an immediate hit on the stock market. The incident has become infamous for what is now called “Pokemon Shock.”

Stefan Rotter / ISTOCK

We’ve all been there, driving down the street listening to music while moving our fingers to the rhythm, sitting in a concert hall tapping our toes to the music, working out in the gym making our reps or steps match the background beat around us. I’ve caught myself falling into step with random music coming out of a shop or coffee house just by simply walking past. We call this rhythmic entrainment, the tendency to sync up with the beat around us.

Paul Orgel - used by permission

Chopin’s birthday is celebrated on the 1st of March and J.S. Bach’s on either the 21st or the 31st, depending on which calendar you use. That’s a long story for another episode. We’ve spent this entire month exploring the music and lives of these two composers. All of this has come together around a concert that VPR Classical hosted last month called “The Alchemy of Genius.” This concert featured…