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Ancient music

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Ancient music refers to the musical cultures and practices that developed in the literate civilizations of the ancient world, succeeding the music of prehistoric societies and lasting until the Post-classical era. Major centers of ancient music developed in China (the Shang, Zhou, Qin and Han dynasties), Egypt (the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms), Greece (the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods), India (the Maurya, Shunga, Kanva, Kushan, Satavahana and Gupta dynasties), Iran/Persia (the Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Empires), the Maya civilization, Mesopotamia, and Rome (the Roman Republic and Empire). Though extremely diverse, the music of ancient civilizations is frequently characterized by monophony, improvisation, and the dominance of text in musical settings.[1]


Written musical notation was the first advent of a literate society. During the time of prehistoric music, people had a tendency to primarily express their music and ideas through oral means. However, with the rise of social classes, many European and Asian societies regarded literacy as superior to illiteracy, which caused people to begin writing down their musical notations. This made music evolve from simply hearing music and transmitting it orally, to keeping records and personal interpretations of musical themes.[2][3][4]



Egyptian lute players. Fresco from the tomb of Nebamun, a nobleman in the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (c. 1350 BCE).

Music has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since antiquity. The ancient Egyptians credited the goddess Bat with the invention of music; though she was later syncretized with another goddess, Hathor.[citation needed] Osiris used Hathor's music to civilize the world. The earliest material and representational evidence of Egyptian musical instruments dates to the Predynastic period, but the evidence is more securely attested in tomb paintings from the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–2134 BCE) when harps, end-blown flutes (held diagonally), and single and double pipes of the clarinet type (with single reeds) were played.[5][6][7][8][page needed] Percussion instruments, and lutes were added to orchestras by the Middle Kingdom. Bronze cymbals dating from the Roman period (30 BCE–641 CE) have been found in a tomb on a site near Naucratis.[9][10][page needed] Although experiments have been carried out with surviving Egyptian instruments (on the spacing of holes in flutes and reed pipes, and attempts to reconstruct the stringing of lyres, harps, and lutes), only the Tutankhamun trumpets and some percussion instruments yield any secure idea of how ancient Egyptian instruments sounded.[11][page needed] None of the many theories that have been formulated have any adequate foundation.[5][12][page needed]


In 1986, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer,[13] professor of ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, published her decipherment of a cuneiform tablet, dating back to 2000 BCE from Nippur, one of the most ancient Sumerian cities. She claimed that the tablet contained fragmentary instructions for performing and composing music in harmonies of thirds, and was written using a diatonic scale.[14] The notation in the first tablet was not as developed as the notation in the later cuneiform Hurrian tablets from Ugarit, dated by Kilmer to about 1250 BCE.[15] The interpretation of the notation system is still controversial (at least five rival interpretations have been published), but it is clear that the notation indicates the names of strings on a lyre, and its tuning is described in other tablets. These tablets represent the earliest recorded melodies, though fragmentary, from anywhere in the world.[16]

Harps of Ur[edit]

In 1929, Leonard Woolley discovered pieces of four different harps while excavating the ruins of the ancient city Ur, located in what was Ancient Mesopotamia and what is now contemporary Iraq. The fragments have been dated to 2750 BCE and some are now located at the University of Pennsylvania, the British Museum in London, and in Baghdad. Various reconstructions and restorations of the instruments have been attempted, but it was observed by many that none have been completely satisfactory. Depending on various definitions, they could be classified as lyres rather than harps,[17] the most famous being the bull-headed harp, held in Baghdad. However, the Iraq War in 2003 led to the destruction of the bull-head lyre by looters.[18]

Hurrian music[edit]

Among the Hurrian texts from Ugarit are some of the oldest known instances of written music, dating from c. 1400 BCE and including one substantially complete song.[19]


The Samaveda consists of a collection (samhita) of hymns, portions of hymns, and detached verses, all but 75 taken from the Rigveda, to be sung, using specifically indicated melodies called Samagana, by Udgatar priests at sacrifices in which the juice of the soma plant, clarified and mixed with milk and other ingredients, is offered in libation to various deities.[20][page needed] In ancient India, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text.[21]

The Nātya Shastra is an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts, encompassing theatre, dance and music. It was written at an uncertain date in classical India (200 BCE–200 CE). The Natya Shastra is based upon the much older Natya Veda which contained 36,000 slokas.[22][23] There are no surviving copies of the Natya Veda. There are scholars who believe that it may have been written by various authors at different times. The most authoritative commentary on the Natya Shastra is Abhinavabharati by Abhinava Gupta.[24]

While much of the discussion of music in the Natyashastra focuses on musical instruments, it also emphasizes several theoretical aspects that remained fundamental to Indian music:

  1. Establishment of Shadja as the first, defining note of the scale or grama.[25][page needed]
  2. Two Principles of Consonance: The first principle states that there exists a fundamental note in the musical scale which is Avinashi (अविनाशी) and Avilopi (अविलोपी) that is, the note is ever-present and unchanging. The second principle, often treated as law, states that there exists a natural consonance between notes; the best between Shadja and Tar Shadja, the next best between Shadja and Pancham.
  3. The Natyashastra also suggests the notion of musical modes or jatis which are the origin of the notion of the modern melodic structures known as ragas. Their role in invoking emotions are emphasized; thus compositions emphasizing the notes gandhara or rishabha are said to be related to tragedy (karuna rasa) whereas rishabha is to be emphasized for evoking heroism (vIra rasa).[20][page needed]

Jatis are elaborated in greater detail in the text Dattilam, composed around the same time as the Natyashastra.[25][page needed][20][page needed]


Most guqin books and tablature written before the twentieth century confirm that this is the origin of the guqin, although now it is viewed as mythology. In Chinese literature, the guqin dates back almost 3,000 years, while examples of the instrument have been found in tombs that date back to about 2,000 years ago. Although the ancient literature states its beginnings, the origin of the guqin has still been a subject of debate over the past few decades.[citation needed]


Symposium scene, c. 490 BCE

Ancient Greek musicians developed their own robust system of musical notation. The system was not widely used among Greek musicians, but nonetheless a modest corpus of notated music remains from Ancient Greece and Rome. The epics of Homer were originally sung with instrumental accompaniment, but no notated melodies from Homer are known. Several complete songs exist in ancient Greek musical notation. Three complete hymns by Mesomedes of Crete (2nd century CE) exist in manuscript. In addition, many fragments of Greek music are extant, including fragments from tragedy, among them a choral song by Euripides for his Orestes and an instrumental intermezzo from Sophocles' Ajax.[26]


The music of ancient Rome borrowed heavily from the music of the cultures that were conquered by the empire, including music of Greece, Egypt, and Persia. Music accompanied many areas of Roman life; including the military, entertainment in the Roman theater, religious ceremonies and practices, and "almost all public/civic occasions."[26][27]

The philosopher-theorist Boethius translated into Latin and anthologized a number of Greek treatises, including some on music. His work The Principles of Music (better-known under the title De institutione musica) divided music into three types: Musica mundana (music of the universe), musica humana (music of human beings), and musica instrumentalis (instrumental music).


  1. ^ Grout, D.J. (1973). A History of Western Music. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 4–5, 11. ISBN 978-0-393-09416-9 – via archive.org.
  2. ^ Campbell, Patricia Shehan (Summer 1989). "Orality, Literacy and Music's Creative Potential: A Comparative Approach". Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education. 101 (101). 30–40 (p.31). JSTOR 40318372.
  3. ^ Rankin, Susan (31 October 2018). Writing Sounds in Carolingian Europe: The Invention of Musical Notation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108381789.
  4. ^ Ferko, Frank (16 December 2019). cpotts [username] ¿Potts, C.? (ed.). "Language of Music: The languages of Berkeley – an online exhibition". Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library. Library Update. Berkeley, CA: University of California. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  5. ^ a b Anderson, Robert; El-Shawan, Salwa; Castelo-Branco; Danielson, Virginia (2001). "Egypt, Arab Republic of (Jumhuriyat Misr al-Arabiya)". In Sadie, Stanley; Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London, UK: Macmillan. ISBN 978-019517067-2.[full citation needed]
  6. ^ "Music in Ancient Egypt". University of Michigan. c. 2000. Archived from the original on 13 October 2015. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  7. ^ Shaaban, Mohamed (22 April 2017). "What would Ancient Egyptian music sound like, if we could hear it?". Raseef 22 رصيف (raseef22.com). Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  8. ^ Pulver, Jeffrey (1921). "The Music of Ancient Egypt". Proceedings of the Musical Association. 48: 29–55. doi:10.1093/jrma/48.1.29. ISSN 0958-8442. JSTOR 765727.
  9. ^ "Cymbals". Digital Egypt (digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk). London, UK: University College London. 2003. UC 33268. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  10. ^ David, A. Rosalie (1998). The Egyptian Kingdoms: The Making of the Past. New York, NY: Peter Bedrick Books. ISBN 9780872263000 – via Archive.org.
  11. ^ Haslam, Andrew (1995). Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Thomson Learning. ISBN 9781568471402 – via Archive.org.
  12. ^ Manniche, Lise (1975). Ancient Egyptian Musical Instruments. Deutscher Kunstverlag. ISBN 9783422008274.
  13. ^ Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1971). "The Discovery of an Ancient Mesopotamian Theory of Music". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 115 (2): 131–149. ISSN 0003-049X. JSTOR 985853.
  14. ^ Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn; Civil, Miguel (1986). "Old Babylonian musical instructions relating to hymnody". Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 38 (1): 94–98. doi:10.2307/1359953. JSTOR 1359953. S2CID 163942248.
  15. ^ Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1965). "The strings of musical instruments: Their names, numbers, and significance". Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger. Vol. 16. pp. 261–268. {{cite book}}: |journal= ignored (help)
  16. ^ West, M.L. (May 1994). "The Babylonian musical notation and the Hurrian melodic texts". Music & Letters. 75 (2): 161–179 (esp. 161-162). doi:10.1093/ml/75.2.161.
  17. ^ "Harp vs. Lyre - Main Differences and Similarities". Merely Music. Retrieved 22 May 2023.
  18. ^ "Ancient Iraqi harp reproduced by Liverpool engineers". University of Liverpool. 28 July 2005. Archived from the original on 1 July 2010. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  19. ^ See a reconstruction of this hymn at Buccellati, Giorgio, ed. (2003). "Music in the Urkesh palace". urkesh.org.
  20. ^ a b c Popley 1921.
  21. ^ "Indian music – music in India – Indian music styles – Indian music history". Cultural India (culturalindia.net). Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  22. ^ Ghosh, Manomohan, ed. (2002). "Chapters 1–27". Natyasastra: Ascribed to Bharata-Muni (translation). The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Studies 118 [part 3]. Vol. II, 1. Varanasi: Chowkhambha Sanskrit Series Office. p. 2. ISBN 81-7080-076-5. A treatise on ancient Indian dramaturgy and histrionics, completely translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit with an introduction, various notes, and index.
  23. ^ Roda, Allen (2009). "Musical instruments of the Indian subcontinent". Metropolitan Museum (metmuseum.org)3. New York, NY. Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  24. ^ Hays, Jeffrey. "Traditional Indian Music". Facts and Details (factsanddetails.com). Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  25. ^ a b Prajnanananda 1963.
  26. ^ a b "Prehistoric period". Music World (music-world.org). Retrieved 19 October 2020.
  27. ^ "Music of Ancient Rome". Georgia Regents University. Augusta, Georgia. 2001. Archived from the original on 8 June 2013. Retrieved 28 May 2013.


  • Grout, Donald Jay (1973). A History of Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-09416-9.
  • Hickmann, Hans. "Un Zikr Dans le Mastaba de Debhen, Guîzah (IVème Dynastie)." Journal of the International Folk Music Council 9 (1957): 59–62.
  • Hickmann, Hans. "Rythme, mètre et mesure de la musique instrumentale et vocale des anciens Egyptiens." Acta Musicologica 32, no. 1 (January–March 1960): 11–22.
  • Popley, Herbert (1921). The Music of India. Burma and Ceylon: National Council of YMCA India.
  • Prajnanananda, Swami (1963). A History of Indian Music. Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math.
  • Yin, Wei. Zhongguo Qinshi Yanyi 【中国琴史演义.[full citation needed]

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