Ancient music

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Ancient music refers to the musical systems that were developed in the ancient past, literate cultures, including Mesopotamia, India, Persia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome, which replaced prehistoric music. Designated by the characterization of the basic notes and scales, ancient music was transmitted through oral or written systems.


Written musical notation was the first mark of a literate society. During the time of prehistoric music, people had a tendency to primarily convey 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 (Campbell 1989, 31; Rankin 2018, 8; (cpotts 2019)).


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

Music has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since antiquity. The ancient Egyptians credited the goddess Bat with the invention of music who was later syncretized with another goddess, Hathor. Osiris used this music from Hathor 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 BC) when harps, end-blown flutes (held diagonally), and single and double pipes of the clarinet type (with single reeds) were played (Anderson, Castelo-Branco, and Danielson 2001; Anon. 1999; Shaaban 2017; Pulver 1921,[page needed]). Percussion instruments, and lutes were added to orchestras by the Middle Kingdom. Bronze cymbals dating from the Roman period—30 BC to 641 AD—have been found in a tomb on a site near Naucratis (Anon. 2003; David 1998,[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 (Haslam 1995,[page needed]). None of the many theories that have been formulated have any adequate foundation (Anderson, Castelo-Branco, and Danielson 2001; Manniche 1975,[page needed])


In 1986, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, 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 (Kilmer 1986). 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 (Kilmer 1965). 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 (West 1994, 161–62).

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 none have been completely satisfactory. Depending on various definitions, they could be classified as lyres rather than harps, 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 (Anon. 2005).

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. A reconstruction of this hymn is presented at the Urkesh webpage.

Ancient India[edit]

Musical instruments, such as the seven-holed flute and various types of stringed instruments have been recovered from the Indus valley civilization archaeological sites (Prajnanananda 1963,[page needed])

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 (Popley 1921,[page needed]). In ancient India, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text (Anon. n.d.)

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 (between 200 BCE and 200 CE). The Natya Shastra is based upon the much older Natya Veda which contained 36,000 slokas (Ghosh 2002, 2; Roda 2009). Unfortunately 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 (Hays).

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 (Prajnanananda 1963,[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) (Popley 1921,[page needed]).

Jatis are elaborated in greater detail in the text Dattilam, composed around the same time as the Natyashastra (Prajnanananda 1963,[page needed]; Popley 1921,[page needed]).

Ancient China[edit]

A famous Tang Dynasty (618–907) qin, the "Jiu Xiao Huan Pei"

Legend has it that the qin, the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, has a history of about 5,000 years. This legend states that the legendary figures of China's pre-historyFuxi, Shennong and Huang Di, the "Yellow Emperor" — were involved in its creation. Nearly all qin books and tablature collections published prior to the twentieth century state this as the actual origins of the qin (Yin n.d., 1–10), although this is now viewed as mythology. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and examples have been found in tombs from about 2,500 years ago. The exact origins of the qin is still a very much continuing subject of debate over the past few decades. A qin has recently[when?] been found in an archaeological site near Beijing, which is believed to be around 1,000 years old.[citation needed]

Ancient Greece[edit]

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.[citation needed]

Some fragments of Greek music, such as the Orestes fragment, clearly call for more than one note to be sounded at the same time.[citation needed] Greek sources[citation needed] occasionally refer to the technique of playing more than one note at the same time. In addition, double pipes, such as used by the Greeks and Persians, and ancient bagpipes, as well as a review of ancient drawings on vases and walls, etc., and ancient writings (such as in Aristotle, Problems, Book XIX.12) which described musical techniques of the time, all indicate harmony existed.[clarification needed][citation needed]

Ancient Rome[edit]

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 was incorporated into many areas of Roman life including the military, entertainment in the Roman theater, religious ceremonies and practices, and "almost all public/civic occasions."[This quote needs a citation]

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).

See also[edit]


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  • Anon. "Music in Ancient Egypt". Music in Roman Egypt: An Exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology 19 March–19 December 1999 (accessed 28 June 2014).
  • Anon. "Music of Ancient Rome". Georgia Regents University Augusta (2001). Archived from the original on 2013-06-08. Retrieved 2013-05-28.
  • Anon. "Cymbals: UC 33268". University College London website, 2003 (accessed 28 June 2014).
  • Anon. "Ancient Iraqi Harp Reproduced by Liverpool Engineers". University of Liverpool website (28 July 2005). Archive from 1 July 2010 (Accessed 21 May 2013).
  • Anon. "Indian Music – Music In India – Indian Music Styles – Indian Music History". Retrieved 2019-10-01.
  • Campbell, Patricia . "Orality, Literacy, and Music's Creative Potential: A Comparative Approach". Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 101 (Summer 1989): 30–40 (accessed 3 March 2020).
  • cpotts. "Language of Music: The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition". University of California Berkeley Library Update (16 December 2019; accessed 28 April 2020).
  • David, A. Rosalie. The Egyptian Kingdoms: The Making of the Past. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1998. ISBN 978-0872263000. (registration required)
  • Ghosh, Manomohan (ed.), Natyasastra: Ascribed to Bharata-Muni [II,]1 Translation. Chapters 1–27: "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". The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Studies 118 [part 3] (Varanasi: Chowkhambha Sanskrit Series Office2002). ISBN 81-7080-076-5.
  • Haslam, Andrew. Ancient Egypt. New York: Thomson Learning, 1995. ISBN 9781568471402. (registration required)
  • Hays, Jeffrey. "Traditional Indian Music | Facts and Details". Retrieved 2019-10-01.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • 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.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. "The Strings of Musical Instruments: their Names, Numbers, and Significance". Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger = Assyriological Studies 16 (1965), 261–68.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, and Miguel Civil. "Old Babylonian Musical Instructions Relating to Hymnody". Journal of Cuneiform Studies 38 (1986), 94–98.
  • Manniche, Lise. Ancient Egyptian Musical Instruments. University of California: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1975. ISBN 9783422008274.[verification needed]
  • Popley, Herbert (1921). The Music of India. National Council of YMCA India, Burma and Ceylon.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Prajnanananda, Swami (1963). A History of Indian Music. Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, Calcutta.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Pulver, Jeffrey. "The Music of Ancient Egypt". Proceedings of the Musical Association 48 (1921): 29–55 ISSN 0958-8442 JSTOR 765727 doi:10.1093/jrma/48.1.29.
  • Rankin, Susan (2018-10-31). Writing Sounds in Carolingian Europe: The Invention of Musical Notation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-38178-9.
  • Roda, Allen. "Musical Instruments of the Indian Subcontinent". (2009; accessed 1 October 2019).
  • Shaaban, Mohamed. "What Would Ancient Egyptian Music Sound Like, If We Could Hear It?". Raseef 22 رصيف website (22 April 2017) (accessed 1 October 2019).
  • West, M. L. "The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts". Music & Letters 75, no. 2 (May 1994), 161–79.
  • Yin, Wei. Zhongguo Qinshi Yanyi 【中国琴史演义.[full citation needed]

External links[edit]