Music of Mesopotamia

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The music of Mesopotamia was the music of the ancient Mesopotamian people. It played an important role in ancient Mesopotamian society, in social and religious contexts.

There are a number of instruments known from ancient Mesopotamia, and the ancient Mesopotamians also had their own music theory.


Cuneiform sources reveal an orderly organized system of diatonic scales, depending on the tuning of stringed instruments in alternating fifths and fourths.[citation needed] Instruments of ancient Mesopotamia include harps, lyres, lutes, reed pipes, and drums. Many of these were shared with neighboring cultures. Contemporary East African lyres and West African lutes preserve many features of Mesopotamian instruments.[1]

The vocal tone or timbre was probably similar to the pungently nasal sound of the narrow-bore reed pipes, and most likely shared the contemporary "typically" Asian vocal quality and techniques, including little dynamic changes and more graces, shakes, mordents, glides and microtonal inflections. Singers probably expressed intense and withdrawn emotion, as if listening to themselves, as shown by the practice of cupping a hand to the ear (as is still current in modern Assyrian music and many Arab and folk music).[2]

Two silver pipes have been discovered in Ur with finger holes, and a depiction of two reeds vibrating. This instrument would be close to the modern oboe. The ancient Mesopotamians do not seem to have had a clarinet-type of instrument.[3] A number of reconstructions have been proposed, the most recent being a pair of thin tubes with three finger holes in one tube and four finger holes in the other.[4]

Harmonic series, series of notes that the Mesopotamian horn instruments would have been able to play

For horned instruments, the Mesopotamians seem to have had horn instruments, similar to today's French horn and trumpet.[3] Only few surviving examples remain, for example a silver trumpet found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Most of the horns in ancient Mesopotamia were in fact horns from an animal, so would have decayed. These instruments would have worked like a bugle, using the harmonic series to get the notes needed for music. All tubes have a harmonic series; the image shown for the harmonic series shows what notes any tube can play. The blackened notes are out of tune, but are still recognizable as that particular pitch. The harmonic series makes a Lydian scale, shown from the 8th pitch in the picture to the 16th pitch, the 14th pitch not being a note on the Lydian scale.

Percussive instruments were only played in specific, ritualistic circumstances. Drums in ancient Mesopotamia were played not with sticks, but with the hands.[3] Plucked instruments, such as the harp, were more elaborate in many respects, being adorned decoratively with precious metals and stones. The harps found had anywhere from four to eleven strings. Plucked instruments came in many varieties, most differing in the manner in which they were intended to be held.[5]

Mesopotamian music theory[edit]

The ancient Mesopotamians seem to have utilized a cyclic theory of music, as seen through the numbering of their strings from the number one, through to the number five, then back down to one.[6] Through this, the pattern seems to arise that each string was used in separate parts of the music, the first string for the first part, the second string for the second part, and so on and so forth. What makes the music cyclical is that the final string is tuned the same way as the first string, the second to last is the same as the second string, so the music will approach the fifth string then revert through the previous strings.[citation needed]

Example of the F-Lydian scale

The Mesopotamians seem to have utilized a heptatonic Lydian scale, heptatonic meaning a scale with seven pitches. The Lydian scale is the regular major scale with a raised fourth. For example, the F-Lydian scale contains the same notes as the C major scale, meaning it does not have the note B Flat, like the F major scale. The F-Lydian scale instead has the note B, which is a tritone away from the tonic note, F. The Mesopotamians did not seem to have a term for this tritone interval, nor a term for the octave, of which we know they had a concept.[7] The use of a heptatonic scale would have eliminated any practical need for a term for the octave, as it would not have the importance that it has in today's music.[clarification needed]

Mesopotamian music had a system that introduced rigidity in the music, preventing the melody from developing into chaos.[8] Until recently no form of musical notation had been known, however there is a cuneiform tablet containing a hymn and what has been translated as musical instructions for a performer, making this tablet the oldest known musical notation. There were strict instructions for how to perform music, similar to chord progression today.[3] These instructions also seem to point to a strong desire for musicians to play in tune, with steps in performing requiring frequent attempts to tune the instruments.[7]

Uses of music[edit]

Music for the ancient Mesopotamians had both a religious and a social aspect.[9][3] There was a different expectation for each musician, particularly vocalists. Whereas the religious singers were supposed to sing harshly, ignoring beauty to emphasize and focus on the religious chants, the social singers were expected to sing beautiful melodies.[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  • Cheng, Jack (2009). "A Review of Early Dynastic III Music: Man's Animal Call". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 68 (3): 163–178. doi:10.1086/613988. JSTOR 10.1086/613988. S2CID 161301306.</ref>
  • Duchesne-Guillemin, Marcelle (1981). "Music in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt". World Archaeology 12, no. 3:287–297. doi:10.1080/00438243.1981.9979803; JSTOR 124240.
  • Goss, Clint (2012). "Flutes of Gilgamesh and Ancient Mesopotamia". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2012-01-08.
  • Irvine, Douglas (2003). "The Gold Lyre of Ur, c. 2650 BC (BCE)". (Accessed 19 January 2011).
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1971). "The Discovery of an Ancient Mesopotamian Theory of Music". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 115: 131–149.
  • Kilmer, Anne, and Steve Tinney (1996). "Old Babylonian Music Instruction Texts." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 48:49–56. JSTOR 1359769; doi:10.2307/1359769.
  • Roger, Peter, and Stuart Moorey (1976). Ancient Iraq: (Assyria and Babylonia). Oxford: Ashmolean Museum. ISBN 9780900090363
  • Sachs, Curt (1943). The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 9780486466613.
  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.

Further reading[edit]

  • Duchesne-Guillemin, Marcelle (1980). "Sur la restitution de la musique hourrite". Revue de Musicologie. 66 (1): 5–26. doi:10.2307/928544. JSTOR 928544.
  • Duchesne-Guillemin, Marcelle (1984), "A Hurrian Musical Score from Ugarit: The Discovery of Mesopotamian Music", Sources from the Ancient Near East, Malibu, California: Undena Publications, 2 (2), ISBN 0-89003-158-4
  • Fink, Robert (1981). The Origin of Music: A Theory of the Universal Development of Music. Saskatoon: Greenwich-Meridian.
  • Gütterbock, Hans (1970). "Musical Notation in Ugarit". Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale. 64 (1): 45–52.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1974). "The Cult Song with Music from Ancient Ugarit: Another Interpretation". Revue d'Assyriologie. 68: 69–82.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn (1997). "Musik, A: philologisch". Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie 8, edited by Dietz Otto Edzard, 463–482. Berlin: De Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-014809-9.
  • Kilmer, Anne (2001). "Mesopotamia §8(ii)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, Richard L. Crocker, and Robert R. Brown (1976). Sounds from Silence: Recent Discoveries in Ancient Near Eastern Music. Berkeley: Bit Enki Publications, 1976. Includes LP record, Bit Enki Records BTNK 101, reissued [s.d.] as CD.
  • Vitale, Raoul (1982). "La Musique suméro-accadienne: gamme et notation musicale". Ugarit-Forschungen 14 (1982): 241–263.
  • Wellesz, Egon, ed. (1957). New Oxford History of Music Volume I: Ancient and Oriental Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • West, Martin. Litchfield. (1994). "The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts". Music & Letters 75, no. 2 (May): 161–179.
  • Wulstan, David (1968). "The Tuning of the Babylonian Harp". Iraq 30:215–228.
  • Wulstan, David (1971). "The Earliest Musical Notation". Music & Letters 52 (1971): 365–382.

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