Ancient music

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Ancient music is music that developed in literate cultures, replacing prehistoric music. Ancient music refers to the various musical systems that were developed across various geographical regions such as Mesopotamia, India, Persia, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome. Ancient music is designated by the characterization of the basic notes and scales. It may have been transmitted through oral or written systems.

Prehistoric music music produced in preliterate cultures (prehistory), beginning somewhere in very late geological history

Prehistoric music is a term in the history of music for all music produced in preliterate cultures (prehistory), beginning somewhere in very late geological history. Prehistoric music is followed by ancient music in different parts of the world, but still exists in isolated areas. However, it is more common to refer to the "prehistoric" music which still survives as folk, indigenous or traditional music. Prehistoric music is studied alongside other periods within music archaeology.

Musical note Sign used in musical notation, a pitched sound

In music, a note is a symbol denoting a musical sound. In English usage a note is also the sound itself.

In music theory, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A scale ordered by increasing pitch is an ascending scale, and a scale ordered by decreasing pitch is a descending scale. Some scales contain different pitches when ascending than when descending, for example, the melodic minor scale.



Egyptian lute players. Fresco from the tomb of Nebamun, a nobleman in the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (c. 1350 BC). Egyptian lute players 001.jpg
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 one of the powerful gods Hathor with the invention of music, which Osiris in turn used as part of his effort 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). 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 ). 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. None of the many theories that have been formulated have any adequate foundation ( Anderson, Castelo-Branco, and Danielson 2001 ).

Culture of Egypt culture of an area

The culture of Egypt has thousands of years of recorded history. Ancient Egypt was among the earliest civilizations in Middle East and Africa. For millennia, Egypt maintained a strikingly unique, complex and stable culture that influenced later cultures of Europe.

Egyptians are the citizens of Egypt. Egyptian identity is closely tied to geography. The population of Egypt is concentrated in the lower Nile Valley, the small strip of cultivable land stretching from the First Cataract to the Mediterranean and enclosed by desert both to the east and to the west. This unique geography has been the basis of the development of Egyptian society since antiquity. The first article of the constitution says: “Egyptians are part of the Arab nation and enhance its integration and unity. Egypt is part of the Muslim world, belongs to the African continent, is proud of its Asian dimension, and contributes to building human civilization”.

Hathor Egyptian goddess of love, joy, childbirth, heaven, music, and women.

Hathor was a major goddess in ancient Egyptian religion who played a wide variety of roles. As a sky deity, she was the mother or consort of the sky god Horus and the sun god Ra, both of whom were connected with kingship, and thus she was the symbolic mother of their earthly representatives, the pharaohs. She was one of several goddesses who acted as the Eye of Ra, Ra's feminine counterpart, and in this form she had a vengeful aspect that protected him from his enemies. Her beneficent side represented music, dance, joy, love, sexuality and maternal care, and she acted as the consort of several male deities and the mother of their sons. These two aspects of the goddess exemplified the Egyptian conception of femininity. Hathor crossed boundaries between worlds, helping deceased souls in the transition to the afterlife.


In 1986, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer from the University of California, Berkeley published her decipherment of a cuneiform tablet from Nippur dated to about 2000 BCE. She proposed that it represents fragmentary instructions for performing music, that the music was composed in harmonies of thirds, and that it was also written using a diatonic scale ( Kilmer 1986 ). The notation in that 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).

University of California, Berkeley Public university in California, USA

The University of California, Berkeley is a public research university in Berkeley, California. It was founded in 1868 and serves as the flagship campus of the ten campuses of the University of California. Berkeley has since grown to instruct over 40,000 students in approximately 350 undergraduate and graduate degree programs covering numerous disciplines.

In philology, decipherment is the discovery of the meaning of texts written in ancient or obscure languages or scripts. Decipherment in cryptography refers to decryption. The term is used sardonically in everyday language to describe attempts to read poor handwriting. In genetics, decipherment is the successful attempt to understand DNA, which is viewed metaphorically as a text containing word-like units. Throughout science the term decipherment is synonymous with the understanding of biological and chemical phenomena.

Cuneiform Old writing system used for many languages, including Akkadian and Hittite

Cuneiform or Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing, was invented by the Sumerians. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means "wedge shaped".

Harps of Ur

In 1929, Leonard Woolley discovered pieces of four harps while excavating in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, located in what was Ancient Mesopotamia and is contemporary Iraq. Some of the fragments are now located at the University of Pennsylvania, in the British Museum in London, and in Baghdad. They have been dated to 2750 BCE. Various reconstructions have been attempted, but none have been totally satisfactory. Depending on various definitions, they could be classed as lyres rather than harps. The most famous is the bull-headed harp, held in Baghdad. The 2003 Iraq War led to the destruction of the bull-head lyre ( Anon. 2005 ).

Leonard Woolley British archaeologist

Sir Charles Leonard Woolley was a British archaeologist best known for his excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia. He is recognized as one of the first "modern" archaeologists, who excavated in a methodical way, keeping careful records, and using them to reconstruct ancient life and history. Woolley was knighted in 1935 for his contributions to the discipline of archaeology.. He married the British archaeologist Katharine Woolley.

Harp class of musical instruments

The harp is a stringed musical instrument that has a number of individual strings running at an angle to its soundboard; the strings are plucked with the fingers. Harps have been known since antiquity in Asia, Africa and Europe, dating back at least as early as 3500 BC. The instrument had great popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, where it evolved into a wide range of variants with new technologies, and was disseminated to Europe's colonies, finding particular popularity in Latin America. Although some ancient members of the harp family died out in the Near East and South Asia, descendants of early harps are still played in Myanmar and parts of Africa, and other defunct variants in Europe and Asia have been utilized by musicians in the modern era.

Ur Archaeological site in Iraq

Ur was an important Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, located at the site of modern Tell el-Muqayyar in south Iraq's Dhi Qar Governorate. Although Ur was once a coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf, the coastline has shifted and the city is now well inland, on the south bank of the Euphrates, 16 kilometres from Nasiriyah in modern-day Iraq.

Hurrian music

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.

Ugarit archaeological site in Syria

Ugarit was an ancient port city in northern Syria, in the outskirts of modern Latakia, discovered by accident in 1928 together with the Ugaritic texts. Its ruins are often called Ras Shamra after the headland where they lie.

Ancient India

Musical instruments, such as the seven-holed flute and various types of stringed instruments have been recovered from the Indus valley civilization archaeological sites.

Flute Musical instrument of the woodwind family

The flute is a family of musical instruments in the woodwind group. Unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute is an aerophone or reedless wind instrument that produces its sound from the flow of air across an opening. According to the instrument classification of Hornbostel–Sachs, flutes are categorized as edge-blown aerophones. A musician who plays the flute can be referred to as a flute player, flautist, flutist or, less commonly, fluter or flutenist.

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. In ancient India, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text.

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). 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.

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.
  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).

Jatis are elaborated in greater detail in the text Dattilam, composed around the same time as the Natyashastra.

Ancient China

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

Symposium scene, c. 490 BCE Banquet scene Louvre G135.jpg
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

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

Related Research Articles

Musical notation graphic writing of musical parameters

Music notation or musical notation is any system used to visually represent aurally perceived music played with instruments or sung by the human voice through the use of written, printed, or otherwise-produced symbols.

Hurrians Historical ethnic group of Southwest Asia

The Hurrians were a people of the Bronze Age Near East. They spoke a Hurro-Urartian language called Hurrian and lived in Anatolia and Northern Mesopotamia. The largest and most influential Hurrian nation was the kingdom of Mitanni, the Mitanni perhaps being Indo-Iranian speakers who formed a ruling class over the Hurrians. The population of the Indo-European-speaking Hittite Empire in Anatolia included a large population of Hurrians, and there is significant Hurrian influence in Hittite mythology. By the Early Iron Age, the Hurrians had been assimilated with other peoples. Their remnants were subdued by a related people that formed the state of Urartu. The present-day Armenians are an amalgam of the Indo-European groups with the Hurrians and Urartians.

Lyre string instrument from Greek classical antiquity

The lyre is a string instrument known for its use in Greek classical antiquity and later periods. The lyre is similar in appearance to a small harp but with distinct differences.

Shruti or śruti (//), is a Sanskrit word, found in the Vedic texts of Hinduism where it means lyrics and "what is heard" in general. It is also an important concept in Indian music, where it means the smallest interval of pitch that the human ear can detect and a singer or musical instrument can produce. The musical shruti concept is found in ancient and medieval Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra, the Dattilam, the Brihaddeshi, and the Sangita Ratnakara. Chandogya Upanishad speaks of the division of the octave in 22 parts.

Natya Shastra Sanskrit text on the performing arts

The Nāṭya Śāstra is a Sanskrit text on the performing arts. The text is attributed to sage Bharata Muni, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE.

Indian classical dance, or Shastriya Nritya, is an umbrella term for various performance arts rooted in religious Hindu musical theatre styles, whose theory and practice can be traced to the Sanskrit text Natya Shastra.

This article treats the music of Ancient Mesopotamia.

Delphic Hymns

The Delphic Hymns are two musical compositions from Ancient Greece, which survive in substantial fragments. They were long regarded as being dated circa 138 BCE and 128 BCE, respectively, but recent scholarship has shown it likely they were both written for performance at the Athenian Pythaides in 128 BCE. If indeed it dates from ten years before the second, the First Delphic Hymn is the earliest unambiguous surviving example of notated music from anywhere in the western world whose composer is known by name.

Dattilam (दत्तिलम्) is an ancient Indian musical text ascribed to the sage (muni) Dattila. It is believed to have been composed shortly after the Natya Shastra of Bharata, and is dated between the 1st and 4th century AD. But Bharathamuni had given reference of the treatise " Dattilam" in his celebrated work "Natyashastra"(1-26) so there is a belief that Dattilam may be a work composed before Bharata Muni.

Music of ancient Greece

The music of ancient Greece was almost universally present in ancient Greek society, from marriages, funerals, and religious ceremonies to theatre, folk music, and the ballad-like reciting of epic poetry. It thus played an integral role in the lives of ancient Greeks. There are significant fragments of actual Greek musical notation as well as many literary references to ancient Greek music, such that some things can be known—or reasonably surmised—about what the music sounded like, the general role of music in society, the economics of music, the importance of a professional caste of musicians, etc. Even archaeological remains reveal an abundance of depictions on ceramics, for example, of music being performed.

Music of ancient Rome musical traditions of ancient Rome

The music of ancient Rome was a part of Roman culture from earliest times. Song (carmen) was an integral part of almost every social occasion. The Secular Ode of Horace, for instance, was commissioned by Augustus and performed by a mixed children's choir at the Secular Games in 17 BC. Music was customary at funerals, and the tibia, a woodwind instrument, was played at sacrifices to ward off ill influences. Under the influence of ancient Greek theory, music was thought to reflect the orderliness of the cosmos, and was associated particularly with mathematics and knowledge.

Svara or swara is a Sanskrit word that connotes a note in the successive steps of the octave. More comprehensively, it is the ancient Indian concept about the complete dimension of musical pitch.

Nabnitu ("Creation") is an ancient encyclopedic work of the Old Babylonian period that consists of multiple tablets. Its Tablet XXXII is a Sumerian-Akkadian text from Ur, and notable as one of the oldest extant documented examples of musical notation. Although on its own the tablet is somewhat cryptic, analysis of other ancient Babylonian texts reveals that it describes the nine strings of an unidentified instrument and its intervals. The nine strings, numbered symmetrically as 123454321, are presented in two parallel columns, one in Sumerian and the other in Akkadian. Tablet XXXII is now in the collections of the British Museum.

Sarana Chatushtai is an experiment to obtain the correct physical configuration of Śruti swara arrangement to Shadja Grama Notes on veena. The experiment is described in Abhinavabharati, a commentary to Natya Shastra, as an explanation after verse 28.26 of Natyashastra. The 22 Srutis are the only notes which can be useful for music in an “octave”, in this view. The sections below describe the experiment.

Music in ancient India

Music in ancient India, encompassing the Indian subcontinent, can be reproduced from written works dating to the Indian classical period, such as the Nātya Shastra, and through surviving examples of liturgical music such as the hymns of the Samaveda. Musical instruments dating to the prehistoric period have been recovered from archaeological excavations.

Hurrian songs collection of music inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets excavated from the ancient Amorite-Canaanite city of Ugarit it was found yesterday

The Hurrian songs are a collection of music inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets excavated from the ancient Amorite-Canaanite city of Ugarit, a headland in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1400 BC. One of these tablets, which is nearly complete, contains the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, making it the oldest surviving substantially complete work of notated music in the world. While the composers' names of some of the fragmentary pieces are known, h.6 is an anonymous work.

Veena stringed Indian musical instrument

The veena comprises a family of chordophone instruments from the Indian subcontinent. Ancient musical instruments evolved into many variations, such as lutes, zithers and arched harps. The many regional designs have different names such as the Rudra veena, the Saraswati veena, the Vichitra veena and others.

Santur hammered dulcimer of Persian/Iranic origins

The santur (Persian: سنتور‎, is a hammered dulcimer of Iranian or Mesopotamian origins.

Music technology (mechanical)

Mechanical music technology is the use of any device, mechanism, machine or tool by a musician or composer to make or perform music; to compose, notate, play back or record songs or pieces; or to analyze or edit music. The earliest known applications of technology to music was prehistoric peoples' use of a tool to hand-drill holes in bones to make simple flutes. Ancient Egyptians developed stringed instruments, such as harps, lyres and lutes, which required making thin strings and some type of peg system for adjusting the pitch of the strings. Ancient Egyptians also used wind instruments such as double clarinets and percussion instruments such as cymbals. In Ancient Greece, instruments included the double-reed aulos and the lyre. Numerous instruments are referred to in the Bible, including the horn, pipe, lyre, harp, and bagpipe. During Biblical times, the cornet, flute, horn, organ, pipe, and trumpet were also used. During the Middle Ages, hand-written music notation was developed to write down the notes of religious Plainchant melodies; this notation enabled the Catholic church to disseminate the same chant melodies across its entire empire.

Hittite music

Hittite music is the music of the Hittites of the 17th-12th century BC and of the Syro-Hittite successor states of the 12th-7th century BC.