World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Ancient music

Article Id: WHEBN0001502321
Reproduction Date:

Title: Ancient music  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: History of music, Music archaeology, Ancient music, Classical music, Aboriginal music of Canada
Collection: Ancient Music
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Ancient music

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.


  • Egypt 1
  • Mesopotamia 2
    • The harps of Ur 2.1
    • Hurrian music 2.2
  • Ancient India 3
  • Ancient China 4
  • Ancient Greece 5
  • Ancient Rome 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


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. Cymbals (Anon. 2003). Egyptian folk music, including the traditional Sufi dhikr rituals, are the closest contemporary music genre to ancient Egyptian music, having preserved many of its features, rhythms, and instruments (Hickmann 1957, ; Anon. 1960, ). 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).


In 1986, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer from the University of California at Berkeley published her decipherment of a cuneiform tablet from Nippur dated to about 2000 BCE. She demonstrated that they represent 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 tablet dated to about 1250 BCE (Kilmer 1965). The interpretation of the notation system is still controversial, but it is clear that the notation indicates the names of strings on a lyre, and its tuning is described in other tablets (West 1994). These tablets represent the earliest recorded melodies, though fragmentary, from anywhere in the world (West 1994).

The 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 2,750 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 second Iraqi War led to the destruction of the bull-head lyre (Anon. 2005).

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.

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.

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 36000 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"

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 presently 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.

Ancient Greece

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.

Some fragments of Greek music, such as the Orestes fragment, clearly call for more than one note to be sounded at the same time. Greek sources 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.

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."

The philosopher-theorist Boethius was one of the best known musicians of the time, although he wasn't a musician at all, with his work being regarded as a stepping stone during the Latin Middle Ages and the Medieval period. 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). Additionally, his work the Quadrivium was used to understand dissonance and consonance in music (Anon. 2001).

See also


  • Anderson, Robert, Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, and Virginia Danielson. "Egypt, Arab Republic of (Jumhuriyat Misr al-Arabiya)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
  • Anon. "Rythme, mètre et mesure de la musique instrumentale et vocale des anciens Egyptiens." Acta Musicologica 32, no. 1 (January–March 1960): 11–22.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Hickmann, Hans. "Un Zikr Dans le Mastaba de Debhen, Guîzah (IVème Dynastie)." Journal of the International Folk Music Council 9 (1957): 59–62.
  • 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.
  • West, M. L. "The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts". Music & Letters 75, no. 2 (May 1994), 161–79.
  • Yin, Wei. n.d. Zhongguo Qinshi Yanyi 【中国琴史演义.

External links

  • Reconstructed bone flutes, sound sample and playing instructions.
  • International Study Group on Music Archaeology
  • Musica Romana: Ensemble for ancient music
  • Ensemble Kérylos, a music group led by scholar Annie Bélis and dedicated to the recreation of ancient Greek and Roman music.

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Hawaii eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.