Ancient music

Ancient music
Musical eras
Ancient (before AD 500)
Early (500 – 1760)
Common practice (1600 – 1900)
Modern and contemporary (1900 – present)

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, Egypt, Persia, India, China, Greece and Rome. Ancient music is designated by the characterization of the basic audible tones and scales. It may have been transmitted through oral or written systems.



Anne Draffkorn Kilmer from the University of California at Berkeley published in 1986 her decipherment of cuneiform tablet from Nippur dated to about 2000 BCE, demonstrating that it represents fragmentary instructions for performing music and 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). Although the interpretation of the notation system is still controversial, it is clear that the notation indicates the names of strings on a lyre, the tuning of which 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 fragments are at the University of Pennsylvania, some in the British Museum in London, and some in Baghdad. They have been dated to 2,750 BCE. Various reconstructions have been attempted, but none were 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,[1] and attempts are being made to play a replica of it as part of a touring orchestra.[citation needed]

Harps from Assyria and Egypt

Assurbanipal (705 - 681 BCE) was king of Assyria. At his capital at Nineveh is a bas-relief showing the fall of the Judean city of Lachish. In the procession is the Elamite court orchestra, containing seven lyre-players and possibly a hammer-dulcimer player. The lyres appear to have seven strings. Harps are shown in murals from the time Ramesses III of Egypt, about 1200 BCE. "The Tomb of the Harpists" contains a bas-relief with two blind musicians. James Bruce described it in 1768 and it is sometimes known as Bruce's Tomb.[citation needed]

Hurrian music

Among the Hurrian texts from Ugarit are some of the oldest known instances of written music, dating from c.1400 BC. A reconstructed hymn is replayed at the Urkesh webpage. Kilmer's tentative decipherment of the cuneiform tablets from Ugarit indicate that the simultaneous sounding of different pitches may have been practiced very early, perhaps by 2000 BCE.[citation needed]

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 BC and 200 AD). The Natya Shastra is based upon the much older Natya Veda which contained 36000 slokas.[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.

The Natyashastra also suggests several aspects of musical performance, particularly its application to vocal, instrumental and orchestral compositions. It also deals with the rasas and bhavas that may be evoked by music.

Ancient China

A famous Tang Dynasty qin, "Jiu Xiao Huan Pei" 《九霄環佩》.

The history of the Guqin, an ancient Chinese musical instrument, is a long one. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and related instruments have been found in tombs from about 2,500 years ago. Chinese legend says the qin originally had five strings, but then two were added around 1000 BCE.

Ancient Persia

Little is known of the music during the ancient Persian period except for the fact that various instruments, such as lutes and flutes, were created and played. Instruments such as the "barbat" (a precursor of the lute, the modern form commonly referred to as oud or ud in Arabic countries and in Turkey) are said to have originated in this period, probably around 800 B.C.

Ancient Greece

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. The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving complete musical composition from the Greek tradition or from any tradition. 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. Romans did not have their own system of musical notation, but a few Romans apparently learned the Greek system. A line from Terence's Hecyra was set to music and possibly notated by his composer Flaccus.[citation needed]

It has always been known that some ancient music was not strictly monophonic.[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. 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. One pipe in the aulos pairs (double flutes) may have served as a drone or "keynote," while the other played melodic passages.[citation needed]

Ancient Rome

See also


  1. ^ Ancient Iraqi harp reproduced by Liverpool engineers - University of Liverpool
  2. ^ Ghosh, Manomohan (2002). Natyasastra. p. 2. ISBN 81-7080-076-5. 


  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, 'The Strings of Musical Instruments: their Names, Numbers, and Significance', Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger = Assyriological Studies xvi (1965), 261–68.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, and Miguel Civil. 'Old Babylonian Musical Instructions Relating to Hymnody', Journal of Cuneiform Studies, xxxviii (1986), 94–98.
  • West, M. L., 'The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts', Music & Letters, lxxv, no. 2 (May 1994), 161–79.

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