Ancient music
Ancient music is music that developed in literate cultures, replacing prehistoric music
Prehistoric music
Prehistoric music is a term in the history of music for all music produced in preliterate cultures , beginning somewhere in very late geological history...


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
University of California
The University of California is a public university system in the U.S. state of California. Under the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the University of California is a part of the state's three-tier public higher education system, which also includes the California State University...

 at Berkeley published in 1986 her decipherment
Decipherment is the analysis of documents written in ancient languages, where the language is unknown, or knowledge of the language has been lost....

 of cuneiform
Cuneiform can refer to:*Cuneiform script, an ancient writing system originating in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC*Cuneiform , three bones in the human foot*Cuneiform Records, a music record label...

Clay tablet
In the Ancient Near East, clay tablets were used as a writing medium, especially for writing in cuneiform, throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age....

 from Nippur
Nippur was one of the most ancient of all the Sumerian cities. It was the special seat of the worship of the Sumerian god Enlil, the "Lord Wind," ruler of the cosmos subject to An alone...

 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
Diatonic scale
In music theory, a diatonic scale is a seven note, octave-repeating musical scale comprising five whole steps and two half steps for each octave, in which the two half steps are separated from each other by either two or three whole steps...

 (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
Leonard Woolley
Sir Charles Leonard Woolley was a British archaeologist best known for his excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia...

 discovered pieces of four harp
The harp is a multi-stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicularly to the soundboard. Organologically, it is in the general category of chordophones and has its own sub category . All harps have a neck, resonator and strings...

s while excavating in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur
Ur was an important city-state in ancient Sumer located at the site of modern Tell el-Muqayyar in Iraq's Dhi Qar Governorate...

 located in what was Ancient Mesopotamia and is contemporary Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

. Some fragments are at the University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania is a private, Ivy League university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Penn is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States,Penn is the fourth-oldest using the founding dates claimed by each institution...

, some in the British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

 in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, and some in Baghdad
Baghdad is the capital of Iraq, as well as the coterminous Baghdad Governorate. The population of Baghdad in 2011 is approximately 7,216,040...

. 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 lyre
The lyre is a stringed musical instrument known for its use in Greek classical antiquity and later. The word comes from the Greek "λύρα" and the earliest reference to the word is the Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning "lyrists", written in Linear B syllabic script...

s 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, and attempts are being made to play a replica of it as part of a touring orchestra
An orchestra is a sizable instrumental ensemble that contains sections of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. The term orchestra derives from the Greek ορχήστρα, the name for the area in front of an ancient Greek stage reserved for the Greek chorus...


Harps from Assyria and Egypt

Assurbanipal (705 - 681 BCE) was king of Assyria
Assyria was a Semitic Akkadian kingdom, extant as a nation state from the mid–23rd century BC to 608 BC centred on the Upper Tigris river, in northern Mesopotamia , that came to rule regional empires a number of times through history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur...

. At his capital at Nineveh
Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and capital of the Neo Assyrian Empire. Its ruins are across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul, in the Ninawa Governorate of Iraq....

 is a bas-relief showing the fall of the Judea
Judea or Judæa was the name of the mountainous southern part of the historic Land of Israel from the 8th century BCE to the 2nd century CE, when Roman Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina following the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt.-Etymology:The...

n city of Lachish
Lachish was an ancient Near East town located at the site of modern Tell ed-Duweir in the Shephelah, a region between Mount Hebron and the maritime plain of Philistia . The town was first mentioned in the Amarna letters as Lakisha-Lakiša...

. 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 mural
A mural is any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling or other large permanent surface. A particularly distinguishing characteristic of mural painting is that the architectural elements of the given space are harmoniously incorporated into the picture.-History:Murals of...

s from the time Ramesses III
Ramesses III
Usimare Ramesses III was the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty and is considered to be the last great New Kingdom king to wield any substantial authority over Egypt. He was the son of Setnakhte and Queen Tiy-Merenese. Ramesses III is believed to have reigned from March 1186 to April 1155 BCE...

 of Egypt, about 1200 BCE. "The Tomb of the Harpists" contains a bas-relief with two blind musicians. James Bruce
James Bruce
James Bruce was a Scottish traveller and travel writer who spent more than a dozen years in North Africa and Ethiopia, where he traced the origins of the Blue Nile.-Youth:...

 described it in 1768 and it is sometimes known as Bruce's Tomb.

Hurrian music

Among the Hurrian texts from Ugarit
Ugarit was an ancient port city in the eastern Mediterranean at the Ras Shamra headland near Latakia, Syria. It is located near Minet el-Beida in northern Syria. It is some seven miles north of Laodicea ad Mare and approximately fifty miles east of Cyprus...

 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
Hurrian songs
The Hurrian songs are a collection of music inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets excavated from the Hurrian city of Ugarit which date to approximately 1400 BC...

 indicate that the simultaneous sounding of different pitches may have been practiced very early, perhaps by 2000 BCE.

Ancient India

Musical instruments, such as the seven-holed flute
The flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. 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...

 and various types of stringed instruments have been recovered from the Indus valley civilization
Indus Valley Civilization
The Indus Valley Civilization was a Bronze Age civilization that was located in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, consisting of what is now mainly modern-day Pakistan and northwest India...

 archaeological sites.

The Samaveda
The Sama veda , is second of the four Vedas, the ancient core Hindu scriptures. Its earliest parts are believed to date from 1700 BC and it ranks next in sanctity and liturgical importance to the Rigveda...

 consists of a collection (samhita) of hymns, portions of hymns, and detached verses, all but 75 taken from the Rigveda
The Rigveda is an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns...

, to be sung, using specifically indicated melodies called Samagana
Sām is composition of words in Rigvedic hymns from notes. The hymns of Rigveda form the base of Sāmagān. Sāmagān is not merely a name given to singing hymns of Veda but represents the philosophy and science of uniting thought, sound and music. Sāmagān is purpose of creation of Samaveda.-Sām...

, by Udgatar priests at sacrifices in which the juice of the Soma
Soma , or Haoma , from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-, was a ritual drink of importance among the early Indo-Iranians, and the subsequent Vedic and greater Persian cultures. It is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, whose Soma Mandala contains 114 hymns, many praising its energizing qualities...

 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
Natya Shastra
The Natya Shastra is an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts, encompassing theatre, dance and music. It was written during the period between 200 BC and 200 AD in classical India and is traditionally attributed to the Sage Bharata.The Natya Shastra is incredibly wide in its scope...

 is an ancient Indian
History of India
The history of India begins with evidence of human activity of Homo sapiens as long as 75,000 years ago, or with earlier hominids including Homo erectus from about 500,000 years ago. The Indus Valley Civilization, which spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from...

 treatise on the performing arts
Performing arts
The performing arts are those forms art which differ from the plastic arts insofar as the former uses the artist's own body, face, and presence as a medium, and the latter uses materials such as clay, metal or paint which can be molded or transformed to create some physical art object...

, encompassing theatre, dance and music
Indian classical music
The origins of Indian classical music can be found in the Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures in the Hindu tradition. Indian classical music has also been significantly influenced by, or syncretised with, Indian folk music and Persian music. The Samaveda, one of the four Vedas, describes music...

. It was written at an uncertain date in classical India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 (between 200 BC
200 BC
Year 200 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Maximus and Cotta...

 and 200 AD). The Natya Shastra is based upon the much older Natya Veda which contained 36000 slokas. 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
Abhinavabharati is a commentary on ancient Indian author Bharata Muni's work of dramatic theory, the Natyasastra. It is the only old commentary available on this work...

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
Music of India
The music of India includes multiple varieties of folk, popular, pop, classical music and R&B. India's classical music tradition, including Carnatic and Hindustani music, has a history spanning millennia and developed over several eras. It remains fundamental to the lives of Indians today as...

  1. Establishment of Shadja as the first, defining note of the scale or grama
    A Grama is a local governing body in the state of Karnataka in India.Each Grama governs a particular village or cluster of villages. Generally these Grama attend to problems of drinking water, street lighting, drainage, primary schools, health centres, etc.The word means "village" in the Kannada...

  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 mode
    Musical mode
    In the theory of Western music since the ninth century, mode generally refers to a type of scale. This usage, still the most common in recent years, reflects a tradition dating to the middle ages, itself inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music.The word encompasses several additional...

    s or jati
    Jāti is the term used to denote clans, tribes, communities and sub-communities in India. It is a term used across religions. In Indian society each jāti typically has an association with a traditional job function or tribe, although religious beliefs Jāti (in Devanagari: जाति Tamil:சாதி) (the...

    s which are the origin of the notion of the modern melodic structures known as raga
    A raga is one of the melodic modes used in Indian classical music.It is a series of five or more musical notes upon which a melody is made...

    s. Their role in invoking emotions are emphasized; thus compositions emphasizing the notes gandhara
    Gandhāra , is the name of an ancient kingdom , located in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Gandhara was located mainly in the vale of Peshawar, the Potohar plateau and on the Kabul River...

     or rishabha
    Rishabha also spelled as Rsabha or Vrsabha may refer to:* Rishabha , the first Jain tirthankar* Rishabha , a sage mentioned in the Vaishnava texts, incarnation of Visnu, the son of King Nabhi and Merudevi; father of the great king - BharatIn Sanskrit, Rishabha may also mean:* The bull* The great one...

     are said to be related to tragedy (karuna rasa) whereas rishabha
    Rishabha also spelled as Rsabha or Vrsabha may refer to:* Rishabha , the first Jain tirthankar* Rishabha , a sage mentioned in the Vaishnava texts, incarnation of Visnu, the son of King Nabhi and Merudevi; father of the great king - BharatIn Sanskrit, Rishabha may also mean:* The bull* The great one...

     is to be emphasized for evoking heroism (vIra rasa).

Jatis are elaborated in greater detail in the text Dattilam
Dattilam is an ancient Indian musical text ascribed to the sage Dattila. It is believed to have been composed shortly after the Natya Shastra of Bharata, and is dated between the 1st and 4th c. AD....

, 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 bhava
The term bhāva is often translated as feeling, emotion, mood, devotional state of mind. In Buddhist thought, bhāva denotes the continuity of life and death, including reincarnation, and the maturation arising therefrom...

s that may be evoked by music.

Ancient China

The history of the Guqin
The guqin is the modern name for a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family...

, 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 lute
Lute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back, or more specifically to an instrument from the family of European lutes....

s and flute
The flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. 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...

s, were created and played. Instruments such as the "barbat
Barbat (lute)
The barbat or barbud is a lute of ancient Persian origin. The Arabic Oud is derived from an ancient Persian barbat. Today's barbat, however, is essentially the same thing as today's oud: the instrument is often called the barbat when played in a Persian tradition, while called the oud when played...

" (a precursor of the lute, the modern form commonly referred to as oud
The oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in North African and Middle Eastern music. The modern oud and the European lute both descend from a common ancestor via diverging paths...

 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
Ancient Roman music
Less is known about Ancient Roman music than is known about the music of ancient Greece. There is a number of at least partially extant sources on the music of the Greeks...

. The epic
Epic poetry
An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form...

s of Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

 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
Seikilos epitaph
The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. The song, the melody of which is recorded, alongside its lyrics, in the ancient Greek musical notation, was found engraved on a tombstone, near Aidin,...

 is the oldest surviving complete musical composition from the Greek tradition or from any tradition. Three complete hymn
A hymn is a type of song, usually religious, specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and typically addressed to a deity or deities, or to a prominent figure or personification...

s by Mesomedes
Mesomedes of Crete was a Greek lyric poet and composer of the early 2nd century.He was a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian, on whose favorite Antinous he is said to have written a panegyric, specifically called a Citharoedic Hymn . Two epigrams by him in the Greek Anthology Mesomedes of Crete was a...

 of Crete
Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the thirteen administrative regions of Greece. It forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece while retaining its own local cultural traits...

 (2nd century CE) exist in manuscript. In addition, many fragments of Greek music are extant, including fragments from tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

, among them a choral song
Greek chorus
A Greek chorus is a homogenous, non-individualised group of performers in the plays of classical Greece, who comment with a collective voice on the dramatic action....

 by Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 for his Orestes
Orestes (play)
Orestes is an Ancient Greek play by Euripides that follows the events of Orestes after he had murdered his mother.-Background:...

and an instrumental intermezzo
In music, an intermezzo , in the most general sense, is a composition which fits between other musical or dramatic entities, such as acts of a play or movements of a larger musical work...

 from Sophocles
Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides...

' Ajax. Romans did not have their own system of musical notation, but a few Romans apparently learned the Greek system. A line from Terence
Publius Terentius Afer , better known in English as Terence, was a playwright of the Roman Republic, of North African descent. His comedies were performed for the first time around 170–160 BC. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on,...

's Hecyra
Hecyra is a comedic Latin play by the early Roman playwright Terence.The Hecyra was a failure at its first two stagings. The first in 165 BC was disrupted, when a rumor spread that a tightrope-walker and boxers were about to perform. In 160 BC the production was cancelled when the theater was...

was set to music and possibly notated by his composer Flaccus
Flaccus (composer)
Flaccus is a composer from the 2nd century BC, of whom little is known. He was either a freedman or a slave of one of Terence's patrons and wrote musical scores for Terence's comedies...


It has always been known that some ancient music was not strictly monophonic. 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
Drone (music)
In music, a drone is a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece. The word drone is also used to refer to any part of a musical instrument that is just used to produce such an effect.-A musical effect:A drone...

or "keynote," while the other played melodic passages.

External links

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