Ancient Music

Although the earliest form of music in the world can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic era, also known as the late stone ages (c. 50,000 – 10,000 BCE), historical records of musical practices were only done much after the development of writing at c.3000 BCE. In this post, I will be sharing with the class about the earliest recorded music of literate civilization in history. This era of music is also known as Ancient music, and I will mainly be covering the Ancient music of the two civilizations we had come across since the start of the semester: Mesopotamia and Greece.

Ancient music was characterized by the development of music notation systems, instruments, and music theories – such as scales and modes – across various ancient civilizations namely the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Indian, Chinese, Greece, Rome, etc. These music systems appeared separately and were unique to each of these ancient empires. Here is a brief timeline suggesting the development of music theories, instruments, and systems for those who are interested.

Ancient Music of The Mesopotamian Empires

Most of what we know about Mesopotamian Empires came through excavated cuneiform tablets. These tablets gave us "evidence for the uses of music in ancient Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, and among their neighbors in Anatolia, Iran, and Syria-Palestine". One of the most notable findings of Ancient music in Mesopotamia is the Lyres (and harp) of Ur. The earlier lyres were recovered by British Archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavations of Ur's Royal Cemetery. Each of the lyres have their own unique features; however, they do share some similar features such as the ornament of a bovine's (bull or ox) head and the use of jewels and precious metals (Lapis Lazuli, mother of pearl, gold, silver, and copper) to decorate the lyre. Here are images of two prominent lyres found in the tombs of the King and Queen; The Great Lyre on the left (above), and The Queen's Lyre on the right (below):

In addition to the Lyres of Ur, information about the Ancient Mesopotamian musical scales have been identified by cuneiformists in the late 1950s. So far, they have identified ten cuneiform tablets which gave evidence that "standardized tun­ing procedures that operated within a heptatonic, dia­tonic system consisting of seven different and interrelated scales" existed during the Old Babylonian period of ancient Mesopotamia (c.1800 BCE). What is surprising is that these seven scales can be associated to the seven musical scales of Ancient Greek even though the development of the Greek scales were only created after about 1400 years later! Furthermore, one of the Mesopotamian scale is similar to what we know as a modern Major scale today. This shows the influence Ancient music might have in the shaping of civilizations throughout history.

Ancient music of The Greek

In general, the Greek music system of scales generally consist of tetrachords - a four note descending adjacent intervals - which is referred to as a "genera". Based on the different ways intervals within the tetrachord were divided, three different genera - the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic genera - were classified. Seven-tone scales were then created by putting these genera together using two methods: conjunct and disjunct.

Apart from having the system of scales and the seven different modes of music [previously mentioned in the section of Mesopotamia music], the music systems of ancient Greece was largely influenced by the philosophies of notable philosophers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. As we have discussed in class, due the Greek's belief in the nine muses and art, they held music in high regard. Therefore, the functions of music include playing "in homes, in theatres [sic], during religious ceremonies, to accompany athletics, provided rhythm during military training, accompanied agricultural activities such as harvesting, and was an important element in the education of children".

In addition to being the "Father" of mathematics and geometry, Pythagoras was also deemed as the "Father of Music" due to his studies and discovery of musical intervals, harmonics, and the medicinal properties of music. At c.500 BCE, Pythagoras devised the Pythagorean Scale based on the relationship between frequencies and the vibrations of different lengths of strings. Here is an interactive site introducing his system of harmony in terms of Music and Space.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle discusses music as a power that can influence the spirituality, behavior, and soul due to its potential to affect the emotional states of an individual. Plato emphasized on the relationship of music and the society, stating in The Republic Book IV that "When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them". Similarly, Aristotle observed that music can shape human behavior as it connects deeply with human emotions. In chapter V of his Politics Book VIII, Aristotle describes how "anger and mildness, courage and modesty, and their contraries, as well as all other dispositions of the mind, are most naturally imitated by music and poetry; which is plain by experience, for when we hear these our very soul is altered". With this potential to affect emotional states, he emphasized that music should be considered as an influence that can improve, and also decline human's morality.


(Click on image for source)

Thank you for reading

Here marks the end of my blog post regarding the Ancient music of Mesopotamia and Greece. By now, we would have realized how the information provided in this post is just the tip of an iceberg as compared to the vast history and complexity of Ancient music and its various music systems. However, I hope you have enjoyed reading and learning more about what I have shared. One last thing, how could a topic introducing Ancient music end without any audio references?


To offer an idea of ancient music, the video embedded above is an interpretation of the Hurrian Hymn no. 6 from ancient Mesopotamia (c.1400 BCE); one of the oldest written music discovered thus far!

Once again, thank you for reading.