History’s Oldest Songs: What did Ancient Music sound like?

Music, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing things human beings have created. It has the power to make us feel happy, sad, roused, calm, to tell a story, to bring back memories, all through a limited number of sounds woven together. It is an expression of creativity, cultural identity and even religion – Apollon and the Muses being the Hellenic examples. I previously wrote about my connection to Apollon through classical music.

But although Schubert and Beethoven will always remind me of Apollon’s presence in my life, there is no greater testament to his immortality than the music of our ancestors.

Because music’s greatest gift is that it lasts.

People have been singing, and playing tunes, for tens of thousands of years – so long that we don’t know when we started. We were brought together by music before we could write, before we could farm, maybe even before all of us were homo sapiens. Now, thanks to archeologists, we can be brought together by music even across time.

So what did ancient music sound like? And how was it played?

Though it is impossible to know when we first began to sing, archeological finds can give us an idea of when the first instruments were made. So far, the oldest instrument recovered is a flute that dates back 40’000 years. It has been the subject of much controversy, some scholars arguing it was made by Neanderthals, some arguing it was made by Cro Magnons, some arguing it isn’t a flute at all but a chewed bone. What is indisputable, however, is that the holes are spaced out perfectly so that they form four notes of the diatonic scale (do, re, mi, fa). This gives the flute the flexibility to play many modern tunes, as well as imitate birdsong and other sounds. Whether or not it was intended for music, when Ljuben Dimkaroski reconstructed and played it, the sound was certainly eerie:

With the invention of writing, the preservation of music suddenly became much easier. Sadly, the oldest songs we have found were recorded without musical notation, so while we have an idea of the text, we can only imagine what the tune sounded like. Even so, using ancient depictions of instruments as well as archeological finds, some enthusiasts have created their own interpretations of these songs. While they may not always be accurate, they are fun to listen to!

We also know that ancient epics, amongst which the Iliad and the Odyssey, were accompanied by music. Here is an interpretation of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest works of literature, written 5000 years ago:

The oldest preserved musical notation is also Sumerian. It dates back to 1950 B.C., during the reign of king Lipit-Ishtar for whom it was written. Unfortunately, the fragment that we have isn’t a song but a set of tuning instructions for an ancient lyre.

The Hurrian Hymn no.6 is the earliest song that we have and that is preserved enough to be played. It was discovered in Ugarit, in present day Syria, and was dated to approximately 1400 B.C. At the time, Ugarit was right on the border between Egypt and the culturally closer kingdom of Mitanni, in whose language – Hurrian – the recovered hymns were written. No.6 was dedicated to Nikkal, a Goddess of the moon. Even though she does not belong to my religion, it makes me happy that after being forgotten for so long, her hymns are being sung again 🙂

Here is an instrumental version:

At last, in the Classical period, we are brought to Greece by a short piece composed for the theatre. Though the only surviving copy is from the 3rd century, the text is from Euripides’ Orestes, which was written two centuries earlier. It is a rather grim stasimon – a song performed by the chorus during a play – which laments Orestes’ fate. The lyrics are as follow:

κατολοφύρομαι, κατολοφύρομαι
ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ’ ἀναβακχεύει,
ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς,
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς τινάξας δαίμων
κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν πόνων ὡς πόντου
λάβροις ὀλεθρίοισιν ἐν κύμασιν.

Translation: I lament, I lament the blood of your mother that drives you mad; great happiness is never lasting for mortals, but like the sail of a swift ship shaken by some God, so it is submerged with terrible suffering into the harsh and deadly waves of the sea.

The 2nd century B.C. brings us a new set of hymns from Greece. The two Delphic hymns, dedicated to Apollon, were found in the sanctuary at Delphi. The first was composed by a certain Athenaios son of Athenaios, and the second by Limenios, son of Thoinos. This is significant: they are the first composers in history whose music is preserved and known to be theirs.

Last but not least, the Song of Seikilos, composed sometime between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100, is the oldest song that has been completely preserved. I have written about it before, but it’s a perfect ending to this playlist, and simply too beautiful not to share. Seikilos’ inscription above the song is particularly poignant in this context:

Εἰκὼν ἡ λίθος εἰμί. Τίθησί με Σείκιλος ἔνθα μνήμης ἀθανάτου σῆμα πολυχρόνιον.

It translates as: I, this stone, am an image. Seikilos placed me here as the ageless symbol of a deathless memory.

Seikilos, Athenaios, Limenios and the other nameless composers may be long-gone, but here we are, listening to the same sounds they listened to, singing the words they wrote, communing with them as if we were sitting around the same hearth despite the years that separate us.

Is that not the very definition of immortality?


About Artemisia

Lighting stars in the sky and skipping stones across the Styx.
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