Since ancient times, archeologists have discovered relatively few musical instruments and fragments of musical instruments. Yet each one of them tells us something important about the musical heritage of humanity. Learning about each of them can play an important role in teaching today’s young students about the joys and possibilities inherent in making music.
A number of contemporary musicians recreate ancient instruments according to the best-available historical and musical information. Such instruments may be displayed in a museum, brought to school as a learning experience, or played in a performance. Here are a few of those instruments:
Perhaps the ancient instrument that remains best-known to today’s audiences is the lyre. The stringed instrument was popular in ancient Greece.
In fact, some commentators have described the lyre as the instrument that best illustrates the traditional character of Greece. Like the piano today, it was typically a central part of a student’s musical education. An ancient musician would play the lyre alone or as an accompaniment to singing or a poetry recital.
The standard form of the lyre was two stationary upright arms—sometimes horns—with a crossbar connecting them. The instrument would be tuned by means of a set of pegs, which could be made of ivory, wood, bone, or bronze. Stretched between the crossbar and a stationary bottom portion were seven strings that varied in thickness, but which were typically all of the same length. A musician either plucked the strings by hand or used a plectrum.
Closely related stringed instruments included the kithara, which also had seven strings; the phorminx, which had four; and the chelys, fashioned from tortoiseshell. In fact, ancient writers tended to use these four instruments interchangeably in variant retellings of different myths.
A typical Greek myth states that the messenger god Hermes originated the lyre. Hermes instructed the sun god Apollo in how to play the instrument. Apollo became a master lyre player who in turn instructed the gifted musician Orpheus.
The syrinx, also known as the Pan’s syrinx, the Pan flute, or—in modern times—the panpipes, is a wind instrument associated with the shepherd god Pan, as well as human shepherds. It was considered a rustic—not an artistic—instrument.
The Greeks were likely the first to make use of the syrinx, which was made of between four and eight sections of cane tubing of different lengths, bound together with wax, flax, or cane. A syrinx player could produce a range of rich, low tones by blowing across the tops of the cane tubes.
Thousands of years of Greek art frequently show images of the syrinx. Artistic depictions of mythological figures such as Hermes, Pan himself, and the satyrs—half goat, half man—often show them playing the syrinx.
The sistrum was a percussion rattle known to be used by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. It enabled musicians to create a backbeat accompaniment to the instruments carrying the tune, particularly during religious ceremonies.
A sistrum could be fashioned from wood or clay, as well as metal. Its percussive pieces consisted of horizontally arranged bars and the moveable jingle parts assembled along them. The sistrum had a handle attached to this framework, and a musician shook it just like a rattle.
The sistrum was chiefly associated in Egyptian culture with the mother goddesses Hathor and Isis. Ancient artwork shows musicians playing the sistrum in statues and figures on pottery.
4. Aulos and Double Aulos
The aulos, a reed-blown wind instrument that resembles a modern flute, was among the most commonly used instruments in ancient Greece. Associated with the god of wine, Dionysos, it was a frequent accompaniment to athletic festivals, theater performances, and dinners and events in private homes.
Like the contemporary flute, the aulos consisted of several individual sections that locked into place together. It could be made of bone, ivory, boxwood, cane, copper, or bronze. It also featured several different types of mouthpieces, which could produce various pitches.
The ancient Greeks also made use of the diaulos—the double aulos—which was made by affixing two equal-sized or different-sized pipes together at the mouthpiece. If the two pipes were of uneven length, the resulting sound was enriched with a supporting melody line. The Greeks also sometimes used a strap made of leather to secure the pipes to a musician’s face for ease of playing.
With its deep, resonant sounds, the diaulos typically functioned as a support for all-male choral performances.
Among the oldest-known ancient Chinese musical instruments is the xun, a type of vessel flute that researchers believe dates back more than 7,000 years. Historians believe that the xun was among the most popular instruments of its time.
The xun was typically made of pottery clay and often featured depictions of animals. Offering a one-octave range, it was fashioned into the shape of an egg with a flat bottom and a number of fingerholes along its body. A player could produce sound by blowing across the top mouthpiece.
Examples of the xun have been excavated at archeological sites in various parts of China, with some of the later finds formed to resemble fruits or fish. Some of the more intricately decorated xun created over the centuries have become highly prized pieces in museums and private collections.
Ancient writings mention the xun, often accompanied by the chi, which was a side-held flute typically made of bamboo.
Musicians usually employed the xun as a component of a traditional ritual ensemble. The xun was regularly used until about a century ago, and has recently experienced a revival. A contemporary version, with nine holes is used in some Chinese orchestras today.