Music has been a part of human culture throughout the ages, with some evidence suggesting that mankind has been creating songs for more than 50,000 years. Since then, it has evolved to become a crucial part of numerous societies. To explore the role that music has played in human history, check out the following facts about the songs, instruments, and musicians of the ancient world:
1. The oldest-known piece of music is called “Hurrian Hymn No. 6.”
“Hurrian Hymn No. 6” is the oldest melody to be discovered in its entirety, with an estimated composition date sometime between 1400 and 1300 BC. Etched into a Sumerian clay tablet found in Syria in the 1950s, the melody, written for a 9-string lyre, honors the fruit and fertility goddess Nikkal.
The oldest full musical composition—consisting of a melody with lyrics—is a 2,000-year-old song entitled “Seikilos Epitaph.” This song was engraved on a marble column that served as a gravesite marker in Turkey, and includes the lyrics “While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / And time demands its toll,” according to an article on History.com.
2. The world’s first instruments include flutes and drums.
In Germany in the early 2010s, archaeologists discovered flutes carved from mammoth ivory and bird bones, which scientists estimate to be more than 40,000 years old. Though researchers cannot say with surety what people used the instruments for, they speculate that the bone flutes were used in either religious rituals or for recreational purposes.
The next-oldest instruments ever found are drums, some of which date back to 6000 BC. Formed by animal skin membranes stretched tight across a shell made from objects like gourds and wood, drums of different designs and sizes have been discovered in the ruins of ancient societies located in places like Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey.
3. Ancient Greeks used music both recreationally and academically.
Music was a cornerstone of life in ancient Greece, and people played it on all kinds of occasions, from the celebratory, to the everyday, to the somber. It served as a way to entertain guests at weddings and social gatherings and to console the grieving at funerals. It was even played on a regular basis for workers undertaking their daily tasks in an effort to make labor more tolerable.
The ancient Greeks’ believed that music had a divine quality that promoted healing and allowed people to relax, but they also saw music as an academic tool. Music was one of four elements of mathematics education in Ancient Greece because of the role that ratios play in the relationship between melody and harmony. Thus, they considered music to be less of an art and more of a quantitative science.
4. Some cultures still play ancient instruments today.
A number of modern musicians still play instruments that originated thousands of years ago in places like China, Australia, and many Middle Eastern countries. In China, people carry on the tradition of playing the guqin, a plucked instrument with seven strings strung across a long, narrow board. Some claim that the Chinese philosopher Confucius played the guqin, because he considered music to be a crucial part of maintaining a clear heart and mind.
In countries like Azerbaijan, Turkey, Greece, and Tajikistan, musicians still play a large frame drum known as a daf. The daf has a hardwood frame covered by a membrane, which is often made of goatskin. Played by the hand, the dafa is sometimes equipped with small metal ringlets around the interior to produce a tambourine-like sound.
In Australia, aboriginal peoples still play a long flute known as a didgeridoo, which is formed from local hardwoods. These instruments tend to be between 3 and 10 feet long, and are played by vibrating one’s lips continuously through a large mouth opening at the top while tapping out patterns along the side.
5. You can hear recreated ancient music on the Internet.
In 2013, a researcher from Oxford University claimed that he was able to accurately reconstruct the sound of the lyrics and melody of the “Seiklos Epitaph” through new findings about ancient Greek vocal notations. To play the song as it was originally meant to be heard, he used an instrument known as a canon, which has eight strings and is similar to a zither. That song can be heard here. Many people have also attempted to recreate “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” using a variety of instruments, including different forms of lyres that may be similar to those used at the time the song that was written. Several different versions of “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” can be found here.