An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Music


About Ancient Egypt


An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Music

by Jimmy Dunn



A harpest entertains in   ancient Egypt



It almost seems strange that we should know as much as we do about ancient Egyptian music and at the same time have little or no idea of its real nature. We have texts, representations and even extant instruments but virtually nothing on the actual musical compositions that were composed. Musical instruments ranged from very simple, such as percussion instruments, to very complex, such as harps. Some instruments were strictly (at least in design) Egyptian, while others apparently came to Egypt from the Near East. Of course, the most basic instruments were percussion and the simplest of these were human hands, used for clapping. Clapping to music is often displayed by singers depicted in Old Kingdom tombs, and even today remains an important aspect of modern Egyptian music. However, the earliest instruments in evidence are boomerang-shaped clappers, which are not only known in Egypt but also from southern Palestine as early as the fifth millennium BC. During



Clappers in the form of   hands



the pharaonic period, clappers were often decorated with hands or Hathor faces. There were also smaller clappers or castanets. However, drums did not actually appear until the Middle Kingdom. Initially, these seem to have been drums in the shape of a barrel made from hollowed tree trunks, which became popular in military bands. Drums in the shape of a goblet and wheel-thrown pots with skin covered tops and open bottoms were introduced around 1750 BC from the Palestinian region. When circular frame drums with a skin stretched across a wooden hoop were introduced during the New Kingdom, other forms of percussion instruments appear to have lost ground. Of course, there was also the sistrum which was a metal rattle or noisemaker, consisting of a handle and a frame fitted with loosely held rods that could be jingled. These were used especially in the worship of Isis.



Harpest and lute players



Finally, there were almost certainly bells, and during the Late Period, Egyptians became acquainted with symbols consisting of a pair of concave discs about 15 centemeters across that were attached to the player's hand with leather straps. Though simple, percussion instruments can produce interesting and complex music, particularly if used in ensembles. One such large ensemble is depicted in the Middle Kingdom tomb of a singing instructor named Khesuwer. He is shown coaching ten sistrum players and ten hand clappers who have been arranged in neat rows, indicating a highly disciplined performance. Typically, however, percussion instruments cannot produce different pitches, so the use of wind and stringed instruments also became an important aspect of Egyptian music. Both string and wind instruments were used by the ancient Egyptians as early as the Old Kingdom and before. We can recognize a number of types of wind instruments, including flutes, parallel double-pipes and divergent double-pipes. Of these, the flute is the oldest and is depicted on a predynastic shard as well as on a slate palette from Hierakonpolis. Hence, the instrument could possibly have been invented in Egypt. The original flutes never disappeared altogether and have survived to this day under the Arabic names of nay and uffafa.



Scene showing a male on   the left playing a flue, and on the right a parallel double pipe

Scene showing a male on the left playing a flue, and on the right a parallel double pipe



At first, all of these instruments were made of reeds, though later, the earlier reed pipes were imitated in bronze. They could be short, or as long as a yard in length. There were usually three to five finger-holes. The various types of pipes differed in the construction of the mouth-end of the pipe. Flutes had a sharp wedge resting just outside of the lips. Pipes had a loosely fitting mouthpiece furnished with double and single vibrating lamellae. None of these mouthpieces have ever been unearthed, so their details are unknown, but the parallel pipes that have survived resemble modern Egyptian folk clarinets, called a zummara, with one lamella. Divergent pipes, which only appear at the beginning of the New Kingdom, are similar to Greek aulos that had double lamellae like the modern oboe.



The trumpet of   Tutankhamun, one of the finest surviving from anceint Egypt



A more complex instrument to produce was the trumpet, such as that found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. These were made of silver and bronze, with mouthpieces of gold or silver. They were sometimes inlaid with gold. Trumpets seem to have had mostly a military use, though they became associated as well with gods such as Amun, Re-Horakhty and Ptah. Though we find the first examples of the trumpet at the beginning of the New Kingdom, it is possible that they existed as early as the Old Kingdom. Instruments made from animal horns do not appear in any reliefs, but it should be noted that there are terracotta models of such instruments dating to the New Kingdom. Stringed instruments mostly consisted of lyre, lutes and harps. There were three types of lyre consisting of thin, thick and giant. The thin lyre was used throughout the Fertile Crescent and the Egyptian lyres of this style were merely the southern extension of this form with no local characteristics. Thin lyres were introduced into northern Syria around 2500 BC, and the first depictions in Egypt that we know date to around 1900 BC. They became common in Egypt about five hundred years later.



Ostracon from Deir   el-Medina showing a female lute player from an unusual prospective



Thick lyre with larger dimensions and more strings than the thin variety briefly appear in Anatolia around 1400 BC. However, they were used in Egypt from about 2000 BC and into the Greek Period in Egypt. Giant lyres became popular during the reign of Akhenaten. Some were even large enough to accommodate dual players. Though giant lyre players can be seen wearing Canaanite costumes, there are no giant lyres yet known from the Palestinian region. However, in Mesopotamia, giant lyres are known from engraved seals found at Uruk and Susa that date to around 2500 BC.


Lutes, similar to mandolins, made their appearance in Egypt during the New Kingdom. They had already gained popularity in the Near East at the beginning of the second millennium BC. Though they gained wide acceptance in Egypt, their use was mostly abandoned during the Hellenistic age, only to reappear once more after the Muslim invasion of Egypt in the mid-seventh century AD. Lutes were typically made with a long oval resonating body made from wood and perhaps partially covered with leather and partially by a thin sheet of wood with an opening to release the sound. Most all of the instruments were patterned after examples found elsewhere in the Near East, as were stringed instruments such as the lyres and lutes. However, though the harp seems to first appear in Mesopotamia in about 3000 BC, the harps that showed up in Egypt in 2500 BC take on a shape that is uniquely Egyptian. Stringed instruments were more complex than either percussion or wind instruments, and many were indeed finely made with precious materials. For example, we know that King Ahmose possessed a harp made of ebony, gold and silver, while Tuthmosis III commissioned "a splendid harp wrought with silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite, and every splendid costly stone."



Depiction of a women   playing a thin lyre



There were two primary designs for Egyptian harps. The arched harp became dominate in pharaonic Egypt. It was made with a sound box which was joined smoothly to a curved rod encircled by collars for individual strings. The strings stretched between their collars and a rib in contact with the skin over the box. When the collars were rotated, the tension and thus the tuning of the attached strings changed. The second type of harp was angular, with a rod that was stuck through a hole in an oblong box. This arrangement resulted in a sharp angle between the rod and box. Arched harps in a shovel shape were used exclusively during the Old and Middle Kingdom's, though their size and the position in which they were played varied. However, the New Kingdom a variety of new shapes and sizes of harps appear.


They seem to all have been more or less equally popular. Some of these were considerably different than the earlier shovel harps shaped like a hunting bow, though all had the smooth curve characteristic of arched harps. During the Late Period, Egyptians sought the glory of their former empire and looked reflected this desire in archaized designs in architecture, as well as in harp design. The basic shovel harps were reintroduced, but by the Greco-Roman period, the variety of shapes was much reduced. Though angular harps appear to have been invented in Mesopotamia around 1900 BC, and there they replaced arched harps very quickly, in Egypt their adoption took and complete replacement of the arched harp took more than a millennium. However, when the Egyptian finally did embrace the instrument, they did so with enthusiasm and also with considerable talent. One ancient writer, Athenaeus, reports that an Alexandrian angular harp player's music was so popular that citizens in Rome went about whistling his tunes in the streets.



Harpest from the Tomb of   Inherkau playing an angular harp



Surviving angular harps differ from their earlier counterparts in having many more strings. Most of the arched harps have fewer than ten strings, and some as few as three. On the other hand, angular harps typically have twenty-one and as many as twenty-nine strings. Perhaps the Egyptian reluctance of adopting the angular harp implies a reluctance to expand the pitch range of their harp music, but that seems to have changed by the end of the first millennium BC. This also implies an early conservatism in Egyptian music, which was an observation confirmed by Plato's assertion that Egyptians "were forbidden to introduce any innovations in music". Should this be surprising to us? Considering the Egyptian's formality and structured approach to visual art, perhaps not.


It is very possible in fact that much of the music corresponded in many ways to its visual counterpart. Of course, human vocals were an integral part of almost all Egyptian music, and many scholars maintain that instrumental music on its own did not exist in ancient Egypt. Likewise, unaccompanied vocals were also rare. In many instances, we also see a singer accompanying him or herself, such as a singing harpist. Scholars have sought to discover some form of musical notation system from ancient Egypt, but alas, have been unable to do so. However, some less precise information is available. During the Old Kingdom, singers within ensembles usually made arm and hand gestures, and Hans Hickmann claimed that these arm positions communicated pitches to the musicians.


However, recent research seems to refute his theories, and it is now believed that such movement was simply spontaneous responses common to singers even today, though it has also been suggested that these movements may indicate basic stop or start commands. There is extant a terra-cotta figurine from the Late Period that may be adorned with musical notation. This figure portrays an angular-harp player facing a scribe, who's writing tablet contains signs. Not much survives beyond a few long horizontal lines crossed by numerous vertical strokes. If these signs do represent musical notation, one might expect the length of the verticals to indicate pitches, but the lengths are insufficient to differentiate among the twenty-one strings of the angular harp. By the early Greek Period, we do finally find definite musical notation on an Egyptian papyri. However, both the music and the notation system is Greek.


Throughout the entire pharaonic period, musicians are often shown in ensembles, though in the Old Kingdom singers were frequently accompanied by a single instrument. During the Old Kingdom, such a group might consist of singers, hand clappers, several harps, a flute and a clarinet style pipe. Originally, only men played the full range of instruments while women seem to have been confined to harps and percussion. However, towards the end of the Old Kingdom, other female musicians appear, and by the Middle Kingdom, mixed gender ensembles are common. In fact, by the New Kingdom, exclusively female groups become predominate.






Various titles provide some information on musician's social organization. The best documented of these were referred to a "hnr". They sang, danced and clapped hands in temples, palaces and funerary settings. This type of group flourished from about 2500 through 1500 BC and during the Ramessid Period. At first, these groups had only female members and overseers, but males integrated these ensembles during the 5th Dynasty and became the sole overseers of such groups during the Middle Kingdom. Royal women were frequently members of these groups, which were attached to palaces, temples and funerary estates. They performed secular music along with sacred singing and also performed for the deceased. The female members of the group wore light dresses and hair braided into plaits, with balls dangling from the ends. Men usually wore narrow belts or kilts.


Other titles denote temple songstresses (or chantresses) who served deities such as Hathor, Osiris and Isis. The number of titles meaning "Temple Singer" seems to indicate a diverse role for sacred music. These songstresses routinely performed in priestly rituals, but there were also grand events such as one that was staged on the occasion of Amenhotep III's sed-festival. Tomb drawing of this extravaganza depict long rows of singers, percussionists and dancers and we are told that their music "opened the doors of heaven so that the god may go forth pure". There were also several deities associated with music. One of Hathor's titles was "mistress of music" and she was considered the goddess of singers. Bes was often depicted playing instruments, even outside of Egypt, including the lyre, harp, tambourine and the oboe like divergent pipes. Another obscure deity known as the Blind Horus has been identified as the "harp god", though some scholars believe he was simply a patron of the harp players. However, many harpists are depicted as blind, or even blindfolded. Music also played a part outside of its sacred role. In Old Kingdom tombs, female family members are shown playing instruments, singing and dancing for the tomb owner, a theme that is also repeated in New Kingdom tombs. Private tombs of the Old Kingdom also show occasional scenes of music among farm workers, such as depictions of a flutist wandering about while men cut sheaves of barley.



Women clappers and a   single divergent double-pipes player


Women clappers and a single divergent double-pipes player



Some tomb scenes provide us with clues to the forms of Egyptian music. For example a song written in an Old Kingdom tomb appears to have been sung antiphonally by two groups. One group asks a question and the second group answers it. The first group begins with a call and a question, "Oh, Western Goddess! Where is the shepherd?" The second group responds, "The shepherd is in the water beneath the fish. He talks to the catfish and greets the mormry-fish.", The song is concluded with the call, "Oh shepherd of the Western Goddess." The song is accompanied by a scene depicting sheep trampling seeds in the field. The calls and the questions are shown next to the foreman, indicating that he is probably the lead singer. The answers are sung by helpers who drive the sheep across a field.


This antiphonal song dates to about 2200 BC, and is considered to be among the oldest known in literature and music. A larger musical form, the rondo, has been suggested for a harper's song, which decorate the walls of some New Kingdom tombs. In these, a harpist, and in some rare examples, a lute player, is shown beside an extensive text. The text usually begins by describing the inevitability of death and the futility of life. In these, the reader is encouraged to lie for the moment when told, "Make holiday...put incense and fine oil together beside you...put music before you...give drunkenness to your heart every day." Some scholars believe that songs were performed in the tomb, while others believe they were intended for life beyond the tomb. Most likely, the songs were sung at a banquet held in the tomb to buoy the spirits of the living.


We have no idea of the music for these compositions, but a song in one of the tombs contains a phrase that recurs intermittently seven times. Hickmann suggested that this refrain corresponded to a reoccurring melody, making it similar to a modern rondo. This type of song also is found in Old Kingdom tombs, but in those they are shorter and have an entirely different character than their New Kingdom counterparts. There, the harpist shares the sage with an ensemble. Altenmuller analyzed the the texts and their visual settings and concluded that the music belonged to a tomb ritual intended to bring back the deceased from the underworld. During this brief spiritual reincarnation, the tomb owner was known as "the deified one", and was enabled to join the musicians by the sheer power of their music. Throughout the world, music has played an important role in almost all civilizations from the very earliest stages of mankind, and Egypt was no exception. Certainly even today, music is ver





Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3 Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8 Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4 Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2 Valley of the Kings Weeks, Kent R. 2001 Friedman/Fairfax ISBN 1-5866-3295-7


Last Updated: June 9th, 2011