There are two major items of
The oldest song, and ancient pictures of musicians:
I. The Oldest
Song in the
For fifteen years Prof. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer puzzled
over clay tablets relating to music including some excavated in Syria by
French archaeologists in the early '50s. The tablets from the Syrian city
of ancient Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) were about 3400 years
old, had markings called cuneiform signs in the hurrian language (with
borrowed akkadian terms) that provided a form of musical notation. One
of the texts formed a complete cult hymn and is the oldest preserved song
with notation in the world. Finally in 1972, Kilmer, who is professor of
Assyriology, University of California, and a curator at the Lowie Museum
of Anthropology at Berkeley, developed an interpretation of the song based
on her study of the notation (fig. 1).
The top parts were the words and the bottom half instructions for playing
the music. Kilmer, working with colleagues Richard L. Crocker and Robert
R. Brown produced a record and booklet about the song called Sounds
From Silence. [Click score to hear a MIDI of the song.] For more
information & another version MIDI by John Wheeler, click here:
The song, it turns out, is in the equivalent of the diatonic
"major" ("do, re, mi") scale. In addition, as Kilmer
points out: "We are able to match the number of syllables in the text
of the song with the number of notes indicated by the musical notations."
This approach produces harmonies rather than a melody of single notes.
The chances the number of syllables would match the notation numbers without
intention are astronomical. [Note: The rhythm of the song is unknown.]
This evidence both the 7-note diatonic scale as well
as harmony existed 3,400 years ago flies in the face of most musicologists'
views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible)
and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks, 2000 years ago.
Said Crocker: "This has revolutionized the whole concept of the origin
of western music."
Find Confirms Theory
My own interest comes from a book I wrote, The
Origin of Music. which put forward the view that there is a
natural foundation to the diatonic scale, that
it has existed likely even from antiquity. In addition, the book espoused
evidence showing that harmony, as well, existed in antiquity.
Music of various cultures, taken over a long evolutionary
period, show patterns emerge (despite other differences) such as the universal
use of octaves, 4th and 5ths, and the similarities underpinning the various
musical scales between cultures. These facts led to the theory.
Thus, the oldest song known from a cuneiform document
has provided major confirmation to this viewpoint. In turn, the theory
may even now help to interpret the findings. Kilmer wrote: "I certainly
do like and am profiting from The Origin of
Why Do Scales, Keys and Harmony
At the earliest times in musical development, a sense
for "melody" would not have occurred overnight. Prior to it,
music often was the playing of single notes, assigned to various rituals,
such as one gong for moon, another for sun, another for death, birth, etc.,
and played without much or any regard to their succession as musical melody
of any sort. Scales might even be virtually non-existent as was harmony.
What is harmony for? After all, a single tone is more
"pure" than any combinations of tones or chords, which are cluttered
with overtones that are usually dissonant with each other. Why did humanity
bother to add, to the relatively clean single tone, "harmony"
notes (and therefore, greater dissonance)?
The answer is that harmony's function has evolved mostly
to make the notes of melodies "connect" or to make their connection
to each other melodically more apparent to the ear by making their common
inner overtones audibly explicit in
It follows that harmony had no reason to exist among any people who
are lacking scales. Scales are, historically, "congealed" or
"generic" melody in the abstract.
Once scales developed (especially a favoured two, major and minor),
then we are looking at a people for whom connections between notes is very
important. The agenda is whether melody is important enough for them to
overlook the dissonant elements in chords (compared to their purer, more
consonant single tones), so as to allow them to use chords in the enhancement
of their melodies. Only after the full scale and melody develop first can
harmony even begin to appear on this historical agenda.
The oldest song dates this agenda far earlier in time and gives to
the diatonic scale a near-universal status not formerly ascribed to it.
"Tonality", which is defined as a "loyalty to a
is also exhibited in the oldest song by repeating phrases found at the
end of sentences, usually on the same note as the keynote of the tune.
Ancient Pictures Indicate Harmony
After correspondence with Kilmer, to review the whole
notion of ancient uses of harmony, I looked back at my old music books
and the replicas of ancient vases, drawings and bas-reliefs,
which depicted ancient musicians and instruments. I noted evidence for
harmony that virtually jumped out at me, yet oddly had escaped me, and
apparently others, for years before now.
Note the position of the hands in the harp pictures (Fig. 2 below and also at top of article. [Click
top picture to return back here]):
The hands are on different strings. Could they be playing
different notes at once? Another possibility is that while one hand is
shown playing a note, the other hand has played, or is preparing to play,
the next note -- which certainly is not evidence of ancient
harmony. But this interpretation may be lacking:
We must digress momentarily: when we look at
of most folk-music, at ancient records, it is almost invariable to find
that music for voices proceeds mostly in a step-wise manner, with leaps
of 4ths, 5ths or greater intervals infrequently used. This would be true
especially in religious participatory primitive music in which the choruses
and soloists could be expected to be mostly under-trained and unable to
sing accurately the leaps to far notes.
Now, here's the
the hands on the lyre were interpreted as being set, not to play two notes
at once, but one waiting in preparation only for playing the next
note in a usually step-wise melody, then the bulk of the illustrations
from the past would show these anticipating fingers and hands waiting on
the next string, or two strings later at most.
illustrations show wide gaps between hands (more than would
be common if these were notes in a step-wise melody), hinting
at the note movement, not of melodies, but of the wider intervals
of harmonies. In the nearest hand, indeed, sometimes it seems almost certain
that thumb and forefinger have likely already plucked, or will pluck two
There is more evidence in ancient Greek writings
Problems, Book XIX.l2.):
"Why is it that lower of two strings always has the tune? If
one omits the paramese when one should sound it with the mese, the
tune is there none the less; but if one omits the mese when one should
strike both the tune is missing...." (Emphasis added.)
The quote seems more than clear that two notes, and not
just one at a time, were usually struck on the Kithara's strings.
The Greeks and others had "double pipes"
sometimes one with holes, the second without. (Sometimes each had different
sets of holes.) Both are shown in players' mouths at once. One, like bagpipes,
played a drone (a keynote?); the other a melody.
The harmonies must have been considered acceptable even then.
Indeed, the usual concepts about ancient music are