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Music in Ancient Egypt

Archaeologists have found substantial evidence to show that music is a rich part of Egypt's cultural history.  Hieroglyphics and texts from Egyptian mythology show that music played a very important role in ancient Egyptian society.  Ihy was the god who presided over music.  Plutarch credits Thoth, also known as Hermes, with having been the one who invented music.  In one papyrus remnant, Osiris was named the "fair sistrum player" (The New Grove Dictionary Of Music and Musicians, Pg. 70).  Music was used in some religious ceremonies and sometimes to exorcise evil spirits.

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Foreign visitors to Egypt have left records that reveal their admiration or knowledge of Egyptian music.  Plutarch spoke of Egypt's music in relation to the gods.  We already mentioned his claim that Thoth is the great inventor, but he also claimed that Osiris used music around the world in his civilizing mission.  There is also evidence that Plato studied in Egypt, and it was said that he greatly praised and admired the standards of Egyptian music.  Dio Cassius claimed that music was related to astrology.  There are also musical references in the domestic writings of Egypt.

In the Old Kingdom (c2686 - 2181 BC), there is evidence of the beginnings of music in Egypt.  The three instruments that appear most prominently in pictures are pipes resembling the clarinet, end-blown flutes, and also the harp. The hieroglyphics also indicate the presence of singers and dancers.  One picture found depicts a flutist, a harpist, four dancers, and two singers.  The players seem to be generally male, with the exception that women are occasionally seen at the harp.  The men seem to be making signs with their hands that could indicate some type of melody or rhythm.  In this time there are limited references made to Egyptian musicians, but one that is mentioned is Chufu' Ankh, who was a singer, and flutist, and a director of court music.

The Middle Kingdom (c2133 - 1786 BC) brings about some advancements in music.  Barrel-shaped drums come into existence and the chamber groups seem to get smaller and consist mostly of women.  Evidence also shows that melodies are getting more complicated and moving in larger intervals. In one picture, a long end-blown flute and a large harp accompany a man who sings with his left hand against his ear.  Another shows three singers accompanied by two harps, a sistrum, and a rattle.  The first scene with a lyre takes place in this period.

In The New Kingdom (c1580 - 1085 BC) improvements and additions are made to Egyptian music.  Different instruments such as pipes of the oboe type with a double reed and trumpets are now seen in pictures.  Melodies are moving in smaller intervals now, and different types of drums and tambourines are being developed.  Also, the lute and the lyre appear more often.  Music is used for liturgical songs, and there is also evidence of different types of singing such as responsorial.  One picture during this time period indicates that there were certain rooms of the royal palace at El-Amarna that were devoted to music.  There is also a dance scene that depicts ten girls, some who have tambourines, and others who have clappers or castenets.  Trumpets are often depicted in military scenes.
 After the Conquest of Alexander the Great, the Greeks adopted some aspects of Egyptian music.  Egypt's music later was greatly influenced by the Arab tradition.


Notes:

Instruments Found in Ancient Egypt:
Clappers - mostly made of bone or wood
Cymbals
Bells
End-Blown Flutes
Pipes - both single or double reeds
Lyres - two types, symmetrical and asymmetrical
The Lute
The Harp - the angle, shoulder, and bow
Double Clarinet
Trumpet
Hydraulis
Sistrum
Crotals


Sources:

Harvard Dictionary of Music.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University.  Cambridge, MA, 1973.

Musical Instruments of the World.  Paddington Press Ltd.  USA, 1976.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  Macmillan Publishers Limited.  Washington D.C., 1980.


Edited, Researched and Written by:
Kathleen Ek
September 19, 1999
Last Edited February 2003

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