Listen to the Oldest Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

OldestSong

In the early 1950s, archaeologists unearthed several clay tablets from the 14th century B.C.E.. Found, WFMU tells us, “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform signs in the hurrian language,” which turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400 year-old cult hymn. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, produced the interpretation above in 1972. (She describes how she arrived at the musical notation—in some technical detail—in this interview.) Since her initial publications in the 60s on the ancient Sumerian tablets and the musical theory found within, other scholars of the ancient world have published their own versions.

The piece, writes Richard Fink in a 1988 Archeologia Musicalis article, confirms a theory that “the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago.” This, Fink tells us, “flies in the face of most musicologist’s views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks.” Kilmer’s colleague Richard Crocker claims that the discovery “revolutionized the whole concept of the origin of western music.” So, academic debates aside, what does the oldest song in the world sound like? Listen to a midi version below and hear it for yourself. Doubtless, the midi keyboard was not the Sumerians instrument of choice, but it suffices to give us a sense of this strange composition, though the rhythm of the piece is only a guess.

Kilmer and Crocker published an audio book on vinyl (now on CD) called Sounds From Silence in which they narrate information about ancient Near Eastern music, and, in an accompanying booklet, present photographs and translations of the tablets from which the song above comes. They also give listeners an interpretation the song, titled “A Hurrian Cult Song from Ancient Ugarit,” performed on a lyre, an instrument likely much closer to what the song’s first audiences heard. Unfortunately, for that version, you’ll have to make a purchase, but you can hear a different lyre interpretation of the song by Michael Levy below, as transcribed by its original discoverer Dr. Richard Dumbrill.

via WFMU

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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by | Permalink | Comments (30) |

  • ahmet issever

    Considering contemporary immunity in music this discovery perfects another phase in times and lives of mankind. I appreciate the work to bring to audition ancestral inheritance. Salutes in peace

  • William

    I don’t think this melody actually existed that far back. There is no evidence of the diatonic scale being used until the time of Columbus, and the diatonic scale is technically a modern invention that goes against all the elements of natural tonality. Nothing in nature is evenly spaced, just look at the distance from from your should to your elbow to your wrist, golden mean, major thirds, fifths, they only function in the diatonic scale. This has modern western tonality written all of over it. I think whatever notation, if it is even music notation, was misinterpreted greatly. It happens, even late works of Bach are still trying to be translated.

  • bh

    Very cool to hear this. Are you sure it’s Sumerian, though? I think Ugarit was an independent city-state, with ties to Egypt, around the time this tablet would have been composed.

    The Hurrians (“A Hurrian Cult Song…”) were a people centered around Northern Mesopotamia and western Anatolia. Their closest modern descendants are Armenians. I didn’t think Ugarit itself was Hurrian — instead, they were Amorites, a proto-Semitic group — but it makes sense that they’d have contacts with Hurrians, since they’re in the same general area.

  • kari

    Awsome

  • Dean

    What do the critics think about this? To my knowledge the earliest forms of music notation date back to the Renaissance period when monks began to write neumes on church song-books, which then evolved to the notation we have today. What about the diatonic harmony being used? Does it relate in any way to the harmonic principles discovered during the development of homophony, and later on polyphony? (middle ages, c.1500-1600s)

  • Johannes Laukko

    Violinist Pekka Kuusisto told about old fenno-ugrian folk song. it coud be from before broz age. Finnish epos Kalevala told those times.

    We think music comes about 2000 bCr (ab 4000 years ago) and made some where Karelian and Bjarmian lads north from Nowgorod (was not buid yet).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z69NKJSlGxw

  • http://tonalsoft.com Joe Monzo

    I studied the Hurrian Hymn in 2001 and came up with a very different interpretation.

    http://tonalsoft.com/monzo/babylonian/hurrian/monz-h6.aspx

  • kat russell

    Early Africans made plenty of music. There are still a few groups that make music that is probably similar to the ancient songs.

  • Dr. Smartman

    As a commenter on the internet, I agree with the previous posts as my personal opinion based on perhaps a broad and cursory knowledge of a slightly related subject gives me great authority over years of detailed research, discussion and peer review.

  • Jerome S Colburn

    William, Pythagoras explained the diatonic scale some 2000 years before Columbus. He described the octave and the perfect fifth, which we hear as natural resonances, in terms of string length ratios of 2:1 and 3:2; we understand them as the corresponding frequency ratios. (The “modern invention that goes against all the elements of natural tonality” is equal temperament, which doesn’t apply to ancient music.) There is a tablet from Ur from about 1700 BC or so that describes how to tune a stringed instrument into what we would call different key signatures, using pairs of strings that behave exactly the same way fifths do in tuning according to a Pythagorean scale.

    bh, Ugarit had both Canaanite and Hurrian populations, and they also used Akkadian for business and diplomacy. The musical texts are in Hurrian; the lyrics are, and the names of the string pairs also appear as Hurrianized loan words from Akkadian. For example, the pair made of the 3rd and 5th strings is titur isharti “bridge of the ‘normal’” in Akkadian, but in the Ugarit musical texts it’s “titimisharte.”

    The notation of the Ugarit tablets is in the form of a series of elements each consisting of the name of a string pair followed by a number (plus an indication of which tuning was to be used, corresponding to our key signature). The lyrics are in a separate section (above the double line in the sketch), not matched to the musical elements.

    Kilmer’s great contribution was to interpret each element as the string pair played as a two-note chord the specified number of times. Most of the musicological world at that time refused to believe that anyone in the ancient world was playing two different notes simultaneously (even though they would have had to do so to tune the instrument), but today that notion is no longer controversial.

    Kilmer’s original interpretation, which we hear in the first video, has been superseded in some of its details. Most obvious to our ears, there are two ways of constructing the scales implied by the tuning instructions: up or down. In the 1960s everyone believed that the pitches went up from string 1 to string 9, but several lines of evidence discovered since then show that they went down instead. This leads to the more “minor” tonality heard in the second video; however, Dumbrill believed that the numbers represented lengths of melodic runs based on the string pair, not numbers of repetitions of a chord. There have been many different attempts to organize the music and match it to the lyrics, including Mr. Monzo’s.

    The songs from Ugarit are no longer the oldest attempt to make a musical notation. A few tablet fragments from Nippur, from about 400 years before the Ugarit texts, show a very different system, still using the string and string pair nomenclature, used to represent the accompaniment to a song that was probably in Sumerian. That notation (on which I published an article in Journal of Cuneiform Studies in 2009) was more complex and labor intensive to write, which is probably why there are not more texts containing it.

  • Rolf Løndal

    William. With respect. I feel you may be underestimating our ancestors. Harmonics exist in nature and therefore in us. As an engineer and musician I am constantly impressed at the way nature appears and is interpreted to practical advantage. Not just by humans but by other animals.

  • JSintheStates

    Damn! I sidn’t know the 12-tone Western Music Scale was 3.4 millinnia old!

  • Sherry Taylor

    Why is it if it isn’t Judeo-Christian it’s referred to as a cult? It was a religion.

  • David Rensberger

    Sherry: The word “cult” is used in a different way in the academic study of religion. It doesn’t refer to a fringe group, but to worship as such. One definition in Webster is “a system of beliefs and ritual connected with the worship of a deity or a spirit or a group of deities or spirits.” A “cult hymn” in this sense means something like just a “hymn” in the Christian tradition, a worship song used in the Hurrian religion. The author of the original post should probably have clarified this, since it’s a specialized use of a word that most people understand differently.

  • Raymond Howard

    I love it when someone like, Jerome S Colburn knows exactly what their talking about having actually studied the subject thoroughly, and probably with as much note a coniseur of Classical music from most every period that is chronicled to date being ‘documented’ in script of such.

  • James

    Many thanks for rendering what could have been an incredibly moving moment with the worlds oldest music into a crap midi keyboard sequence that sounded like the intro music to an Atari game in 1984.

  • Eilidh

    I’m struck by how similar the Hurrian song is to The ending OST from the anime Flowers of Evil.

  • Jim

    Why does the title of the article say “Sumerian” when everything in the article refers to the Hurrians? What have the Sumerians to do with this?

  • Jim

    bh – Tablets written in Hurrian (as well as other languages) have been found at Ugarit. I doubt anybody there ever spoke Sumerian.

  • Pete

    It says it’s a song. Isn’t a song sung? Sounds like a terrible Casio keyboard.

  • Linda Bell

    Loved readings of the tidbits, but stills and all in between the tidbits. past 19 yrs. worked off & on with finest Anishinabequek on choir songs for play Magnificat about contact. We are not Catholics but actors, musicians, singers and much more. Original songs from church with old organ turned rock and next opera. Love connecting the world neighborhood; fb way aces!

  • Jess

    Should be 6/4 instead of 4/4. 73-80 beats per minute would be better.

  • http://www.openculture.com Dan Colman

    Hi there,

    Does anyone know what Facebook page mentioned this post today? Thanks in advance?

    Dan (editor)

  • chelsea fisher

    In response to your question Dan Colman, Bassnectars facebook page brought me here.

  • brian

    sounds almost identical to some runescape midi background music

  • Jett Pink

    Any theories on what they tuned to? My guess would be 432

  • Daniel Hale

    A cult is any segment of a population that reveres any given deity.. the Cult of YHWH just happens to be one cult that persisted and who’s writings are best preserved and continually maintained

  • noah saber freedman

    the oldest song in human history, played on a MIDI keyboard. surreal.

  • David

    Where can I download the MIDI file? (I assume that after 3,400 years the copyright has expired!)

  • Silvia

    I have reached this website via “Linguistica in pillole”, on Facebook, today.

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