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

In the ear­ly 1950s, archae­ol­o­gists unearthed sev­er­al clay tablets from the 14th cen­tu­ry BCE. 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 below 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 musi­col­o­gists’ 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 claimed 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 of 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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014. It’s old but gold. So we hope you enjoy revis­it­ing it again.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Cour­tesy of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-San­ta Bar­bara 

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

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Comments (6)
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  • Susan taylor says:

    I enjoyed the arti­cle but won­der what lan­guage oth­er than akka­di­an, such as sumer­ian might have pre­served rem­nants of it.I real­ize the assyr­i­an king whose name I don’t recall pre­served the prod­ucts of ear­li­er cul­tures but are there more tablets with that same hymn.

  • Billy Martin says:

    I have heard for years that Sumer­ian lan­guage could not be deci­phered. I read it is all cuneiform. Does this rep­re­sent a break­through?

    Or, it’s trans­la­tion sim­ply a part here and there and will be a strug­gle with inter­spersed suc­cess­es?

    Thank you,

  • Israel D says:

    I won­der how they real­ized it was musi­cal nota­tion, and how they deci­phered it was a dia­ton­ic scale in more detail. Im a musi­cian and im intrigued by this top­ic.

  • Keri says:

    I don’t nev­er under­stand most of these sto­ries with­out pic­tures. Any?

  • Kroz says:

    If the song is 3,400 years then it could­n’t be Sumer­ian because they were already extinct by then. Maybe Egypt­ian is more like it.

  • Stacey says:

    watch Paul Coop­er’s fall as civ­i­liza­tion pod­cast on the ancient Assyr­i­ans and Sume­ri­ans. The Assyr­i­ans is episode empire of iron and I believe the Sume­ri­ans is episode 1. they read poet­ry and even a note from a 7‑year-old boy that was away at school that was writ­ten on a clay tablet. I think you would find it inter­est­ing.

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