It’s music history day again, and we are going to look at the music of the ancients. I know some of you think that anything that happened over a week ago is ancient, but we’re looking back a lot further than that! Ancient music history deals with anything we know about music before 400 A.D. And yes, there was music long before that!
Music of Ancient Mesopotamia
The Standard of Ur is an ancient artifact from about 2500 B.C. It shows a picture of a person playing the lyre and a singer, both entertaining the king at a feast. Other artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia show that they had harps, lutes, wooden flutes, reed pipes, drums, and tambourines.
Music of Ancient India
The Vedas, the sacred writings of Hinduism, were written in ancient India about 1500 B.C. Instead of just reciting the Vedas, it seems that people chanted, or sang them. Sometimes instruments accompanied the chanting of the Vedas. The ravanatha, an ancient Indian bowed string instrument, was made from a coconut shell and bamboo. The veena was a stringed instrument that was plucked. Ancient Indians also had a double-sided drum called a mridangam.
Music of Ancient China
Music was very important to the ancient Chinese. One of their ancient philosophers (great thinkers) said that music reflected the fundamental order of the universe. The ancient Chinese even had a department of the government for music. The Imperial Bureau of Music regulated all the court and military music in ancient China. Chinese opera developed in the 3rd century B.C. And no, Chinese opera is not at all like the opera we know today! The Chinese used zithers, flutes, bells, chime stones, and shengs – like mouth organs, but made from bamboo. Here is a link to what people think ancient Chinese music sounded like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBOKeVsiJho
Music of Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptians thought music was very important. They used music in their religious ceremonies and rituals. Music was also important for their official government ceremonies. They had music for dancing, music for love, and even music for death. Archaeologists have found pictures of ancient Egyptians playing instruments and dancing. Here is a link to what people think ancient Egyptian music sounded like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GI6dOS5ncFc
Music of the Ancient Hebrews
The Old Testament of the The Bible tells us much of the history of the Hebrew (Jewish) people. The Bible contains many references to music and musicians in the Old Testament. The worship in the tabernacle and the temple included a set group of musicians and singers. King David was a skilled harp player. The priests blew trumpets when they marched around the city of Jericho. The book of Psalms mentions singers and musicians repeatedly. Psalm 150 lists several of instruments: trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, organs, cymbals. Where did they learn about all these instruments? Abraham came out of Mesopotamia. The Hebrew people spent time in ancient Egypt. They interacted with other cultures around them. Music spreads.
Music of Ancient Greece
The ancient Greeks believed that music was very important to all aspects of life. They thought that music was both a science and an art, and they developed themes and systems about music. Remember learning about Pythagoras in math class? Pythagoras established the mathematical foundations of music. He set out the laws of proportion in music and introduced the seven-tone scale. Even Plato (a famous Greek thinker) was a big supporter of music. He believed that rhythm and melody produce a certain mental harmony important to a person’s well-being. The ancient Greeks invented the organ. They used water to pressurize the air to make the organ function. You could even say that the Greeks invented the musical – the ancient Greek dramas were all accompanied by music, choral singing, and even their own version of “rap” (called declaiming). The most important musical innovation of the Greeks was the invention of musical notation. This wasn’t really like the notation we have today, but the ancient Greeks did assign letters (24 of them!) to represent different tones.
Music of Ancient Rome
The ancient Romans were really into the organ – they had the organ accompany the gladiator contests! They improved on the organ as well. Instead of using water pressure for the organ, they moved to a system of leather bellows for the air. In 350 A.D. the church in Rome set up a School of Singing.
Scholars and archaeologists discovered pictures from the ancient times of people performing music. They found written literature from ancient times discussing music. They also found artifacts from ancient times of instruments used to make music. Unfortunately, they have only found a couple fragments of actual music from the ancient times. For that reason, music of the ancient times isn’t really included in music history.