Music of Mesopotamia

This article details the music of ancient Mesopotamia.


Cuneiform sources reveal an orderly organized system of diatonic scales, depending on the tuning of stringed instruments in alternating fifths and fourths. Instruments of ancient Mesopotamia include harps, lyres, lutes, reed pipes, and drums. Many of these were shared with neighbouring cultures. Contemporary East African lyres and West African lutes preserve many features of Mesopotamian instruments .

The vocal tone or timbre was probably similar to the pungently nasal sound of the narrow-bore reed pipes, and most likely shared the contemporary "typically" Asian vocal quality and techniques, including little dynamic changes and more graces, shakes, mordents, glides and microtonal inflections. Singers probably expressed intense and withdrawn emotion, as if listening to themselves, as shown by the practice of cupping a hand to the ear (as is still current in modern Assyrian music and many Arab and folk musics) .

Two silver pipes have been discovered in Ur with finger holes, and a depiction of two reeds vibrating. This instrument would be close to the modern oboe. The ancient Mesopotamians do not seem to have had a clarinet-type of instrument . A number of reconstructions have been proposed, the most recent being a pair of thin tubes with three finger holes in one tube and four finger holes in the other .For horned instruments, the Mesopotamians seem to have had horn instruments, similar to today's French horn and trumpet . Only few surviving examples remain, for example a silver trumpet found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Most of the horns in ancient Mesopotamia were in fact horns from an animal, so would have decayed. These instruments would have worked like a bugle, using the harmonic series to get the notes needed for music. All tubes have a harmonic series; the image shown for the harmonic series shows what notes any tube can play. The blackened notes are out of tune, but are still recognizable as that particular pitch. The harmonic series makes a Lydian scale, shown from the 8th pitch in the picture to the 16th pitch, the 14th pitch not being a note on the Lydian scale.

Percussive instruments were only played in specific, ritualistic circumstances. Drums in ancient Mesopotamia were played not with sticks, but with the hands . Plucked instruments, such as the harp, were more elaborate in many respects, being adorned decoratively with precious metals and stones. The harps found had anywhere from four to eleven strings. Plucked instruments came in many varieties, most differing in the manner in which they were intended to be held .

Mesopotamian music theory

The ancient Mesopotamians seem to have utilized a cyclic theory of music, as seen through the numbering of their strings from the number one, through to the number five, then back down to one . Through this, the pattern seems to arise that each string was used in separate parts of the music, the first string for the first part, the second string for the second part, and so on and so fourth. What makes the music cyclical is that the final string is tuned the same way as the first string, the second to last is the same as the second string, so the music will approach the fifth string then revert through the previous strings.The Mesopotamians seem to have utilized a heptatonic Lydian scale, heptatonic meaning a scale with seven pitches. The Lydian scale is the regular major scale with a raised fourth. For example, the F-Lydian scale would contain the same key signature as a C-major scale. The F-Major scale has a B-flat in the key signature, however with the raised fourth in the Lydian scale, the B-flat becomes a B-natural. The drawback in modern music with the Lydian scale is the use of what is known today as the tritone, in this context an augmented fourth. The Mesopotamians did not seem to have a term for this tritone interval, nor a term for the octave, of which we know they had a concept . The use of a heptatonic scale would have eliminated any practical need for a term for the octave, as it would not have the importance that it has in today's music.

Mesopotamian music had a system that introduced rigidity in the music, preventing the melody from developing into chaos . Until recently no form of musical notation had been known, however there is a cuneiform tablet containing a hymn and what has been translated as musical instructions for a performer, making this tablet the oldest known musical notation. There were strict instructions for how to perform music, similar to chord progression today . These instructions also seem to point to a strong desire for musicians to play in tune, with steps in performing requiring frequent attempts to tune the instruments .

Uses of music

Music for the ancient Mesopotamians had both a religious and a social aspect (; ). There was a different expectation for each musician, particularly vocalists. Whereas the religious singers were supposed to sing harshly, ignoring beauty to emphasize and focus on the religious chants, the social singers were expected to sing beautiful melodies.