Texts, representations, and extant instruments shed much light on the circumstances and artifacts of ancient Egyptian music. Clearly, musical culture was a well-developed part of society, yet the nature of the music remains obscure.
Tools of Music.
The instruments range from the simple (percussion) to the complex (harps). Their constructions affected the compass of the scales and tunes that could be produced, which evidently differed quantitatively from those known for other ancient cultures. Many of the instruments came to ancient Egypt from the Near East.
The most basic percussion sound is produced by clapping hands, an activity often displayed by singers depicted in Old Kingdom tombs, and labeled mʒḥ. The earliest instruments in evidence are boomerang-shaped clappers, known in Egypt and southern Palestine in the early fifth millennium BCE. In pharaonic times, clappers were decorated with hands or Hathor faces and labeled ʿwy. Smaller clappers (or castanets) were also used. The rustle of menat-necklaces also has percussive aspects.
Drums did not appear until the Middle Kingdom. Barrel-shaped drums, made from hollowed tree trunks, became popular in military bands. Goblet-shaped drums—wheel-thrown pots with skin-covered tops and open bottoms—were introduced about 1750 BCE from the Palestinian region. Circular frame drums (labeled śr in tombs) had a skin stretched across a wooden hoop; when they entered Egypt during the New Kingdom period, other percussion instruments lost ground. New drum names (tbn, ḳmḳm, ḫʿw, and śhʒt) were introduced for tambourines and barrel drums in Greco-Roman times but often without consistency.
Percussion instruments are simple in concept but can produce complex rhythmic structures, especially if used in ensembles. One of the largest groups depicted occurs in the Middle Kingdom tomb of the singing instructor Khesuwer. He is shown coaching ten sistrum players and ten hand-clappers; since he has positioned them in neat rows, it was a highly disciplined performance. The sistrum is a metal rattle or noisemaker, consisting of a handle and a frame fitted with loosely held rods; sistrums were jingled, especially in the worship of Isis.
Owing to their ability to differentiate pitches, wind and stringed instruments can produce more complex music than can percussion instruments. Both types are known from the beginning of the Old Kingdom. Of winds, we recognize three types: flutes (mʒt), parallel double-pipes (mmt), and divergent double-pipes (wḏnἰ?). All were made from reed pipes (or later imitations in bronze), but each type differed in the construction of the mouth-end of the pipe: flutes had a sharp wedge resting just outside the lips; pipes had a loosely attached mouthpiece furnished with double and single vibrating lamellae. Since no mouthpieces have survived, their details are unknown, but extant parallel pipes resemble modern Egyptian folk clarinets with one lamella and, therefore, are called “clarinets.” Divergent pipes look like the Greek aulos, which had double lamellae like the modern oboe, and are termed “oboi.” There were no oboi before the beginning of the New Kingdom, and no clarinets after.
The flutes, clarinets, and oboi had cylindrical bores, and stalks of reed provided adequate material for them, but trumpets flared and required more complex manufacture. The trumpets found in Tutankhamun's tomb were made of silver and bronze, with gold and silver mouth-pieces, and were decorated with gold inlay. Although trumpets were primarily military instruments, pictures of Amun, Re-Horakhty, and Ptah gave them sacred associations.
Most of the previously mentioned instruments seem to have been adopted in Egypt from the Near East. Egyptian lyres and lutes were also closely patterned on Near Eastern instruments, but their harps (bnt) were not. Harps were first used in Mesopotamia about 3000 BCE, but when first seen in Egypt in 2500 BCE, their shapes were uniquely Egyptian. Their construction was more complex than that of wind and percussion instruments, and some used more precious materials. King Ahmose had a harp made of ebony, gold, and silver, and Thutmose III commissioned “a splendid harp wrought with silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite, and every splendid costly stone.”
There are two main types of harp—arched and angular—and the first type dominated in pharaonic Egypt. Arched harps had a sound box, which was joined smoothly to a curved rod encircled by collars, one for each string. The strings stretched between the collars and a rib in contact with the skin cover of the box. When the collars were rotated, the tension and tuning of the attached strings changed. On angular harps, the rod was stuck through a hole in the oblong box; this arrangement resulted in a sharp angle between the rod and the box.
During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, only arched harps of the shovel-shaped type were used, but sizes and playing positions varied. The New Kingdom brought a plethora of new shapes and sizes, which were more or less equally popular. Some had changed considerably from the simple hunting-bow shape of shovel harps, but all had the smooth curve characteristic of arched harps. During the late period, archaized shovel harps were used again, but in the Greco-Roman period the variety of shapes was much reduced.
Angular harps had been invented around 1900 BCE in Mesopotamia and quickly replaced arched harps there, but in Egypt, adoption and complete displacement required more than a millennium. In the end, Egyptian harpists took to it enthusiastically. Athenaeus recounted that an Alexandrian angular-harp player had sent Rome into a state of music madness, with citizens whistling his tunes in the streets. The most significant difference between arched and angular harps was in their complement of strings. Typically, extant Egyptian arched harps have fewer than ten strings, occasionally as few as three. By contrast, extant angular harps typically have twenty-one strings, and sometimes as many as twenty-nine. Because each harp string gives only one pitch, Egypt's slow acceptance of angular harps implies a reluctance to expand the pitch range of their harp music. In the period 2500–1500 BCE, six to ten pitches sufficed, but at the end of the first millennium BCE, twenty-one pitches were required. In Mesopotamia, matters were different: its musicians accepted angular harps quickly, presumably to explore wide-ranging scales. By Near Eastern standards, Egypt was a conservative music culture; this observation confirms Plato's assertion that Egyptians “were forbidden to introduce any innovations in music.”
Egypt had three types of lyres: thin, thick, and giant. Thin lyres existed throughout the Fertile Crescent region and the Egyptian lyres were merely the southern extension of this form, devoid of local characteristics. Thin lyres had arisen in northern Syria around 2500 BCE; they were first illustrated in Egypt around 1900 BCE and became common there five hundred years later. The West Semitic name for them was kinnārum, and this name is attested in Egypt too, though only once (c. 1200 BCE). An earlier term for the lyre was probably ḏʒḏʒt, used in the “Admonitions Text” (2152–2134 BCE), where it served as a low-status alternative to the harp (bnt). Since there was only one type of harp (the shovel harp) at that time and thin lyres were widespread along the Fertile Crescent, ḏʒḏʒt probably meant “lyre.” A millennium later, however, in Egypt, that term was instead attached to the angular harp, and kinnārum was adopted for the lyre.
Thick lyres had larger dimensions and more strings than thin ones. This type appeared briefly around 1400 BCE in Anatolia, but it lasted from 2000 BCE to the Ptolemaic period in Egypt. Giant lyres flourished during Akhenaten's reign, some large enough to accommodate dual players. Players always wore Canaanite dress, but no giant lyres are yet known from the Palestinian region. The idea of giant lyres with dual players was known in Mesopotamia, since such instruments were engraved on seals from Uruk and Susa around 2500 BCE.
During the New Kingdom, lutes (gngntἰ?) also arrived in Egypt from the Near East, where they had gained popularity in the beginning of the second millennium BCE. They were widely adopted in Egypt, but their popularity was quenched when the country became part of the Hellenistic world. In Greece, lutes had not been used before the third century BCE, and they remained rare long after that date. In Egypt, they returned with Islam in the mid-seventh century CE.
Ensembles and Instrumentalists.
During the entire pharaonic period, instruments were often shown in ensembles. A typical Old Kingdom group had singers and hand-clappers, several harps, a flute, and a clarinet. In the beginning, only men played the full range of instruments and women were confined to harps and percussion, but toward the end of the Old Kingdom, other female instrumentalists appeared, and mixed-gender groups become standard during the Middle Kingdom. By the New Kingdom, female groups predominate.
A plethora of musicians' titles throw light on their social organization. Among the best documented are those comprising the ḫnr, who sang, danced, and clapped hands in temples, palaces, and funerary settings. They flourished from 2500 to 1500 BCE and in the Ramessid period. Initially, the groups had only female members and overseers, but males joined during the fifth dynasty and became sole overseers during the Middle Kingdom. Royal women often participated. The groups were attached to palaces, temples, and funerary estates, where they provided secular entertainment and sacred singing or performed for the deceased. Female members wore light dresses and hair braided into plaits, with balls dangling from the ends; men wore narrow belts or kilts.
Other titles denote temple songstresses (or chantresses), who served deities like Hathor; Osiris, and Isis. It became fashionable to sing at the Amun-Re temple at Thebes, and many women who dwelt in or near Thebes during the New Kingdom seem to have served there.
Sound of Music.
Modern scholars have tried in vain to discover an ancient Egyptian notation system for music, but other, less precise information has come to light.
Singers in Old Kingdom ensembles usually made arm and hand gestures. Hans Hickmann (1961) claimed that the arm positions communicated pitches to the musicians. Some of his premises, however, seem arbitrary, and others have been invalidated by new research. In particular, gestures that differ in the position of the thumb and index finger were assumed to denote pitches a fifth apart. Moreover, he believed that ancient scales had five pitches per octave, but it is now known that Mesopotamian scales in the second millennium BCE contained seven pitches per octave. Most likely, the gestures were simply spontaneous motor responses common to much music-making, or, perhaps, basic stop or start commands. These chironomic gestures were considered a necessary attribute of singers, as stated in the great Nile hymn (1991–1786 BCE): “They begin singing to the harp for him; female singers are using their hands.”
A terra-cotta figurine from the Late period may have musical notation. The figurine shows an angular-harp player facing a scribe, whose writing tablet contains signs. Little has survived besides a few long horizontal lines crossed by numerous vertical strokes. If notation is indeed present, one would expect the length of the verticals to indicate pitches, but the lengths are insufficient to differentiate among the twenty-one strings of the angular harp.
The first definite notation appears on Egyptian papyri from the mid-third century BCE. The notation system and the music are both Greek, since Egypt was then ruled by the Ptolemies.
Some tomb texts pertain to musical forms. A song written in an Old Kingdom tomb seems to have been sung antiphonally by two groups, one asking a question and the other answering it. First comes an initial call and question: “Oh, Western Goddess! Where is the shepherd?” Then the answer: “The shepherd is in the water beneath the fish. He talks to the catfish and greets the mormyr-fish.” Finally, comes the concluding call: “Oh, shepherd of the Western Goddess.” The accompanying scene shows sheep trampling seeds into the field. The calls and the question are written next to the foreman, indicating him as the lead singer. The answer was sung by drivers who urged the sheep across the field. Dating from about 2200 BCE, this antiphonal song is among the oldest known in literature and music. A larger musical form, the rondo, has been suggested for a harper's song (see below).
Circumstances of Music.
The abundance of titles meaning “Temple Singer” implies diverse roles for music in the sacred sphere. In its most mundane manifestation, songstresses participated in priestly rituals. But there were also musical extravaganzas like the one staged at the sed-festival of Amenophis III. Tomb drawings show long rows of singers, percussionists, and dancers; their music “opened the doors of heaven so that the god may go forth pure.”
Several deities were associated with music. Hathor was “mistress of music” and, since Meret incarnated song-stresses and brought sacred texts to life, she was the goddess of the vocal apparatus. Bes often played instruments—even abroad, as on a Lycian temple frieze from around 390 BCE in which Bes-clones play the lyre, harp, tambourine, and oboe, and dance. Another deity, the Blind Horus (ḫnty-n-ἰrty), has been identified as the “harp god,” but others consider that deity a mere “patron of harp players” and claim that the idea belonged to the realm of popular religion. The choice, however, accords with the fact that many harpists are shown blind or blindfolded.
Music also had an extensive secular role. Representations in Old Kingdom tombs show female family members playing, singing, and dancing for the tomb owner, and in New Kingdom tombs, performers do much the same. Quite a few Old Kingdom tombs offer glimpses of music among farm workers; in some, the workers cut sheaves of barley while a flautist wanders about. Other tombs contain the antiphonal song discussed earlier.
Somewhere between the sacred and profane lie the so-called harper's songs, written in New Kingdom tombs. A harpist (rarely a lutenist) is shown next to the extensive text, which usually begins by describing the inevitability of death and futility of life. The reader is then urged to live for the moment: “Make holiday … put incense and fine oil together beside you … put music before you … give drunkenness to your heart every day.” Were these carpe diem songs performed in the tomb or intended for life beyond the tomb? Scholars have advocated both views, but most likely a banquet was held in the tomb while the song buoyed the spirits of the participants. The music is unknowable, but a song in Paser's tomb contains a phrase that recurs intermittently seven times. Hickmann suggested that this refrain corresponded to a melodic figure that also, recurred. If so, the form of the music could have been akin to a modern rondo.
Such songs exist in the Old Kingdom tombs too, but those are much shorter and have an entirely different character than the New Kingdom songs. Moreover, the harpist shares the stage with an ensemble. Having analyzed the texts and their visual settings, Altenmüller (1978, p. 20) concluded that the music belonged to a tomb ritual intended to bring back the deceased from the hereafter. During his brief return, the tomb owner was known as “the deified one” and was enabled to join the musicians by the sheer power of their music and Hathor songs.
- Altenmüller, Hartwig. “Zur Bedeutung der Harfnerlieder des Alten Reiches.” Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur 6 (1978), 1–24.
- Anderson, Robert D. “Music and Dance in Pharaonic Egypt.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson, vol. 4, pp. 2555–2568. New York, 1995. Overview by an expert on the Egyptian collection at the British Museum.
- Ermann, Adolf. Life in Ancient Egypt. New York, 1971. (German original, 1886; translated into English by H. M. Tirard, 1894.) Early discussion illustrates concepts discussed here: ḫnr musician-dancers (p. 247), harper's songs (p. 255), and sheep trampling seed into fields (p. 429). The most glaring error is naming the lute nefer (p. 253), an error corrected by W. M. Flinders Petrie (The Wisdom of the Egyptians, London, 1940, p. 59ff.).
- Finscher, Ludwig, ed. Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Kassel and Stuttgart, 1994–1997. Articles “Harfen (Antike),” “Leiern (Altertum),” and “Mesopotamien (Musikinstrumente)” present recent research on music archaeology.
- Hickmann, Hans. Ägypten. Musikgeschichte in Bildern 2,1. Leipzig, 1961. The pictorial material is superb, and the author reviews his many, still current, ideas.
- Lawergren, Bo. “Distinctions among Canaanite, Philistine, and Israelite Lyres, and Their Global Lyrical Contexts.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 309 (1998). Shows the intercultural context of Egyptian instruments.
- Manniche, Lise. Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt. London, 1991. The only book-length treatment in English. Full discussion of music, its societal role, and instruments (especially the first two), but few references to relevant scholarly literature.
- New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. London, 1980. See “Egypt.”
- Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3d ed., with supplements. Princeton, 1969. Gives texts of the Hymn to the Nile (p. 373) and a harper's song (p. 467).
- Teeter, Emily. “Female Musicians in Pharaonic Egypt.” In Rediscovering the Muses, edited by Kimberly Marshall, pp. 68–91. Boston, 1993. Discusses groups of women musicians, their titles, place in ensembles, and societal positions; detailed bibliography.