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Musical Instruments

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

Musical Instruments

The understanding, sociohistorical interpretation, and research of musical instruments (sound tools) as part of human culture is a conditio sine que non of modern scholarship. Modern musicologists define music as a pattern of human behavior in a relevant cultural context, in which sound-producing tools undergo changes based on changes in culture. Musical instruments and their iconographic representations are the only available material evidence from preliterate societies and are the primary source of investigation for societies that have an oral musical tradition. An interdisciplinary approach, combining archaeological, sociohistorical, musicological, and ethnographic-comparative analysis, has turned archaeomusicology (a field established as an independent branch of scholarship only in the late 1970s–early 1980s) into a most effective tool of study of music in ancient cultures.

While archaeological finds of musical instruments may make it possible actually to hear “historical sound,” and provide information on the audial ecology of the past, archaeological iconography is more helpful in studying sociocultural matters, performance practices, the social performance environs, and the body language of performers. The central tool of organological research (typological analysis) raises the question of classification (Kartomi, 1990, pp. 12–13). It is assumed that each culture has both its own “culture-emerging,” or “natural,” musical instrument classification (which scholarship does not necessarily always discover—e.g., Phoenician instruments) and an “observer-imposed,” or “artificial,” one created for a particular research scheme. Certain Near Eastern cultures (e.g., Sumerian) appear to tend to a natural model guided by the construction material of the musical instrument itself (e.g., determinatives are giš, “wood”; gi, “cane”; si, “horn”; compare Sachs, 1940, p. 164); some (e.g., Hittite) combine this with the method of sound production (hazzik, “strike”; pariparái, “blow”; Turnbull, 1980, p. 391); others (Israelite/Judean), divide instruments into sacred (horn, trumpet), levitic (lyre), and secular (reed pipes) (Braun, 1994, col. 1512). On the other hand, since the early days of organology, artificial classification systems have been used, although natural systems sometimes contribute more to understanding a certain culture. At present, Erich M. von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs's artificial classification (Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 46 [1914]: 553–590) appears to be the most functional system for ancient cultures. It is based on the source of sound, or the nature of the vibrating body: idiophones, membraphones, aerophones, and chordophones (see below).

The names of the musical instruments are in most cases highly uncertain. Contrary to the conditions in Egypt, where iconographic sources frequently are accompanied by texts bearing the name of the depicted instrument, other Near Eastern archaeological finds lack written comments, and the preserved texts with names of musical instruments include hardly any information on the type of instrument. Only as late as the third century BCE–third century CE do the first known parallels of iconographic and written sources appear (lilissu, Akkadian, “kettle drum”: Rashid, 1984, p. 140; zmr, clarinet-type double pipe with one long pipe and one short one: Braun, 1993, p. 176). Most names of musical instruments have to remain in the realm of suggestions (e.g., GIS gù-di/dè, “lute”: Anne Kilmer and Dominique Collon, 1980–1983, vol. 6, p. 512), but there are several exceptions (Old Sumerian balag, “harp”; Bib. Heb. ḥăṣōṣĕrâ, “trumpet”). In certain cases one name is used for different instruments of one type (e.g., tp, different drums, most Semitic languages).

The primary importance of ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman music cultures has been acknowledged since the beginnings of modern (eighteenth century) music historiography. Carl Engel's study of the music of ancient cultures was the first to focus on archaeological sources (Engel, 1864). The first clear statement on the decisive significance of Near Eastern musical instruments for world music culture was made by the founder of contemporary organology, Curt Sachs (1940). The linguistic approach, which dominated studies of ancient Near Eastern musical instruments, and proved to be insufficient, dominated the period following World War II but was more and more replaced by a combined interdisciplinary approach.

Since World War II, the study of ancient musical instruments has focused on three areas:

  • 1. Musical instrument types. Based on a typological approach to musical instruments, the study of instrument types mostly strives for an organological-ergological and historical classification. Its aim is to produce a “history” of the type (see the classical examples of lasting value in Hickmann, 1949–).
  • 2. Musical instrumentarium of certain cultures or geographic areas. Socioanthropologically oriented, studies of instrumentarium strive to incorporate archaeomusicological research results into the general framework of historiography. (For Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome, Greece, Central Asia, and Islam, see the series Musikgeschichte in Bildern; for Anatolia see the encyclopedia entries in Max Wegner (1949–) and Harvey Turnbull (1980); for the Sasanian period see Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin, 1993; and for Israel/Palestine see Joachim Braun (1996).
  • 3. Artifacts. Nearly the broadest, in terms of quantity, and developed along with musicologists by archaeologists, historians, and art historians, the study of individual artifacts recovered in excavations stresses the organological-ergological, or socioanthropological, approach.

The few studies designed with a comprehensive Near Eastern approach, continue the approach of Engel and Sachs. However, the discussions of the different Near Eastern areas and cultures are individual and not synthetic. Wegner defends the position that “the ancient Oriental world does not present a unity also in its musical culture” (Wegner, 1950, p. 50), which is especially true, according to the author, of the opposed nature of Near Eastern and Hellenistic musical instruments: the former are changeable and irregular and the latter are stable and invariable. This disputable theory was developed based on Sachs's thesis on the “classical” and quite solemn character of Egyptian Old Middle Kingdom musical instruments, as opposed to the orgiastic, noisy, and savage character of the New Kingdom/Near Eastern sound tools (Sachs, 1940, p. 98). This popular theory was proved wrong by Hickmann (1961b) on the basis of later archaeological discoveries.

The only attempt to discuss Near Eastern musical instruments comprehensively was made by Hickmann (1957, 1961b). His central conclusions are still unchallenged: in certain cases the Egyptian music instrumentarium (e.g., rattles, sistrum, concussion sticks, flute, trumpet) influenced Babylonian cultures; in others primacy belonged to the Sumerians (e.g., lyre, angular harp, cymbals, frame drums); and in still others the development was parallel but independent (e.g., the harp; Hickmann, 1961b, pp. 23, 35). As regards the provenance of the Western instrumentarium, “certain is the Oriental provenance…of a number of musical instruments, which are adequate to the common sound-ideal of the Mediterranean countries” (Hickmann, 1957, p. 35). The central Phoenician and Israel/Palestine area of the eastern Mediterranean coast from the Sinai desert to Anatolia was considered to be a transit channel only; its significance as a center with an indigenous culture was ignored, even though a number of musical instruments, and especially new instrumental performance traditions, originated there (see Caubet and Braun in Homo-Lechner, 1994, pp. 129–147).


Self-sounders, or sound produced by vibrations of the substance of the instrument itself (e.g., rattles, cymbals), are known as idiophones.

Musical Instruments

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS. Figure 1. Female thigh bone with a fox tooth rattle. From Hayonim Cave (Mt. Carmel, Israel); early Natufian period. Rockefeller Museum, IAA 79.536. (Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

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Natufian strung rattles.

Rattles from modern Israel's Carmel range (11,000–9,000 BCE) are the earliest attested sound tools in the Near East (see figure 1). This type of syncretic jewelry/sound cult object, often disregarded by researchers, exists in various forms and has probably always been an artifact of culture.

Concussion sticks.

Pictograms from Uruk (Uruk IV period, 3000–2900 BCE) and a carved shell from a burial (no. PG789) at Ur show concussion sticks. A bronze sound tool also was found at Kish from the Jemdet Nasr period (2900–2800 BCE) (Rashid, 1984, ill. 8). Egyptian ivory concussion sticks appear somewhat earlier (first dynasty, 3300–3000 BCE).


In the middle of the third millennium, the sistrum (a type of rattle) appears in both Sumer and Egypt; the Sumerian examples are U-shaped and are open at the top (Rashid, 1984, ills. 8, 42), and the Egyptian examples are rectangular, in the shape of a temple naos, a Hathor image, or a horseshoe (Hickmann, 1961a, p. 160, ills. 26–27). Only two or three centuries later, rectangular metal sistra, ornamented with animal figurines, appeared at the Anatolian sites of Horoztepe, and Alaca Höyük (Turnbull, 1980, p. 388). In all cultures, sistra were cult instruments.

Clay rattles.

The most popular Near Eastern idiophones are clay rattles. Among those preserved are egg-shaped examples from the fifth-millennium Lower Egyptian Merimde culture (Hickmann, 1949, p. 70, pl. XLIII); these are the oldest examples and were in use at least until the eighteenth dynasty. Zoomorphic and piecrust shaped clay rattles from the Old Babylonian period (1950–1530 BCE) have been found at nearly every Mesopotamian site (Rimmer, 1969, pl. III), and from the Middle Bronze Age IA–II in ancient Israel/Palestine, some one hundred items in zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, and geometric forms are preserved—the spool shape being the most popular. On Cyprus, the Late Bronze zoomorphic forms, especially of birds, are found frequently (Cyprus Museum, no. A-990). The quantity, dispersion, and archaeological context of the Near Eastern clay rattles, which preserve an indigenous artistic form in every local culture, confirm their plural function as a cult implement, amulet, sound tool, and game—rather than solely as a child's toy, and substantiates it as a mass produced music, cult, and culture commodity.


From the early first millennium BCE, bronze bells appear—mostly the sound tool itself (from Nimrud alone there are some one hundred bells that are the property of the British Museum)—that are rarely represented iconographically: the first representations are horse bells on Assyrian bas-reliefs (Rimmer, 1969, pls. XVII, XVIII). Bells are first attested in the tenth century BCE in northern Persia, at Amlash (Rimmer, pl. XIXc–d) and a century later in Assyria, at Nimrud (Rimmer pl. XIXa), and in Israel/Phoenicia, at Megiddo (Oriental Institute, no. M936); two centuries later they are found on Cyprus and in twenty-third-dynasty Egypt at Tell Basta (Hickmann, 1949, pl. XXIIIA). A dispersion from east to west and a Caucasian or Asian provenience are thus plausible. Bells in various sizes (2.5–12 cm) and forms were designed for animals and humans, mostly probably with an apotropaic function (a supposition based on Ex. 28:35 and questioned for its uniform interpretation by Peter Calmeyer, (1966, vol. 3, p. 431). Bell-shaped clay rattles and clay bells (Rashid, 1984, ill. 131, Hebrew University, no. 9245; also on Cyprus: Limassol District Museum, no. T474) may indicate a continuity of the social and acoustic function of the two idiophones.


Notched implements, such as scapulae, were scraped with a rigid object to produce sound. Scrapers are known throughout the world from prehistoric times. While they do not appear with any frequency in the Near East, there are examples from Ugarit, thirteenth century BCE (Caubet, 1987, figs. 1, 2) and eleventh century BCE Ekron (Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin, “Tel Miqne (Ekron) 1982,” Israel Exploration Journal 33 [1983]: 127–129). A concentration of some ten items was discovered at Kiton, from the twelfth–fifth centuries BCE (Vassos Karageorghis, Excavations at Kiton, vol. 5.2, 1985, p. 317); however, the identification of these artifacts as sound tools, based on the presence of trails of erased patina, is doubtful (Karageorghis, 1985 pp. 327–328).

Bronze cymbals.

Among the best-attested musical instruments for the entire Near East are bronze cymbals. The earliest representations are on bas-reliefs from southern Babylonia at the end of the third millennium (Rashid, 1984, pp. 70–73). These rather large (some are 20 cm in diameter) cymbals, however, disappeared in Neo-Assyrian times; at Nimrud (ninth century BCE) true cymbals (some 10 cm in diameter) were discovered (Rashid, 1984, p. 110). More than twenty pairs of cymbals (12–8 and 6–4 cm in diameter) dated at least four hundred years earlier have been found at Late Bronze Canaanite/Phoenician sites (Tell Abu Hawam, Hazor, Megiddo). Already mentioned in fourteenth-century BCE sources from Ugarit (Caubet, 1987, p. 734), and frequently encountered in the Hebrew Bible (mĕṣiltayim), cymbals disappear from the archaeological finds of Israel/Palestine between the Early Iron Age and the Hellenistic period. Figurines of cymbal players were popular in the Neo-Babylonian kingdom (Rashid, 1964, p. 134), and on Cyprus (Hickmann, 1949, fig. 29; Israel Antiquities Authority, no. P1823); cymbals appear in Anatolia (Bittel, 1968) and Egypt (Marcuse, 1975, p. 10) from the seventh century BCE onward. Cymbals and forked crotala (see below) were widely used at Cybele and Dionysian cult events in Palestine, Anatolia, and Syria, as well as in the Sasanian kingdom.

Forked crotala.

Small cymbals attached to a forked handle (forked crotala) and larger cymbals were among the most popular instruments in the Hellenistic–Roman Near East (Farmer, 1966, pp. 18, 23, 27). A frequent combination of instruments seems to be the crotala and the organ (Braun, 1994, p. 142).


Instruments that produce vibrations from a tightly stretched membrane, such as the drum, are known as membranophones. Drums belong to the most ancient and popular category of musical instruments attested in the Near East, where they are the main membranophone. They were made with one or two membranes and in various sizes (20–150 cm) and forms (round and square frame, cylindrical, hourglass, kettle, goblet, and bowl shaped). They were held in several positions (in front of the chest, above the head, under the arm) or placed on the ground. Wall paintings of a hunting shrine at Çatal Höyük in Anatolia (level A.III. 1, seventh millennium) shows men dancing and beating small round-frame drums with a stick (see Doris Stockmann in Lund, 1986, pp. 12–14). This drum (with one or two skins?) appears again at the beginning of the second millennium BCE in a scene of dancing etched on a rock in Israel's Negev desert (Anati, 1963, p. 211) and remains the main membranophone of the Near East. It seems that beginning in the Chalcolithic/EB terra-cotta goblet-, cornet-, chalice- (Ghassulian culture: e.g. IAA, no. 36.66, 36.97) and hour-glass-forms (Gilat, in the Negev: IAA, no. 76.54) were used. In the late third millennium the Mesopotamian giant drum, probably in bronze, or with a bronze frame (Schmidt-Colinet, 1981, ills. 71–75), and in the early second millennium BCE the bronze goblet form, lilissu (Schmidt-Colinet, 1981, ills. 76, 77), appeared. A barrel-shaped drum with two skins and a rectangular drum are attested in Middle Kingdom Egypt (Hickmann, 1961a, pp. 28, 106). With rare exceptions, the entire corpus of pre-Iron Age drum iconography shows the instrument in a cultic context.

In the first half of the second millennium BCE in Old Babylonia and later, but especially in the Iron Age, in other Near Eastern areas, two forms of the female drum player, the most notable indigenous type, appear on deep-relief terracotta plaques. The figures are naked but adorned with a wig or headcover and a disk (drum) is pressed against the chest with both hands (Rashid, 1984, ills. 91–95); and as bell-shaped figures dressed in a long gown, beating the drum, which is in a position perpendicular to the body (Meyers, 1987). Preserved only in Israel/Palestine, there are more than forty items of the first type and some fifteen of the second extant. Mixed types appear on Cyprus and in Syria: pillar figurines with a disk pressed against the chest and figurines on votive stands. It is probably at this time that the drum (tōph in the Hebrew Bible) acquired a function in both the cultic and everyday life of the lower strata of the population. The function of this type—homogeneous in its Near Eastern unity and autochthonous—is not yet clear: the range of use is from dea nutrix and amulet to apotropaic object and toy; even the identification of the disk type is questioned (drum, solar disk, bread?). The hourglass drum (darabbuka, also a popular drum among modern Arabs and Druze), characteristically held under the arm, appears once in the Negev and more frequently in finds from Old Babylonia between the Iron Age and Hellenistic periods. Excavations from the Hellenistic-Roman period confirm the appearance of the Greco-Roman frame drum (mostly on mosaics—e.g., at Sepphoris in Israel; see Meyers, Netzer, and Meyers, 1992, p. 49). In the earliest drum iconography, the membranophone-chordophone in duet is considered to be a typical Near Eastern ensemble (cf. Anati, 1963, p. 211, for Negev rock-etchings; Rashid, 1984, p. 76).


Vibrations of air enclosed in an instrument, produced by wind or breath across its edge (flute), via a reed (clarinet), a double reed (oboe), or the performer's lips (trumpet) distinguish the category of instruments known as aerophones.


A slab of wood 10–20 cm long, rhomboid in form and frequently carved and ornamented, with a small hole at the end for a cord, is a bullroarer. It is a noisemaker used at ritual and magic events that produces a roaring sound through circular movement. Probably one of the earliest aerophones, it is attested by the finds from the Natufian Kebara cave in Israel's Carmel hills (IAA, no. 13.85) and the Neolithic Nahal Hemar cave (Treasures of the Holy Land, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986, fig. 17). In Egypt, the bullroarer appears in predynastic times (Hickmann, 1961a, p. 157).


The first archaeological evidence for flutes is not earlier than the late fourth millennium in Egypt, (Hickmann, 1961a, ills. 1, 4); this flute type, the nay (60–90 cm long) is still in use and is usually held at an oblique angle. The flute is also attested in third millennium-Mesopotamia (Rashid, 1984, p. 50). The single flute, however, either was not popular in the ancient Near East, or was not frequently depicted in the Bronze and Iron Ages because of its low status. A corpus of some ten short (7–12 cm) whistles with a single side opening has appeared in areas of Canaan/modern Israel, the earliest dated to the third millennium (Megiddo: IAA, no. 39.680) and the latest to the seventh century BCE. In the first-dynasty royal cemetery at Ur, fragments of silver tubes were discovered that have been interpreted as flutes or other reed instruments.

Double pipe.

The most typical aerophone in the ancient Near East was the double pipe (two tubes) with a single or double reed (i.e., a clarinet or an oboe type, not a flute), which produces a rich, harsh, penetrating, and sensual timbre. While the single flute was still in use during the Old Babylonian period (Rashid, 1984, ills. 85, 86), the divergent double pipe with cylindrical tubes, of Cycladian provenience (Aign, 1963, ill. I/5), permeated musical life. The double pipe has been discovered in excavations in contexts from the middle of the second millennium BCE up to Byzantine times; mostly, however, it appears in iconographic material both as a single instrument and in ensembles. The differences in representations are mainly in the degree of divergence of the pipes: length of the longer pipe (possibly a drone), how it is held (horizontally or vertically, together or apart), performance style (position of the hands), and type of reed. Finds from the ninth–seventh centuries BCE (e.g., from Achziv: IAA, no. 44.56; Karatepe: Schmidt-Colinet, 1981, no. 89) show that the double-pipe performer—mostly female—had become a popular Near Eastern terracotta figurine type, along with the drum player (see above.)

Musical Instruments

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS. Figure 2. Bell-form figurine with double pipe. From Achziv, Israel. Dated to the ninth-eighth century BCE. Rockefeller Museum, IAA 44.56. (Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

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The instrument acquired all the signs of the classic aulos; in Greece itself, however, the instrument does not appear prior to 700 BCE. After the seventh century BCE, the phorbeia (a leather band passed over the lips and cheeks to secure stability while blowing) appears on Cypriot and Anatolian (see figure 2) figurines (e.g., Schmidt-Colinet, 1981, no. 90; Hermary et al., 1989, no. 578.579), but is absent from Neo-Assyrian examples and in material from Israel/Palestine. The double pipe is frequently part of the Neo-Assyrian orchestra (e.g., the Elamite orchestra, Niniveh, seventh century BCE; see Rashid, 1984, ill. 151), or the membraphone-aerophone-chordophone “Phoenician orchestra” (ninth–seventh centuries BCE: Aign, 1963, figs. 89, 90, 91) that can be traced back to Philistia/Israel ensembles from the eleventh to the tenth centuries BCE (Braun, 1994, p. 143; Ashdod: IAA, no. 68.1182). In Hellenistic-Roman contexts, finds of actual aulos instruments are frequent and seem to indicate microtone scales (e.g., Gezer: IAA, no. 81.1839). In that period, also for the first time, the double pipe with a short melody pipe and long drone (arghul type) can be attested with certainty (Safaitic basalt etching: Jordan, J. 1886). Mosaics and other artifacts from the Hellenistic-Roman period show the double pipe both as a musical instrument of lament (e.g., in a wall painting in the Idumean necropolis at Marisa/Mareshah, (in situ) and of orgiastic joy (in a Dionysian context: Braun, 1995).


A new period in the history of the double pipes, and especially single pipes, began with the use of conoid reed pipes. The zamr type of double flute from the seventh century BCE is still dominant in the Near East. Among the first examples to attest this aerophone type is one from Tel Malḥata, in southern Israel: a terra-cotta figurine of a man blowing a divergent conical double pipe (IAA, no. 94.3393); bronze figurines from Anatolia should be associated with this type of aerophone rather than with trumpets (cf. Turnbull, 1980, fig. 8). Single zamr instruments appear on numerous artifacts, mostly in pastoral surroundings (Beth-Shean, sixth century, Lady Mary Monastery mosaic, in situ: Farmer, 1966, ill. 5).


The earliest evidence of panpipes (syrinxes) in the region is probably from Anatolia (seventh century BCE: Turnbull, 1980, fig. 7). It has been one of the most popular instruments in the Near East since Seleucid times (Rashid, 1984, p. 142) and has kept its autochthonous peculiarities in every area. In the second century CE the panpipe was accepted as a symbol on the city coins of Paneas/Banias in northern Palestine (in the second–third centuries called Caesarea Philippi; see Israel Museum no. 2883). Representations of zamr instruments appear on other coins from Paneas, the oldest of which in the Near East is the depiction of a cross flute (Meshorer, 1984–1985, figs. 6a, 27).


In the third century BCE the organ, based on the panpipe (hydraulus), was invented in Alexandria, Egypt. The first iconographic evidence of this instrument are terra cottas from Alexandria (second-first centuries BCE: Perrot, 1971, pl. V), Tarsus (pre-Christian: Perrot, 1971, pl. XVI/1), and Carthage (second century: Perrot, 1971, pl. XII). The most significant example has come to light in a Hamath (Syria) mosaic that depicts a third-century ensemble performance (organ, crotals, lyre, double aulos, bells, sounding bowls). Attention has been drawn to the Samaritan terra-cotta oil lamps, that depict an organ (again with crotala; see Braun in Homo-Lechner, 1994, p. 142); it seems that this instrument was used in both liturgical and secular life.

Animal horns.

Comparatively scarcely attested, animal horns may have been used in Anatolian Neolithic cultures (Lund, 1986, p. 20), but they undoubtedly appear in only two finds: in an early second-millennium BCE drawing from Mari (Perrot, 1961, ill. 389) and in a ninth-eighth century BCE stone relief from Carchemish (Schmidt-Colinet, 1981, ill. 75). There is evidence as well of the use of oxhorns in fifteenth-century BCE Egypt during the reign of Amenhotep IV (Marcuse, 1975, p. 747).


The ram's horn, or shofar, is the most frequently mentioned music instrument (seventy-two times) in the Hebrew Bible. However, it does not appear in archaeological contexts until the third century (among the earliest appearance is in the Hammath Tiberias synagogue mosaic, in situ): the shofar is always part of a group of synagogue symbols (menorah, shofar, lulav, etrog).

Shell horn.

A different type of horn, the shell horn, was used in Israel/Palestine beginning at least in the late second millenium BCE (Tell Qasile: Hebrew University no. 2968:227).


The elite music instrument the trumpet descends from the animal horn and is similar to it. It appears rarely, however. Besides the two famous Tutankhamun trumpets (one silver, 58.2 cm, and the other bronze, 49.4 cm), there are only some fifteen representations of the trumpet from Egypt. Among them, the first certain depiction (sixteenth-fifteenth centuries BCE), shows a clear cultic and military affiliation (Manniche, 1975, pp. 33–35; Hickmann, 1961a, p. 74). Mesopotamian cultures show extremely little evidence for this instrument: there are only two between the Mesalim and Neo-Babylonian periods (Rashid, 1984, ills. 37, 143). The situation is similar in Israel/Palestine, where, contrary to its significance in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Nu. 10:2–10), and in the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran (1QM II.15 and VII.9), the only iconographic evidence for the trumpet is on the wall paintings in the Idumean necropolis near Beth-Guvrin (in situ, third–second centuries BCE). There, for the first time in trumpet iconography, the instrument—an early example of the Roman tuba—is part of a hunting scene. The aerophones depicted on the coins minted by Bar Kokhba In 132–135, frequently defined as trumpets, can hardly be considered as such (Sachs, 1940, p. 120), and the two trumpets depicted among the booty from the Jerusalem Temple on the Arch of Titus in Rome may not necessarily be the Temple instruments but, rather, copies of the Roman tuba. There are only isolated instances of trumpet representations from later periods, such as the pair of trumpets on the rock carving at Tak-i-Bostan from the Sasanian period (Behn, 1954, p. 77). In spite of the early appearance and significance of the trumpet in Egypt, and the importance attached to it in Near Eastern written sources, this instrument may actually have been used very little in the Levant.


An instrument in which a stretched string vibrates is known as a chordophone. Its subgroups are the zither, lyre, harp, and lute. The phenomenon of the appearance of sophisticated string instruments at very early stages in the history of music without evidence of earlier rudimentary forms is clearly manifested in the Near East.


The oldest archaeological document of a chordophone is a stone from Megiddo, strata XIX (figure 3) etched with a female figure with a triangular, fully developed harp. The instrument appears again in Cycladic culture (Aign, 1963, figs. 1–3) but was not witnessed again in the Near East. While other forms of the harp have been attested since the early third millennium in Mesopotamia and the fourth dynasty in Egypt, the harp itself is absent from the central areas along the eastern Mediterranean coast from the Sinai to Anatolia (Caubet and Braun in Homo-Lechner 1994, pp. 132, 141; Turnbull, 1980, p. 388). This strongly questions the popular interpretation of nēbel in the Hebrew Bible as the “harp” of ancient Israel.

The early Sumerian harp (Uruk IV and Mesalim periods), a small (50–70 cm), arched instrument, is depicted mainly on seals in a cultic context, frequently being played by animals (Rashid, 1984, pp. 52–59). At the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the arched harp was replaced by the angular harp, which was held vertically or horizontally (Rashid, 1984, figs. 42–49); while the horizontal harp was known only in Mesopotamia, the vertical one was used to the west, especially on Cyprus (Rashid, 1984, fig. 51). Toward the first millennium BCE, the size of the instrument and the number of strings increased. The horizontal harp (eight–twelve strings) was plucked with a plectrum and the vertical harp (eighteen–twenty-two strings) with the hand, which suggests a basso function for the first and a melodic function for the second. The placement of the hands on the strings allows some conclusions about the style of the music being played (Sachs, 1940, p. 82). A new small rectangular vertical harp with upright resonator on the side of the frame appeared during the Seleucid period (Rashid, 1984, p. 150; Behn, 1954, pl. 55; Dor, Exp. no. 61378); in Roman times this type (sambyke?) became popular throughout the Near East, Greece, and Rome. The first Egyptian harps, also arched, are dated somewhat later (fourth dynasty; Hickmann, 1961a, pp. 20–27) than the Sumerian but are much larger (150–180 cm); they appear in sophisticated forms, some richly ornamented, with a developed tuning system (up to thirty-six pegs), and others nearly angular (e.g., an example from the tomb of Rameses III: Hickmann, 1961a, pp. 44, 64, 128). There are representations since the eighteenth dynasty of the vertical angular harp, which is considered an import from elsewhere in the Near East (Hickmann, 1961a, pp. 30, 130); smaller harps are depicted as well—the portable “shoulder harp” (Hickmann, 1961a, ill. 95) and the “ladle harp” (Hickmann, 1961a, ills. 93, 94). All of these instruments, mostly built from expensive wood from Lebanon and designed as works of art, seem to have been used only in the highest circles of society. In terms of chronology, the Egyptian harps followed in the footsteps of the Mesopotamian harps but developed greater sophistication in construction. In Hellenistic-Roman times, in both the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, the smaller, simply worked, angular harp (Hickmann, 1961a, ill. 109) was played.

Musical Instruments

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS. Figure 3. Stone etching from Megiddo, showing a figure with a harp. Dated to the late fourth millennium. Israel Museum, IAA 38.954. (Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

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The primary musical instrument in the Near East was the lyre. From its first appearance on Sumerian seals in the first half of the third millennium, where it is depicted as a perfect chordophone (Rashid, 1984, p. 50), the lyre dominates the musical scene of the region until the Early Byzantine period. The elaborate Sumerian asymmetrical lyres have a resonator in the form of a bull (upright it is some 150 cm high) or are ornamented with a bull's head (portable, 100–120 cm), and have eight–twelve strings. The instruments recovered in excavation and supplemented by iconographic material (Hickmann, 1961a, ills. 11, 28–39) show a royal context for lyre music. The smaller, vertically held, asymmetrical lyre with two unequal side-arms appeared in Akkad and was played also in Carchemish and Babylon (Hickmann, 1961, ill. 43; Aign, 1963, figs. 78, 79). In the late third–early second millennium BCE, when large standing lyres were still in use (in Babylon: Rashid, 1984, ills. 79, 80; in Anatolia: Turnbull, 1980, p. 388), and the first modified forms appeared in the hands of naked dancing women (Negev rock etching, nineteenth century BCE: Anati, 1963, p. 210), dramatic changes took place nearly simultaneously in several places in the Near East. The Sumerian grand royal lyre was replaced by a simply built, small (some 40–50 cm), portable, symmetrical, and sometimes asymmetrical, instrument. For the first time it was held horizontally, in front of the musician; it was played mostly by musicians of low social status, Semitic traveling merchants, and women—the latter often depicted naked (Rashid, 1984, ills. 47, 59, 76, 80; Behn, 1954, pl. 85; Porada, 1956, figs. g–j). The new lyre type entered Egypt from Syria and Canaan. It took root there in its horizontal asymmetrical form and was played only by women. In Late Bronze Age Canaan, a new way to hold the asymmetrical lyre, with the sound box under the arm, can be seen from Megiddo (IAA, no. 38.780). This change significantly increased performance possibilities, and in its new capacity the lyre became the main instrument of priests and musicians in holy places, courts, and elite military orchestras (Rashid, 1984, ills. 120, 142, 145, 148, 150). This new playing technique migrated to Assyria, partly with musicians-prisoners from Judah (Rashid, 1984, ill. 142). The first half of the first millennium BCE is marked by a multitude of lyre forms, demonstrating both the autochthonous creativity of different groups and certain common Near Eastern tendencies. The most common forms follow:

U form.

Examples of a U-shaped form with parallel strings can be seen from the eleventh century BCE on Cyprus at Palaipaphos-Xerolimni; in Israel/Palestine at Ashdod; and in Anatolia at Karatepe (Porada, 1956).

Symmetrical square form.

Examples of a symmetrical square form with a parallel, or fanlike, arrangement of its strings appeared mainly in Assyria and Israel/Palestine (Rashid, 1984, ill. 150; Braun, 1990–1991, figs. 1, 3; Behn, 1954, fig. 19; Kamid el-Loz excavations, no. 78:504).

Asymmetrical square form.

Examples of an asymmetrical square form appear with differently arranged strings throughout the Near East, including Egypt (Hickmann, 1961a, p. 138; Rashid, 1984, pp. 126, 134; Braun, 1990–1991, figs. 4–6).

In Israel/Palestine and Assyria, the preference seems to have been for a parallel string arrangement. In the Hellenistic-Roman period the lyre tended to be the symmetrical Roman type with a rounded or square sound box, animal-horn side arms, and mostly parallel strings; this instrument is often represented in a stylized form (Hickmann, 1961a, ills. 110, 111; Braun, 1994, cols. 1509–10; Rashid, 1984, pp. 152–153; Behn, 1954, pl. 48) and appears in nearly every social context.


Instruments of the lute type are the most mobile, dynamic, and subject to change among all chordophones. By permitting the performance of a nearly unrestricted number of sounds from one string, they can be adjusted to any kind of tonal system and music style. Their inexpensive and simple construction, as compared to harps and lyres, and their rustic, entertaining, and erotic performance context made them popular among the common people, which may also may explain the comparatively rare depictions of the instrument. The question of the origin of the lute remains unanswered—theories range from the Caucasus and Central Asia (Marcuse, 1975, p. 406), to Syria and Babylon (Turnbull, 1972; Rashid, 1984, p. 92). The first iconographic evidence for the long-necked lute appears on seals from Akkad, probably in a cultic context (Rashid, 1984, ills. 38, 39).

In the Old Babylonian period, the musicians are often naked men and women (Rashid, 1984, pp. 75–76, 81–84); the lute rarely appears then in connection with a cult or temple service, although later it does, in Anatolia (Schmidt-Colinet, 1981, figs. 60, 62). In the middle of the second millennium BCE, probably via Canaan (male terra-cotta figurine, sixteenth century BCE: IAA, no. 33.1567) the lute reached Egypt. While attested in Canaan in two more finds (naked female bronze statuette: IAA, no. M969; dancing minstrel on a terra-cotta plaque: Hebrew Union College, no. 23.095), the lute does not appear in Israel/Palestine again until the Hellenistic period. In Egypt the instrument became very popular and was played by naked females (Hickmann, 1961a, p. 98) and on some occasions by men, possibly in a cultic context (Hickmann, 1961a, ill. 101).

In the earliest depictions, lutes are generally shown with two–three strings marked with decorative tassels at the tunning box. A long, frequently fretted neck emerges from a small, resonator out of wood or tortoise shell and covered with animal hide. Mostly plucked with a plectrum, fastened by a cord to the body of the instrument, the form of the lute has not changed significantly over the centuries. How it was held, however, has changed constantly, and there have been attempts to create a lute chronology according to the playing position: Old-Babylonian period, horizontal; Kassite–Neo-Assyrian period, lute neck at an oblique angle, pointing upward; Seleucid period, lute neck at an oblique angle, pointing downward (Rashid, 1984, p. 146). The short-necked lute with a broad, pear-shaped body, perhaps of Central Asian origins, appeared only rarely in the ancient Near East (it appeared for the first time in the Egyptian nineteenth dynasty: Hickmann, 1961a, ill. 104). In Hellenistic times the instrument is represented on terra cottas from Egypt and Palestine (Hickmann, 1961a, ill. 105; Marisa/Mareshah excavation, no. 1386), and it acquired great popularity in the Sasanian period (Farmer, 1966, ill. 4; Duchesne-Guillemin, 1993), when it developed into one of the most popular traditional instruments of Islamic countries, the 'ud, predecessor of the European lute.


The zither type is actually nonexistent in the Near East, and information on this chordophone type, often also called psaltery (psalteria, from Gk., psalmos, “finger,” because in antiquity their strings were plucked with bare fingers) is scarce and confused. The only known example, also interpreted by some scholars as a xylophone (Wegner, 1950, p. 36), is a beautiful carving on an ivory pyxis (BM, no. 118179, ninth-eighth century BCE), where as part of a small Phoenician orchestra two persons are plucking(?) square stringed frames (nine and ten strings) or boxes (Aign, 1963, pp. 158–159)

[Most of the sites, peoples, and cultures mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Aign, Bernhard P. Die Geschichte der Musikinstrumente des Ägäischen Raums bis zum 700 v. Chr. Frankfurt am Main, 1963. The best discussion of archaeological material from preclassical times, including rich Near Eastern comparative material.
  • Anati, Emmanuel. Palestine Before the Hebrews. New York, 1963, p. 211.
  • Bayer, Bathja. The Material Relics of Music in Ancient Palestine and Its Environs: An Archaeological Inventory. Tel Aviv, 1963. Useful catalog of finds based on a bibliography; does not indicate the artifacts' place of preservation.
  • Becker, Heinz. Zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der antiken und mittelalterlichen Rohrblattinstrumente. Hamburg, 1966. Basic study of ancient reed instruments.
  • Behn, Friedrich. Musikleben im Altertum und frühen Mittelalter. Stuttgart, 1954. Separate chapters on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Sasanian, and other Near Eastern music cultures, with special stress on organological rather than cultural matters. Includes more than two hundred illustrations.
  • Bittel, Kurt. “Cymbeln für Kybele.” In Günther Wasmuth zum 80. Geburtstag gewidmet von seinen Freunden, Kollegen und Autoren, pp. 79–82. Tübingen, 1968.
  • Braun, Joachim. “Iron Age Seals from Ancient Israel Pertinent to Music.” Orbis Musicae: Essays in Honor of Hanoch Avenary 10 (1990–1991): 11–26.
  • Braun, Joachim. “‘… die Schöne spielt die Pfiefe’: Zur nabatäischsafaitischen Musikpflege.” In Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Wolfgang Suppan, edited by Bernhard Habla, pp. 167–184. Tutzing, 1993. First attempt to analyze a narrow local musical culture from the Hellenistic period.
  • Braun, Joachim. “Biblische Musikinstrumente.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 1, pp. 1503–1537. 2d ed. Kassel, 1994.
  • Braun, Joachim. “Die Musikikonographie des Dionysoskultes im Römischen Palästina.” In Imago musicae, 8, 109–133. Lucca, 1995.
  • Braun, Joachim. Musik in Alt-Israel/Palästina: Studien zu den archäologischen, schriftlichen und vergleichenden Quellen. Freiburg, 1996.
  • Calmeyer, Peter. “Glocke.” In Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie, vol. 3, pp. 427–431. Berlin and New York, 1966.
  • Caubet, Annie. “La musique à Ougarit.” Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1987): 731–754. The only discussion of Ugaritic musical instruments, stressing the autochthonal character of the musical culture of the eastern Mediterranean coast.
  • Duchesne-Guillemin, Marcelle. Les instruments de musique dans l'art Sassanide. Ghent, 1993.
  • Ellermeier, Friedrich. “Beiträge zur Frühgeschichte altorientalischer Saiteninstrumenten.” In Archäologie und Altes Testament: Festschrift für Kurt Galling zum 8 January 1980, edited by Arnulf Kuschke and Ernst Kutsch, pp. 75–90. Tübingen, 1970. Clarifies the interpretation of the Hebrew term kinor.
  • Engel, Carl. The Music of the Most Ancient Nations. London, 1864. The first study to emphasize archaeological material, with chapters on the musical cultures of the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Hebrews. Includes more than a hundred illustrations.
  • Farmer, Henry George. Musikgeschichte in Bildern, vol. 3.2, Islam. edited by Heinrich Besseler and Max Schneider. Leipzig, 1966. Along with the other volumes in this series, considered the best study of iconography, both as regards musical instruments and general cultural background. Includes detailed presentations of each artifact, comparative tables, and general musicological discussions.
  • Fleischhauer, Günter. Musikgeschichte in Bildern. vol. 2.5, Etrurien und Rom. edited by Heinrich Besseler and Max Schneider. Leipzig, 1964. See Farmer (1966).
  • Hass, Gerlinde. Die Syrinx in der griechischen Bildkunst. Boelaus, 1985.
  • Hermary, Antoine, Annie Caubet, and Olivier Masson. Catalogue des antiquités de Chypre. Paris, 1989.
  • Hickmann, Ellen, and David W. Hughes, eds. The Archaeology of Early Music Culture: Third International Meeting of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology. Orpheus-Schriftenreihe, vol. 51. Bonn, 1988. Includes an article on harps by O. R. Gurney and B. Lawergren, and Greek and Roman pipes by Annie Bélis.
  • Hickmann, Hans. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiens du Musée du Caire: Instruments de musique. Cairo, 1949. Classical model of a professional musicological catalog and a monumental independent study of Egyptian musical instruments.
  • Hickmann, Hans. “Flöteninstrumente,” “Glocken,” “Harfe,” “Horn-instrumente,” “Klappern,” “Klarinette,” “Laute,” “Leier,” “Rassel,” and “Trompeteninstrumente I.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Basel, 1949–. Although in need of updating, still valuable entries on the typology of musical instruments.
  • Hickmann, Hans. “Die Rolle des Vorderen Orients in der Abendländischen Musikgeschichte.” Cahiers d'Histoire Égyptienne 9.1–2 (1957): 19–37. This and Hickmann (1961b) are the only valuable overall discussions of organological developments in the Near East. Must be read in light of more recent archaeological finds.
  • Hickmann, Hans. Musikgeschichte in Bildern, vol. 2.1, Ägypten. edited by Heinrich Besseler and Max Schneider. Leipzig, 1961a. See Farmer (1966). Additional material may be found in Manniche (1975).
  • Hickmann, Hans. “Vorderasien und Ägypten im musikalischen Austausch.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morganländischen Gesellschaft 111.1 (1961b): 23–41.
  • Homo-Lechner, Catherine, ed. La pluridisciplinarité en archéologie musicale: IVe rencontres internationales d'archéologie musicale d'ICTM, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, octobre 1990. 2 vols. Paris, 1994. Includes papers on Ugaritic musical instruments by Annie Caubet, the state of archaeomusicological research in Israel by Joachim Braun, Near Eastern string instruments by Bo Lawergren, and the Greek lyre by Annie Bélis.
  • Karamatov, Fajsulla M., et al., Musikgeschichte in Bildern, vol. 2.9, Mittelasien. edited by Werner Bachmann. Leipzig, 1987. See Farmer (1966).
  • Kartomi, Margaret J. On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago, 1990. The best contemporary historical, theoretical, and methodological discussion on the classification and research of musical instruments.
  • Kilmer, Anne, and Dominique Collon. “Laute” and “Leier.” In Real-lexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie, vol. 6, pp. 512–517 and 571–582. Berlin and New York, 1980–1983.
  • Kilmer, Anne, Richard L. Crocker, and Robert R. Brown. Sounds from the Silence: Recent Discoveries on Ancient Near Eastern Music. Berkeley, 1976.
  • Lund, Cajsa S., ed. Second Conference of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology, Stockholm, November 19–23, 1984. Vol. 1. Stockholm, 1986. Includes papers by Doris Stockmann on early Mediterranean drums, Bo Lawergren on the ancient harp of Altai, and Albrecht Schneider on the typology of the ancient reed pipe.
  • Manniche, Lise. Ancient Egyptian Musical Instruments. Munich, 1975. Inefficiently organized catalog; updates Hickmann (1961a).
  • Marcuse, Sibyl. A Survey of Musical Instruments. New York, 1975. Comprehensive contemporary survey organized by instrument type; no references are given for archaeological-iconographic material.
  • Meshorer, Yaakov. “The Coins of Caesarea Paneas.” Israel Numismatic Journal 8 (1984–1985): 37–58.
  • Meyers, Carol L. “A Terracotta in the Harvard Semitic Museum and Disc-Holding Female Figures Reconsidered.” Israel Exploration Journal 37.2–3 (1987): 116–122. Exemplary discussion of the type.
  • Meyers, Eric, Ehud Netzer, and Carol L. Meyers. Sepphoris. Winona Lake, Ind., 1992.
  • Nixdorff, Heide. Zur Typologie und Geschichte der Rahmentrommeln. Berlin, 1971. The only typological discussion of the ancient drum.
  • Perrot, Jean. The Organ from Its Invention in the Hellenistic Period to the End of the Thirteenth Century. London, 1971. Standard study.
  • Polin, Claire C. J. Music in the Ancient Near East. New York, 1954.
  • Porada, Edith. “A Lyre Player from Tarsus and His Relations.” In The Aegean and the Near East: Studies Presented to H. Goldmann, edited by S. Weinberger et al., pp. 185–211. New York, 1956.
  • Rashid, Subhi Anwar. “Comparative Archaeological Research on the Musical Instruments in Ancient Iraq and Egypt” (in Arabic). Sumer 33 (1977): 9–17. Rashid considers Mesopotamia the birthplace of nearly all musical instruments (p. 16). See also Rashid (1984), page 21.
  • Rashid, Subhi Anwar. Musikgeschichte in Bildern, vol. 2, Mesopotamien. edited by Werner Bachmann. Leipzig, 1984. See Farmer (1966).
  • Rimmer, Joan. Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia in the British Museum. London, 1969.
  • Sachs, Curt. The History of Musical Instruments. London, 1940. Although somewhat out of date, this volume has not lost its significance as a major classic.
  • Schmidt-Colinet, Constanze. Die Musikinstrumente in der Kunst des Alten Orients: Archäologisch-philologische Studien. Bonn, 1981. Survey of archaeological finds from the Near East, mainly from Mesopotamia, with only casual examples from other areas. Includes some ninety illustrations.
  • Stauder, Wilhelm. Die Harfen und Leiern Vorderasiens in babylonischer und assyrischer Zeit. Frankfurt am Main, 1961.
  • Turnbull, Harvey. “The Origin of the Long-necked Lute.” Galpin Society Journal 25 (1972): 58–66.
  • Turnbull, Harvey. “Anatolia.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 1, pp. 388–393. London, 1980. The only up-to-date and very rich survey of Anatolian musical instruments.
  • Wegner, Max. “Hethitische Musik.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 6, pp. 330–334. Basel, 1949– .
  • Wegner, Max. Die Musikinstrumente des Alten Orients. Munster, 1950. Includes sections on Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, Syrian, Israeli, and Greek music.
  • Wegner, Max. Musikgeschichte in Bildern, vol. 2.4, Griechenland. edited by Heinrich Besseler and Max Schneider. Leipzig, 1963. See Farmer (1966).
  • Wellesz, Egon, ed. The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 1. London, 1957, pp. 239–246, 266–274, 294–295. Sections rich with archaeological material are devoted to musical instruments in Mesopotamia and Egypt as opposed to the chapter on music in the Bible, which ignores archaeological sources.
  • Ziegler, Christiane. Les instruments de musique égyptiens au Musée du Louvre. Paris, 1979.

Joachim Braun

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