Timeline 001: Ancient Musical Notation

Apr 27, 2015

The art of writing down melodies, preserving sound in time, was not something that was first invented just 1,000 years ago. Humans have made music for most of our history, let's explore some of the earliest examples of musical notation. The first comes to us from a culture that’s nearly 3,400 years old.

A hymn of praise to the Semitic goddess of orchards, Nikkal, predates all the other early music we know by nearly a millennium, dating back to 14th Century BCE. It comes to us from clay tablets that were unearthed in the ancient city of Ugarit in present day Syria. They contain the text and instructions for a singer accompanied by a nine-stringed sammum – an ancient lyre or harp. It even tells the performer how to tune the instrument.

Why is this the earliest musical score in history? It’s thought that the Hurrian culture was in decline and this tablet could have been a way of preserving something precious to their way of life, something of their art, something of their music. Perhaps that’s the reason for any musical score.

The next example of ancient musical notation comes from ancient Greece. Starting around 500 BCE, they developed a library of symbols that were used to express musical notes and rhythms for singers and instrumentalists. Almost every Greek philosopher had a great deal to say about music, its power and role in society.

An ancient Greek song, entitled Epitaph of Seikilos was found engraved on a tombstone in Aiden, Turkey around the ancient city of Ephesus.

The text of this short ode reads:

As long as you live be happy
Do not grieve at all
Life is short
And time exacts the final reckoning

This image is a recreation of the text and musical instructions for the Epitaph of Seikilos.
Credit Thanatos / Creative Commons / Universal Public Domain dedication

Though the Greeks had a detailed system of musical notation and though much is written about their music, only fifteen fragments of written notation survive to the present day.  That's most likely due to the fall of Athens in 404 BCE.  Time exacts the final reckoning.