Rights of Freedom

Bas relief of musicians in the ruins of the Palace of Nineveh, circa 700 BC.

Origins of music

  • July 2004
  • by Steve Sabz
  • comments
"Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!" - Psalm 95:1

In last month's newsletter, I presented the ingenious minds of the Greek philosophers as they extolled the virtue of the musical modes, particularly the Dorian, in education. This month, we back-track to the earliest known beginnings of music itself.

Jericho, adjacent to Jerusalem, is the site of the first known human settlement in the world. Excavations of the ancient city reveal a founding date of approximately 8,000 B.C. Sumer, an ancient nation of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), founded around 5,000 B.C., is home to one of the oldest records in which the art of music is described. Sumerian texts dating from 3,000 B.C. are explicit in their mention of both religious and folk music types. A stone slab excavated from the region lists various song categories including liturgies, royal psalms, festival songs and lamentations, victory songs, popular songs for typical workmen, as well as love songs for both men and women. Furthermore, schools of music for the training of clergy were constructed next to all of their largest temples.1  2

Reminiscent of the Sumerians, Job, who lived around the time of Abraham (2,200 B.C.) in the land of Uz, located in northern Arabia, makes frequent references to music as an outlet for the expression of both joy and sadness. For example, Job 21:12 states that "They sing to the tambourine and harp, and rejoice to the sound of the flute." Again in 30:31 Job laments, "My harp is turned into mourning, and my flute to the voice of those who weep." Another book of the Bible called Psalms (1410-500 B.C.), contains 150 "songs" that are solely dedicated to the praising of God with the accompaniment of music. In fact, there are frequent instructions regarding the instruments to be used for particular psalms. For example, Psalm 4 reads, "To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments." Psalm 5, "To the Chief Musician. With flutes." Psalm 12, "To the Chief Musician. On an eight-stringed harp." Furthermore, the Greek verb from which the noun "psalms" originates translates to the "plucking or twanging of strings."4

Still, an earlier record of the origins of music can be found in the Pre-Flood historical texts of the Bible. In Genesis 4:20-22 we read that Lamech, a descendent of Cain, had three sons who became the initiators of three main professions. The first, Jabal, is declared as being the father (inventor) of the profession of the herdsmen, or shepherding. His brother, Jubal, became the creator of the musical profession and its instruments (in particular, wind and stringed instruments). And third, Tubal-Cain (half brother of Jabal and Jubal), founded metallurgy (forging of metals such as bronze and iron). So we see that music developed more or less along side agrarian (the herdsmen) and industrialized (the metal forgers) forms of this ancient society.

Ancient Egypt (3,200 B.C.) was also a highly advanced civilization. Contrary to the Sumerians and Hebrews, the Egyptians only left pictorial representations of their musical culture. However, they did establish special schools for liturgical music; one of which was located in the ancient city of Memphis. This was a time in which the Egyptians were leaders in the art of music. Since the land of Goshen, adjacent to Memphis, was home to the Hebrews during their 400 years of slavery (Exodus 8:22), it is probable that the soon-to-be independent nation of Israel would have derived at least some of its musical repertoire from Egypt. This can be demonstrated by the fact that paintings and sculptures of Egyptian instruments (e.g., harp, lyre, flute, oboe, trumpet) bear close resemblance to Hebrew instruments. Only the shofar (ram's horn) is of purely Semitic origin.1  2

Other similarities regarding the uses of music in the community life of these races abound. For example, Sumerian priests pronounced their oracles with the accompaniment of the harp or lyre, just as Hebrew prophets implemented musicians in declaring the word of the Lord (2 Kings 3:15, 16). In addition, singers and musicians were commonly employed in the king's court by the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Hebrews for entertainment purposes (1 Samuel 18:10-13). Furthermore, the graphic word-symbol for hul, which means "rejoice" in Sumerian, is translated "dance" in the Hebrew language.1

Along with these similarities, there exists major differences as well; namely, the practice of worshipping the "created" rather than the "Creator." For example, the Sumerian religion involved the worship of the sun-god. Egypt too, revered and worshipped gods in the forms of various animals (Exodus 12:12). This was considered an abomination to the Hebrews whose religion commanded the worship of the Creator-God alone (Exodus 20:2-4 and Genesis 14:19, 22). Is it any wonder that the Hebrews "succeeded rapidly in overcoming pagan preponderance and in finding their own form of musical expression" shortly after entering the Promised Land of Canaan in about 1,405 B.C.?1  4

Unfortunately, neither Hebrew, Egyptian, or Sumerian archives reveal anything about the intrinsic features of their music's structure, such as keys or modal scale systems. This accomplishment is credited to the Phrygians and Lydians of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). They later instructed the Greeks in the discipline of musical modes in about 700 B.C.1

In contrast to the function of music in the education of the general population of ancient Greece, as detailed in last month's newsletter, the predominant role of music in the ancient Middle East centered around religious rites and temple ceremonies, and in some cases, the driving away of distressing moods or spirits (as referenced in this month's inspirational quote). Interestingly, music is prescribed as therapy for many human emotional disorders in our present day.1  3

1. Sendrey, Alfred. Music in Ancient Israel. New York, NY: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1969, pp. 35-40, 57, 59, 477-480.
2. History Channel
3. American Music Therapy Association
4. MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1997, pp. 110, 318, 741.