Ancient Egypt Music

By Ba-Ankh-Amen

If we reflect upon Goethe's brilliant metaphoric definition of architecture as "frozen music", we may suppose that, considering the differences between ancient Egyptian and Islamic architecture, ancient Egypt music must have been significantly different from the Middle Eastern music we know today.

song of the threshers hyeroglyphUnfortunately, there is but little record of how ancient Egyptian music must have sounded like. Ancient Egyptians did not devise a musical notation system, so we don't know any particular tune from that epoch. What we do have, though, are poetry compositions like the so called "Song of the Threshers", which laborers must have sung while working, as modern Egyptian workers still do. Many love poems have survived, preserved in papyrus documents. This beautiful literature may have been used to create popular music.

The most concrete source of information about the nature of ancient Egypt music lies in the actual musical instruments and paintings of musicians found in tombs. These include reed instruments, flutes, stringed instruments like harps, lyres and lutes, horns and a variety of percussion instruments. One particular instrument unique to ancient Egyptian music is the sistrum, used by the priestesses of Hathor. A well known figure often represented in paintings and reliefs is the blind harpist.

Musicologists tend to agree that the roots of ancient Egypt music may be found in the music of present Nubia and the Sudan, especially in the rhythmic patterns. Rhythm and dance must have played a significant role in ancient Egypt music. Paintings clearly depict lively performances carried by small ensembles of musicians, mostly females, while scantily clad women danced. An ancient Egyptian party must have been quite an event to remember. During these performances, singers would probably improvise on a lyrical phrase that the chorus would continually repeat, as everyone clapped hands in merry celebration. Music was employed in religious ceremonies, too.

Another type of music that may have been influenced by ancient Egyptian music is the flamenco, sung by Spanish gypsies for centuries. In fact, the term "gypsy" is a corrupted likely pejorative word for "Egyptian", to name a nomadic group originally from the Punjab in India, which settled in Europe during the Middle ages after wondering through the Middle East, particularly Egypt. The "howling" deep chant ("cante hondo") of the singer is very proper of musical idioms derived from the experience of living in a desert environment.

During the 19th century and the height of Egyptomania, a musical movement known as pseudo orientalism spread like a fashion craze among Europe. This music is characterized by long sinuous melodic lines, echoing the movements of desert snakes, and aimed at evoking the mood of a faraway distant past. Hollywood has exploited this musical style in their Egypt and biblical themed productions. For the movie the Ten Commandments, composer Elmer Bernstein created two pseudo-egyptian melodies of great beauty, employing woodwinds and string instruments. These are In the Bulrushes and Egyptian Dance, with added percussion in the latter.

Modern cinematic productions employ a modal type of music combining a full symphony orchestra with digitally created sound effects to suggest action, adventure and a technologically highly developed long lost civilization.

Through contact with other cultures from the Mediterranean and the Levant, Ancient Egyptian music must have had some influences that may have differentiated it from purely African music.

Ethnomusicologist Ali-Jihad -Racy, from Lebanon, was commissioned in 1978 to compose a musical tribute to Ancient Egypt for the Tutankhamen Exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It was inspired by the religious symbolism of the Book of the Dead. Not only a serious scholar with vast research knowledge of the evolution of Near Eastern music, Racy is a virtuoso of ancient instruments and performance style. His music has a strong appeal among New Age followers. Click on the image to listen to samples from this CD.

In his album The Oud, Music of the Near and Middle East, H. Aram Guleyzan produces music of poetic beauty reminiscent of great antiquity. He has transliterated music from Coptic vellum texts approximately 2000 years old. The oud came into existence in 6th Century Iraq, but an instrument with similar body but with a longer neck was found in the tomb of Senmut, from Queen Hatshepsut's reign.

The oud is widely employed in present Egypt, and together with contemporary woodwinds and bowed string instruments, performances by local musical groups are a treat for tourists at hotel evening entertainment.

For me, the haunting and meditative quality of the sacred chants from the minarets will always resonate in my memories.

Category: Ancient Egypt

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