Listen to History's Oldest Known Melody

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The oldest melody known to us is a 3,400 Hurrian Hymn, originally written in ancient Mesopotamia. Called "Hurrian Hymn No.6," the melody is the oldest piece of written music ever discovered.

It was first found in Ugarit, Syria in the 1950's. The music was recorded on a clay tablet and written in Cuneiform, in the ancient Hurrian language.

The Hymn was probably performed on a lyre, a common musical instrument used throughout the Middle East. They were made of wood, and had an interesting asymmetrical design.

The melody was interpreted by Professor Richard J. Dumbrill of the City University of New York. Drumbrill is an expert ethnomusicologist/archaeomusicologist. Our ability to interpret Cuneiform is limited by our limited understanding of the Hurrian language. However, it is generally thought that the Hymn is dedicated to Nikkal, the Ugarit goddess of orchards.

No.6 is one of 36 hymns found written in cuneiform on clay tablets excavated at Ugarit's Royal Palace in the 1950s. Of those thirty-six clay fragments, Hymn No.6 is the only one that was intact enough to extrapolate a full piece of music from.

In addition to the musical notation, the tablet for h.6 also included lyrics for a hymn to Nikkal and instructions for a singer to perform them with a nine-string sammûm accompaniment. Other tablet fragments also included instructions about how to tune the sammûm, a kind of harp or lyre.

The Hurrian hymn is older than the other oldest pieces of recorded music, such as the Seikilos epitaph and the Delphic Hymns, by over a thousand years. The tablet is currently in the collection of the National Museum of Damascus.

On the tablet, the lyrics of the hymn are written above a double division line. The hymn text is written in continuous spiral, in a format not found in Babylonian musical texts. Beneath the musical instructions there is a single dividing line. Under it is an Akkadian colophon that reads, "This a song  nitkibli, a zaluzi ... written down by Ammurabi."

Multiple interpretations of the tablet have been made, and there is still a great deal of controversy about which interpretation is most historically correct. If the interpretations are, indeed, an accurate portrayal of how the song would have been performed at the time it was written, the results are astonishing.

The Hymn has aged remarkably well. It is a simple but beautiful melody that will stay with you long after you hear it.

https://youtu.be/DBhB9gRnIHE

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Matt

Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.