The oldest song in the world

Stephen Law posted this link from Far Out Magazine on Facebook, and though I don’t know if this is really the oldest song in the world, it’s probably the oldest one that has been worked on sufficiently that we can hear what it sounds like. Click on the link to go to the article, but I’ve posted the salient parts below as well as the song itself, which is on YouTube.  And it is a nice song.

Here’s the skinny from the magazine, but the technical stuff—especially how they matched the particular notes with modern notes—is above my pay grade. I’d appreciate readers’ explanations below. Read this brief bit and then listen to the song [UPDATE: I’ve just discovered that there are extensive notes on the YouTube site that gives some information, but I haven’t read them.]

In what is thought to be the oldest song ever created, a ‘sheet’ of music was discovered in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit and referenced back to around 3400 years ago.

Professor Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who works as the curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley, spent fifteen years deciphering the clay tablets which were uncovered and excavated in Syria by French archaeologists in the early 1950s. The tablets, it has been confirmed, formed “a complete cult hymn and is the oldest preserved song with notation in the world.”

Kilmer, who is also the professor of Assyriology at the University of California, worked alongside her colleagues Richard L. Crocker and Robert R. Brown to create a definitive record and booklet about the song which has been called the ‘Sounds From Silence’.

“We are able to match the number of syllables in the text of the song with the number of notes indicated by the musical notations,” Kilmer pointed out. “This approach produces harmonies rather than a melody of single notes. The chances the number of syllables would match the notation numbers without intention are astronomical.”

Doesn’t the beginning remind you of a more modern piece of music?

There may be other interpretations. A page on Amaranth Publishing says this:

Prof. Kilmer transcribed this piece of music into modern music notation. Other individuals have also attempted to transcribe this music, with differing interpretations.

The tablets date back to approximately 1400 B.C. and contain a hymn to the moon god’s wife, Nikal. Remarkably, the tablets also contain detailed performance instructions for a singer accompanied by a harpist as well as instructions on how to tune the harp. From this evidence, Prof. Kilmer and other musicologists have created realizations of the hymn.

46 Comments

  1. Simon Hayward
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Given the title of the post I thought it might be “blowin’ in the wind”

    • Sastra
      Posted February 14, 2020 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      It might have been. We don’t know the lyrics.

  2. rickflick
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The technology of reconstructing the notes must be rather arcane. At 3400 years old, it’s very early, but my guess is music of one sort or another began a few million years ago. Homonins sitting around the campfire at night would want to get something going, don’t you think? Writing things down, of course is a matter for a much later era.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Almost assuredly the first songs were purely vocal.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        With maybe a little hollow log thrown in. 👍

        • Chewy
          Posted February 14, 2020 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

          And the bagpipes.

    • mike cracraft
      Posted February 14, 2020 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      For sure the Sumerians had songs at least 2000 years before this one. In the royal tombs at Ur there were harps and, I think, some flutes. Of course we don’t know any melodies from that far distant time.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 14, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        I would not be too surprised if some sheet music turned up on a mural or inscribed in stone from that time. We’ll have to wait for more diggin’.

        • Chewy
          Posted February 14, 2020 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          And, sad to say, it will turn out to be “Happy Birthday To You”

          • rickflick
            Posted February 14, 2020 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

            Nothing wrnog with that. 😎

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted February 15, 2020 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          I wouldn’t hold the breath for “sheet music”. If I understand the writing system correctly, cuneiform was essentially a sylibary (a collection of symbols representing various different sounds). So it should be capable of representing the range of sounds in song, and the earliest (well, Assyrian +/-) representations of music would be likely to be in a sub-/super- set of the cuneiform symbol collections.
          Quite how to deal with the different sonic capabilities of instruments other than the human voice-box … two piano teachers and a music teacher with a stick failed to get that idea into my head. So I’ll leave it to musical people to figure out.

          • rickflick
            Posted February 15, 2020 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

            I’m optimistic I know. But the diggers always surprise us.

  3. Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    It’s a pity that Prof. Kilmer didn’t get a couple of people from the estimable Berkeley Music Department to record a more listenable realization! It would be like publishing a newly-discovered Shakespeare sonnet and putting out a YouTube video with a computer voice reading it. As long as they have the text of this ancient hymn, won’t someone please sing it?

    • Adam M.
      Posted February 14, 2020 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly. 🙂 It’s a hymn. The voice is the main instrument!

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted February 14, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        No

        It’s a hxymn … I mean.., xymn.. no – hyxmn… yes. No – hyxn. Ah – there we go. Egalitarian.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted February 15, 2020 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

        The voice is the main instrument!

        What makes you think that?
        Why do you think that your local (in time, and/ or in place) habits associated with that word are appropriate for understanding the actions of people 3-4 thousand years ago?

        • rickflick
          Posted February 15, 2020 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          Well, I can think of one reason. The voice is always at hand. During the hunt or harvest, whilst flutes and harps require adding advanced tool making skills and technology.

  4. Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Celebrity Platform.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    For it to work today they will have to put a video to it.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Professor Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who works as the curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley, spent fifteen years deciphering the clay tablets which were uncovered and excavated in Syria by French archaeologists in the early 1950s.

    Christ, and here I thought the Rudy Vallée 78-rpm’s I found in my grandparents’ attic as a kid were ancient.

  7. normwalsh
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “My time is your time”.

  8. Nicholas K.
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating.

  9. Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    My thoughts are that the first songs were about heroic stories of the singers or their ancestors. Poems sung out loud. Or maybe just being loud to cheer themselves up and chase the blues away.

    Sounded a lot like Yankee Doodle to me. Quite good, actually.

  10. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  11. Posted February 14, 2020 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    On a similar note (sorry) James Spalink plays the music written on the butt of a figure in the Hieronymus Bosch painting – The Garden of Earthly Delights.

    • Posted February 14, 2020 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      Is that being played on a bandura?

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 15, 2020 at 12:35 am | Permalink

        Bosch’s painting depicts something I’d rather call a lute than a bandura. I also note a harp, a hurdy-gurdy, a drum, a hobo-like instrument and a flute (played by farts?) in the painting.
        Which, of course doesn’t say with what instrument the soundtrack was made.
        I must say I found the reconstruction of Bosch’s music from Hell rather pleasant.

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted February 15, 2020 at 12:37 am | Permalink

          oboe, not hobo, sorry. 🙂

        • Posted February 15, 2020 at 7:26 am | Permalink

          Thanks – very interesting. And as a player of an instrument with just 6 strings, I marvel at bandura players.

  12. Taz
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I hate to say this, but it sounds a bit like a commercial jingle.

  13. Posted February 14, 2020 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    It has the echoing back and forth that Dueling Banjos used. One instrument copying the first one.

  14. Jenny Haniver
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know what the heck is going on but this very, very old news is being presented as new.

    This information was published back in 1974!
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/23282429?seq=1
    She also published a paper on the theory in 1971!

    She did make an album of the music. I used to have a copy but don’t know if I still have it.

    I say this with authority because was acquainted with Anne Kilmer when I was at UC Berkeley in the Near Eastern Studies Department. I took a seminar with her, where we learned how to conduct entrail divination, an eminently useful skill, and I proudly list it on my vita.

    Years, decades, ago, she retired and moved to Arizona. I wonder if she’s still alive; if so, she’s very old. I just called the NES Dept. and the person I spoke to said that she thought that Anne had died.

    This is so weird. Why is this deceptive stuff happening?

    • rickflick
      Posted February 14, 2020 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      Very strange they’d dig up the old stuff without telling us. Although, it’s still new news if you hadn’t seen it before. I checked her coauthor Richard Crocker, who may be deceased. Looks like he was a significant scholar of Gregorian chant and, in retirement, recorded the entire repertoire with his own voice. I found his web page which has all this material. It’s really nice listening. Have a listen:

      Voice of Richard Crocker and Lisa Spivak.

      https://nate-rushfinn-0oc8.squarespace.com/introits-in-mode-1

      It occurs to me he might have vocalized the ‘Sounds from Silence’ and recorded that as well.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted February 14, 2020 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the link. I hadn’t known about Richard Crocker. I took a quick look and listen. It is indeed really nice listening and I’ll kick back later and really listen. Too bad I no longer have any vin du messe made by the White Fathers in No. Africa. Really good wine and perfect for listening to things liturgical.

        I noted that this isn’t the first time I’ve found articles that present purportedly new information but it’s old. That certainly doesn’t detract from the worth of information itself but it’s curious. The other day, I found an article about slow the protein in loris venom being virtually identical to the protein in cat saliva that causes people to be allergic to cats https://phys.org/news/2020-02-primate-venom-people-cat-allergies.html. Come to find out that it ain’t a new discovery: https://primatology.net/2010/10/19/are-slow-lorises-really-venomous/. This article says that “Wilde (1972) reports that the victim of a slow loris bite immediately succumbs to anaphylactic shock (extreme allergic reaction) followed by hematuria. In spite of that, the victim fully recovered. There is no clinical evidence of toxic substances in slow loris saliva to support the notion that they are venomous.”

        I don’t know why I’m going into detail about this except that I find it very interesting.

        • Hempenstein
          Posted February 14, 2020 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

          Noted, and happy that you noted it. Interesting!

          I scratch the head of my ladyfriend’s cat with the butt end of a screwdriver (he likes it) on accounta such allergies.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 14, 2020 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know either, but I’m glad you did. 😎

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 15, 2020 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

      I took a seminar with her, where we learned how to conduct entrail divination

      How did Sandy and … John Travolta’s character put it? “Hunh, tell me more, tell me more!”
      I’d pass you a chicken, but I’m not sure which end first.

      From the point of view of the chicken, divination probably never brought good, let alone interesting, news.

  15. Jon Gallant
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    The latest buzz in music circles is that Philip Glass has developed a new symphony based on this ancient Ugarit ditty, repeated 10,000 times in different instrumentation by his own ensemble.

  16. Posted February 14, 2020 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an article about the song, and a student singing it. It’s beautiful and haunting:
    http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180424-did-syria-create-the-worlds-first-song

    Here’s another (newer) Syrian chant I happened upon on wiki, about the Lord’s Prayer, also lovely:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syriac_chant

  17. Robert Van Orden
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Needs more cowbell.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 14, 2020 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      Fool. It’s meant to be played on the cowbell.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted February 15, 2020 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        Surely the cow ran away the first time someone tride to hit her in the face with a “bell donker”?

        Memo to self : don’t design an orchestra of self-propelled instruments.

  18. Stultis the Fool
    Posted February 14, 2020 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of “We are Siamese if you please…. We are Siamese if you don’t please…”.

  19. prinzler
    Posted February 15, 2020 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    It stikes me as – if I may – melo- and harmoni-centric (heh) Is it clear that this hymn comes without any variation in rhythm?

  20. Posted February 17, 2020 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this – very interesting!

    It led me to this via You Tube –
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seikilos_epitaph

    • rickflick
      Posted February 17, 2020 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      The song sounds very approachable to a modern ear. Appropriately melancholy.


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