Egypt Music

On the Egyptian musical art the information we have is very scarce and very general. Some historians, such as Herodotus and Plutarch, mention certain chants of a sad and plaintive character; a rhetorician from Alexandria recalls a hymn of melismatic movement, while others finally speaks of references that the Egyptians made between music and astronomy. Pythagoras would have derived his musical doctrine from the Egyptian priests.

Did the Egyptians have a handwriting or a system of musical notation? The numerous papyri that have come to light so far would seem to exclude it and so do the very numerous figurations in which scenes of a musical nature are frequent. On the other hand, it seems strange that Egyptian artists, who have so often represented figures of players, have always avoided showing them in the act of reading music. And yet it does not seem possible that the music was always performed without the aid of notation.

The knowledge we have of Egyptian music is based at the most on inductions that we could make on the ranges of Egyptian flutes preserved in our museums, and many scholars, starting with Fétis, have tried this method, without however reaching precise conclusions. A passage from Plato, in which it is said that in Egypt any innovation in terms of music was forbidden, has led some to believe that a notation and a system must exist, at least for religious and learned art, while for music common and popular characters would not have needed graphic signs.

But since inductions and suppositions, in the state of knowledge today, cannot satisfy, it is better to turn our attention rather to that part of Egyptian music about which we can speak with a certain knowledge, that is, to organology. In this field the figures preserved in the bas-reliefs and the allusions of the hieroglyphic texts are very abundant and instructive.

In a civilization that begins five thousand years before our era and reaches a few centuries after Christ, it is possible, with a certain approximation, to determine the appearance of various musical instruments.

First of all, percussion instruments appeared. It can be explained how, since rhythm is the primordial element of music, the most ancient instruments had the main function of marking its progress. From the prehistoric period of the Egyptian civilization and especially from the end of it, we have vascular paintings in red color that represent dancers in various attitudes; in later periods these dancers are accompanied by rattlesnake players or are in the act of playing them by themselves. The form assumed by the rattlesnake in these figures is very varied. It is evident that the rattlesnake replaced the percussion, which was initially done by clapping the hands. Indeed, several rattlesnakes are in the form of small arms terminated by the hands. Other rattlesnakes substitute heads of animals or monsters and it is likely that these had a magical or symbolic significance. These rattlesnakes (which were always paired) were first of wood, then of ivory and finally of metal and the latter were also used by the militias. Everything suggests that the rattlesnake was of Libyan origin.

To date from the second millennium a. C. we find rattlesnakes joined at the base almost in the form of fire springs, while previously the rattlesnakes were held together by a ribbon. Instead of carrying figures of hands or heads of animals at the end, they wore small cymbals.

The sistrum, a typical instrument, was widely used by this people. It consisted of a kind of elliptical circle which in lateral holes carried metal rods inserted which resounded when the instrument was shaken. The rim was supported by a handle.

Among the percussion instruments we must also mention the drum which had very different shapes: either elongated, or circular, or rectangular.

The name of flute generally indicates different kinds of Egyptian wind instruments: the real flute, the double-reed flute and the double flute with parallel pipes.

The first of them was long and thin and played by blowing obliquely into one end. It has a very ancient origin and its reproductions are frequent.

The double-reed flute appears later. It was made of reed, and at the end the player introduced a straw, cut in its length, which had the same function of the double reed.

The double flute with parallel pipes was made up of two pipes closely linked to each other, each equipped with its own mouth (with simple or swing reed). The player, apparently, did not produce two different notes by playing the two flutes, but doubled the sound making it more robust and intense. For Egypt 1998, please check

One variety of the flute was the angled double flute. It was imported from Asia and in the monuments it is very easy to find it and distinguish it by the more or less accentuated angle that the two tubes formed. While earlier flutes were played by men, angled flutes were always played by women. We will finally make a mention of the Egyptian trumpet used by the militias, of simple shape, with a short and straight tube with a pavilion similar to that of today’s trumpet. It was mostly made of bronze and had to have a shrill and strong sonority.

The stringed instruments among the Egyptians were undoubtedly later than the wind ones: but, if the examination of the various examples of the latter could give any possibility or offer some supposition about the sounds they made, this could not be attempted, naturally, for the stringed instruments and especially for the harps, which were instruments of Egyptian origin and certainly the most used. In sculptures and paintings, the strings are invisible. For details of the construction of the Egyptian harp, see. harp. In a period ranging from 3000 to 1100 BC. C. (ancient and middle kingdom, empire) there are three different models of harps. The oldest are not very large and have few strings; at the end a slight enlargement was intended to form the base with which the instrument rested on the ground. The harps that were used during the Middle Kingdom period were of a larger model and their base was formed by a support on which the instrument was fitted and held in place. Both for the older harps and for the latter the performer was kneeling or squatting. In the more recent period, however, the number of strings was much greater (from fifteen to twenty), the models wider and taller, the decorations more accurate and rich. The performer stood and rested the instrument on his right shoulder. L’ harp has at the base a well developed sound box often adorned with sculptures. One variety was the small harp, which had a slight curvature and was placed on the shoulder. Dancers and priestesses used it.

The eight-stringed citara was an imported instrument: only after many centuries did it become in common use, and was played by means of picks or with the fingers. In Egyptian figurations there are cited armed up to eighteen strings; they were mostly held horizontally.

During the empire there are figurations of a kind of guitar with a narrow case and a very thin neck, armed with a few strings not supported by pegs, but stretched at the top of the neck and decorated at the end with a bow.

In the same period the trine also appears, or rather a kind of harp resembling this instrument of origin, in all probability, Assyrian. These are two tables connected at right angles, from one of which, in gradation, some strings began, decorated at the end with bows and stopped in the other table. Thus the instrument resembled a triangle.

Finally, the hydraulic organ invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria two centuries before our era belongs to the Egyptian organology. It should not be believed, however, that it was an organ in which water acted directly to produce sound, but in it the pipes resounded due to the fact that the pressure of the water performed the function that bellows have in modern organs. Under this pressure, which is always constant, the air regularly penetrated the pipes.

The hydraulic organ achieved extraordinary success right from its appearance. A description of it can also be found in Vitruvius. These organs were used to recreate banquets and feasts.

More extensive news about the Egyptian musical history, which certainly had an importance worthy of that centuries-old civilization, for now – as has been said – it is not possible to report.

Egypt Music