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The Oldest Song in the World

World Music

By Kay Bel
Epoch Times Sydney Staff
Apr 11, 2007

The oldest known music notation in the world has been uncovered in studies of ancient cuneiform on an estimated 3400-year-old clay tablet in Syria. (File photo, Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

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The world's oldest-known preserved music notation, complete with both words and music, was discovered in the mid-1990s in the ruins of the lost city of Ugarit, now Ras Shamra, on the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria. The clay tablet is marked with cuneiform, meaning "wedge-shaped", signs in the ancient Hurrian language. The artefact is 3200 years old, yet experts have brought sound to the long-lost hymn through modern musical notation and recordings.

In March this year the North American premiere of a vocal rendition was given at the Oriental Institute on the University of Chicago campus. Dr Theo J. H. Krispijn, a professor in Assyriology at Leiden University in the Netherlands and an accomplished vocalist, performed the song, complete with lyrics, and accompanying himself on a reproduction of an ancient stringed instrument, the lyre.

The song is a hymn to the moon god's wife, Nikkal, and Dr Krispijn's haunting and sad interpretation is entitled The Prayer of an Infertile Woman, with lyrics, as printed in the Chicago Tribune, including:

She [the goddess] let the married couples have children,

She let them be born to the fathers

But the begotten will cry out, 'She has not borne any child'

Why have not I as a true wife borne children for you?

Although experts' interpretations differ in melody and rhythm, to a Western ear, the tonal sounds are very familiar. The notes are equivalent to a Western-style major "Do-Re-Mi" scale, which brings into question the theory of such a scale being only as old as the Ancient Greeks of 2000 years ago.

Another interpretation made in 1972 after 15 years of study was by Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, Professor of Assyriology at the University of California. Her interpretation even includes a form of harmony, two or more notes played at the same time, which was previously thought to be non-existent altogether in ancient music.

The tablet, broken into two pieces found at different times, has a horizontal line dividing the top half the song words from the bottom half the instructions for the music. It was one of many clay tablets unearthed in the forgotten city of Ugarit, a site that was first discovered by a peasant ploughing a field in 1928. Excavations of the forgotten city revealed Ugarit to be an important cosmopolitan city, both a port and an entrance to an inland trade route through Ancient Mesopotamia, dating as far back as 6000BC.

Several deposits of clay cuneiform tablets found in the city are approximately 3400 years old and provide a wealth of knowledge of the society and culture and the importance of music. According to Dr Krispijn's studies: "[Music] was taught in the scribal schools, for it was important for the composition of literature and the technical construction of musical instruments was an element of instruction in mathematics. Playing musical instruments was part of the education of Mesopotamian intellectuals. Professional musicians were active in the temple and the palace."

Ugarit is no longer a long lost, silent city, but a tangible inspiration and ancestral memory, one whose ancient melodies are being rekindled through modern knowledge and technology.


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