Many are wrong to think that the oldest melody is the “Seikilos epitaph” from ancient Greece. The melody, written with words and musical notes upon a headstone, not far from Ephesus, dates back only 200-100 years BC, so it’s actually quite young.
The oldest “musical notes” are the Hurrian melodies, which are almost 3 500 years old!
The Hurrians are people who lived for thousands of years in the territory of Mesopotamia. They established a number of small Mesopotamian city-states, which traded and fought against each other. Ancient Greece did not exist at that time.
Regular excavations of the king’s castle of the Hurrian city-state of Ugarit, near the Ras Shamra temple (in modern-day Syria), were made during the 50s.
Thirty-six tablets with cuneiform writing on them were discovered in the process and the writing was different from regular writing (even though only one was preserved with no damage whatsoever). The content of the tablets was first published by French archeologist, Emmanuel Laroche who tried to explain them. Cuneiform had already been deciphered by that time, so it was easy for Laroche to figure out that the writing on the tablets was actually music, texts of hymns and explanations on how they should be performed. More so, the names of the authors, or the earliest known composers, were preserved on some of the fragments. The tablets date back to 1 400 BC.
Tablet №6 was the most well preserved, upon which is written the hymn of Ningal, Goddess of gardening. The hymn, text, and instructions for the accompaniment, which had to be played on a nine-string lyre, were all on the tablet. On the other one were instructions on how to tune the instrument.
The tablets are now being stored in the National Museum of Damascus.
A Hit from the Past
Unlike the deciphered and already played “Seikilos epitaph”, the Hurrian songs are a source of continuous arguments between archeologists and musicians. The entire preserved hymn of Ningal serves as a base for deciphering. Actually, all 36 of the hymns were written in the same way, as can be seen from the fragments.
The text of every song is located on a long spiral and is written in the Hurrian language. Under the text, which is in Akkadian , are written instructions on how the song should be played: the names of the intervals and numbers denoting the notes. It is this writing that is causing the arguments, since there are no accurate interpretations of all the notes and intervals.
The Akkadian diatonic system is overall very well-known. There are three whole tablets from different sources, and one of them is written more precisely and it is not very hard for it be connected with the modern one of knowledgeable people. The intervals in this system were 4 – thirds, fourths, fifths, and sixths, but there is another problem. The system is based on a specific instrument. So the written music for the seven-string (adopted in Babylon) and two-string (rarer) instrument looks differently and the intervals are denoted in a different way.
We will not go into details about the specifics of the Sumerian-Akkadian string-note system. A large part of this theory is based on the intervals precisely between seven strings and as a result, not only 4 intervals occur, but rather all 24, depending on the type of instrument.
Here are the first two deciphered lines of Ningal’s hymn.
qáb-li-te 3 ir-bu-te 1 qáb-li-te 3 ša-aḫ-ri 1 i-šar-te 10 uš-ta-ma-a-ri
ti-ti-mi-šar-te 2 zi-ir-te 1 ša-[a]ḫ-ri 2 ša-aš-ša-te 2 ir-bu-te 2
One more problem occurred during the deciphering of the tablet. Some words could be seen in the Hurrian and the Akkadian language, and they were written in the same way – only the meaning was different.
We have to mention that there are problems with understanding the text as well. Specifically, the Hurrian language is not completely deciphered, and the texts of the hymns are written in the Ugarit dialect, which differs from the deciphered dialects of other Hurrian city-states.
Either way, the text of the hymn of Ningal is all about her – Goddess of the gardens, wife of the Moon God. The text is written in 4 lines, and it is obvious that the last 7 signs on each of the first 3 lines have to be repeated twice in the beginning of the next lines. Actually, this is Laroche’s theory – he came across such a system in some Babylonian texts. There are archeologists who support other theories for the methodology of the repeating refrain.
Listen to the reconstruction of the melody, perfomed by the famous specialist of ancient music, Michael Levy. Here, Levy plays live, but this composition exists in a studio version as well.
And this is an orchestra version of the melody, written by Syrian composer, Malek Jandali.
Here is yet another reconstruction: