In ancient musical history, once must first distinguish between the oldest surviving written musical notation, the oldest surviving written melody and the oldest surviving complete written melody so far discovered in History. In this blog, I will investigate all 3 of these unique ancient musical treasures - I also discuss my recordings & arrangements for solo lyre of both the oldest written melody & the oldest complete written melody so far discovered in History...


The oldest surviving musical notation so far discovered, dates from c.1950 BC - this was a set of musical instructions to play the hymn, "Lipit-Ishtar" (King of Justice), found inscribed in Cuneiform on a clay tablet discovered at Sumer. Basically, this is no more than a quote of specific tuning intervals for lyre, followed by a tuning scale of the musical mode to be used in the Hymn.

Here is a rendition of the musical instructions for Lipit Ishtar, as arranged for solo lyre, by "Ensemble De Organographia" in their album from 2000, "Music of the Ancient Sumerians, Egyptians & Greeks":

A PDF booklet of the detailed album notes for this fascinating album featuring this piece, can be downloaded here




The oldest surviving written melody so far discovered in History which can actually be reconstructed, was Hurrian Hymn Text H6. The musical notation for this amazing 3400 year old melody,
was discovered in Ugarit, Northern Canaan (now forming the Southern part of modern Syria) in the early 1950s, and was preserved for 3400 years on a clay tablet, written in the Cuneiform text of the ancient Hurrian language:

"Thought to be 3,400 years old, this relic has been in Damascus since 1955, following its discovery by a group of French archeologists in the coastal town of Ugarit...
The artefact records the Hurrian Hymn, a song directed to the goddess Nikkal [wife of the moon god]. Ugaritans worshipped a number of deities, each one specific to the various parts of their lives. Nikkal, meaning "Great Lady and Fruitful", was the goddess of the orchards....For now, at least, the exact lyrical content of the Hurrian Hymn remains partly concealed, although a translation undertaken by Hans-Jochen Thiel in 1977 is considered closest to the original's spirit:

(Once I have) endeared (the deity), she will love me in her heart,
the offer I bring may wholly cover my sin,
bringing sesame oil may work on my behalf in awe may I ...
The sterile may they make fertile.
Grain may they bring forth.
She, the wife, will bear (children) to the father.
May she who has not yet borne children bear them."

(Article in "The National")


A photograph of the actual clay tablet on which the Hurrian Hymn was inscribed, can be seen below: 


 The melody of Hurrian Hymn Text H6 was interpreted by Dr.Richard Dumbrill (one of several academic interpretations of the melody), from the ambiguous Cuneiform text of the Hurrian language in which it was written.  Although discovered in modern day Syria, the Hurrians were not Syrian – they came from modern day Anatolia. The Hurrian Hymn actually dates to the very end of the Hurrian civilization (c.1400 BCE) . The origin of the Hurrian civilization dates back to at least 3000 BCE. 

In short, the lower part of the text which Dumbrill transcribed, gave the names of 9 specific lyre strings, and the specific musical intervals between these strings. In other words, the notation of the Hymn was a sort of "guitar tab" - for lyre! There are several such interpretations of this melody by other musicologists, but to me, the fabulous interpretation of Dr. Dumbrill just intuitively somehow sounds the most 'authentic'.


Although 29 musical texts were discovered at Ugarit, only this text, (text H6), was in a sufficient state of preservation to allow for modern academic musical reconstruction, as Richard Dumbrill recently explained to me via direct email correspondence:

 "Altogether, in the Library of the Royal Palace of Ugarit, 29 music tablets were found, all in pieces. Only one could be reconstructed, H6. This is the one I have used for my interpretation." 

Below is a fascinating video by Richard Dumbrill, explaining how this 3400 year old melody was finally deciphered by him:





My arrangement on YouTube for solo lyre of Hurrian Hymn Text H6, recently found international acclaim in an article published in "The Daily Mail Online".

The modern sheet music of Dr Dumbrill's interpretation of the Hurrian Hymn, as arranged  by Clint Goss (and from which I based my own arrangements for solo lyre of the melody), can be viewed here

Over the last few years, I have recorded several of my own arrangements for solo lyre of the Hurrian Hymn. My first "live" attempt of playing the Hymn was the now "virtually viral" version featured in this video from 2008 on my YouTube Channel - although unfortunately, the rather antique webcam I used to record this grainy video may also have dated from the Bronze Age!


In 2011, my first arrangement arrangement of the Hurrian Hymn seen in this first YouTube video of my "live" performance, (as based upon Dr Dumbrill's interpretation of the melody), was featured in the "Biblical Archaeological Review" 

I recorded a similar version of this arrangement for my early experimental album "An Ancient Lyre" from 2009, and later, in 2011, a more professionally mixed version of the same arrangement (with reverb sampled from Iranian caves) on track 1 of my first compilation album, "Ancient Landscapes". Below is a video created by Patrick Burke, which features a clip of track 1 from this first compilation album:

(The image in the video above, is from the J. Paul Getty Museum collection, Cycladic marble harp player, circa 2500 BCE)

Below is my most recent arrangement of the Hymn for my new hand-made lyre, this time featuring the wonderfully pure-sounding just intonation of antiquity, as featured in track 1 of my 2nd compilation album,"Musical Adventures in Time Travel" (2013):



For my earlier arrangements of the Hurrian Hymn, I used the tenor register  10-string Kinnor made by Mid East Ethnic Instruments and for my latest version in just intonation, I used the hand-made, treble register 10-string "Davidic Harp" by Marini Made Harps.

Both these lyres on which I play my own two arrangements of the 3400 year old Hurrian Hymn from ancient Canaan, are instruments which would certainly be similar in tone to the various wooden asymmetric-shaped lyres played throughout the Middle East at this amazingly distant time:


Asymmetric Lyre from ancient Israel


Cananite Lyre from Meggido, c.1200BCE-cropped-topright




For my latest arrangement of the Hurrian Hymn (track 1 from my 2nd compilation album, "Musical Adventures in Time Travel") I have attempted to illustrate an interesting diversity of ancient lyre playing techniques, ranging from the use of "block and strum" improvisation at the end, glissando's, trills & tremolos, and alternating between harp-like tones in the left hand produced by finger-plucked strings, and guitar-like tones in the right hand, produced by use of the plectrum. In the repeat, I also use a percussive style of lyre playing - hitting the strings with a small wooden baton instead of using a plectrum. This is an ancient Mesopotamian lyre playing technique, evident from illustrations of musicians in the Bas Reliefs of musicians in the ruins of the Palace of Nineveh, c.700 BCE...


There is a wonderful arrangement of the Hymn for piano & orchestra by the Syrian pianist & composer, Malek Jandali - however, maybe my new version, is the first time in 3400 years, that the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal has once more, been performed on an actual lyre with natural fibre strings, in the just intonation of antiquity... 


Richard Dumbrill has recently recorded a purely vocal rendition of his interpretation of the Hurrian Hymn, in the original elusive Hurrian language. Here is what he kindly explained to me, when I asked about how his interpretation of the melody differs from
similar attempts made at interpreting the melody of Hurrian Hymn Text H6, made by the musicologists, Martin R West, Kilmer & Krispijn:

"The differences in interpretations of this text mainly come from the
insistence of Western scholars to interpret Semitic (Jewish and non Jewish)
music as if it responded to Western music theory which is essentially
Christian material. Semitic, (Arabian Jewish, Christian and Islamic) music
uses filled intervals called 'ajnas' or ''uqud' which are sets used in
sequential order. West, Kilmer, Krispijn etc. know nothing about Semitic
musicology and therefore understand intervals as being empty and played
together a dyads, or as chords of 2 notes. The same scholars are also
limited by the octave which is the boundary of Western music while Semitic
music is not restricted by the octavial notion. This is why my
interpretation is melodic while others are not.

In respect of the Hurrian language, it is with great caution that we should
apprehend it. Too little is known about it. Was it melismatic or not in the
context of Ugarit, we do not know. Initially my voicing of the Hurrian text
equated to the number of beats in the piece. But that does not mean much.
Recently I recorded my latest version, in Byblos, Lebanon and in Damascus
with the advice of local musicians who felt that it should be 'maqamised' as
I have produced it in this version".

Here is the alternative interpretation of the melody of the Hurrian Hymn Text H6, by Martin R West. Note that the musical mode is the same as Dumbrill's interpretation and despite the difference in rhythm, the actual "shape" of the melody is quite similar:

Below is Dr Dumbrill's new purely vocal arrangement of the Hurrian Hymn. The effect of the new 'maqamised' version of the melody is to me,
incredibly evocative:

I certainly would like to try this new 'maqamised" version of the melody arranged for solo lyre sometime in the near future - watch this space!


The oldest complete surviving melody in History, is the ancient Greek song, commonly known as the Epitaph of Seikilos:

This piece is unique in musical history, as it is the only piece of music from antiquity in the entire Western world, that has so far been found, which has survived in its complete form, and unlike much earlier surviving fragments of melodies that have been found, this song is written in a totally unambiguous alphabetica musical notation, which can be played, note for note, as it was written - about 2000 years ago! The composer is named as Seikilos, son of Euterpe.

About 2000 years after it was written, this melody was rediscovered in 1883, in its complete & original form. It was found inscribed in marble on an ancient Greek burial stele, bearing the following epitaph:

"I am a portrait in stone. I was put here by Seikilos, where I remain forever, the symbol of timeless remembrance".

The words of the song are:

"Hoson zes, phainou
Meden holos su lupou;
Pros oligon esti to zen
To telos ho chronos apaitei"
(While you live, shine
Don't suffer anything at all;
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll)

In modern musical notation, the melody looks something like this:

The song is actually an ancient Greek drinking song, known as a Skolion - what a wonderful idea of the ancient Greeks to inscribe, for all eternity, a drinking song on a tomb-stone...I want one on mine!

In 2013, one of my earlier Youtube arrangements for solo lyre of the Epitaph of Seikilos featured in an interesting article in "The Australian Daily Telegraph" - the article can be viewed here

My latest studio recording of the Epitaph of Seikilos, recorded on my new hand-made lyre, in the wonderfully pure just intonation of antiquity, can be found on track 7 of my album, "A Well Tuned Lyre: The Just Intonation of Antiquity"



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