Musical History: The World’s Oldest Melody

Humans have been making music for at least 43,000 years. Archaeologists have found bone flutes dating back that far, and its probable that humans were making music with their voices long before that. What did that music sound like? According to some really old music that the ancients wrote down: a lot like ours.

Most ancient music has survived through oral tradition, so much of what we do have doesn’t sound exactly as it did a hundred or a thousand years ago when it was first performed. However, a few precious pieces of music were written down and recorded thousands of years ago, and those surviving notations give us a glimpse into how our ancestors made music.

One of the oldest songs we have that has survived in his entirety from anywhere in the world is a Greek song that was composed during the AD 100s. It was found engraved on a marble tombstone over a woman’s grave near Aydin, Turkey. The stone has an engraving which reads “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” Beneath the epitaph is a set of lyrics that read:

“While you live, shine
Have no grief at all
Life exists only for a short while
and time demands its toll.”

The lyrics are accompanied by a set of musical notation. The inscription is so well-preserved and precise that several modern musicians have been able to play the centuries-old song again, recreating the ancient music.

Archaeologists don’t know who the woman buried beneath the tombstone was, or who Seikilos was, either. The only clue we have as to the identity of the tombstone’s creator is the last two words on the tombstone: “Seíkilos Eutér”. The last word is a fragment, and there are two main possible reconstructions. One translation is: “Seikilos to Euterpe”. Euterpe could be Seikilos’ wife, the woman buried, but Euterpe was also the name of the Greek Muse of music. Another possible translation is “Seikilos, son of Euterpos”. Without more information, either translation could be correct.

The Seikilos Epitaph is unique because it’s a complete composition. No other piece of music from around the world has survived in its entirety.

The Seikilos Epitaph.[PHOTO:]

The Seikilos Epitaph with the musical notation written above the larger Greek letters.[PHOTO:]

However, Seikilos’ Epitaph is not the oldest piece of music we have.

The World’s Oldest Melody

The oldest piece of recorded music was written down in cuneiform on a Sumerian clay tablet. It’s about 4,000 years old. However, the oldest piece of music that we have a title for is called “Hurrian Hymn no. 6” (apparently our naming system hasn’t changed for thousands of years, either). It’s considered the “World’s Oldest Melody”.

It was written as an ode to the goddess Nikkal, a Canaanite goddess whose name directly translates to “blossom”. She was the daughter of the King of Summer and married to the Moon God.

The hymn was originally composed by Canaanite musicians sometime around the 14th century BC. It was written down on some clay tablets in cuneiform in exact, methodical notation, and was first excavated in the 1950s from the city of Ugarit, Syria. It’s been one of the most valuable pieces of musical archaeology to-date because it contains not only near-complete musical notation, but also a set of comprehensive instructions on how to play the song on a lyre (a small stringed harp).

The instructions on how to play “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” have been so well preserved that musicians have also been able to attempt to play it. However, since translating ancient cuneiform tablets is difficult and the musical notation is not complete, there is no one accepted “correct” version.

In 2009, Syrian composer Malek Jandali created an arrangement of “Hurrian Hymn No. 6”, the World’s Oldest Melody, designed to be played by a full orchestra in celebration of Syria’s ancient musical heritage.