We know about ancient Egyptian music from the instruments that have been uncovered in tombs and from artistic representations of the musicians playing them. The ancients made music with the same types of instruments we have today: wind, string, and percussion.
Let's Hear It for Wind
Wind instruments were either pipes or horns. The world's earliest depiction of a flute comes from Egypt, evidence that it was invented there. Most flutes were made of hollow reeds, many varieties of which grow along the Nile River. Some flutes were at least two feet long. These most likely produced low notes, while smaller flutes produced high notes. There were even double flutes whose reeds made different sounds at the same time. The Egyptians also introduced the horn, which they fashioned from metal. Since metals were not readily available and therefore expensive throughout most of ancient Egyptian history, horns were used for specific occasions, especially in the military and in religious worship.
Now, It's the Strings' Turn
String instruments were made of wood. The sound came from plucking strings stretched over a hollow wooden box. The same principle is used for their construction today. The Egyptians had lutes, which were similar to a small guitar with a long neck. Another type of stringed instrument was the lyre, a kind of handheld harp with the sound box at the base and strings stretching to a frame above. Larger harps were used as well. These were played just as modern harps are: The instrument rested on the floor and leaned against the shoulder of the player. We have scenes of harps being played both with other instruments and alone. Harpists were often depicted as blind, which is probably accurate. In many ancient cultures, it was believed that those who could not see had a special talent for music. For this reason, many blind children were given musical instruction as a way of helping them develop a skill they could use to support themselves.
Let's Hear It for Percussion
The greatest variety of instruments came in the percussion category. Hand clapping was a simple way to keep time, but there were also wood and ivory clappers. Usually these were hand-shaped, so as to create a louder sound. Drums, made of skin stretched over a hollow wood or terracotta frame, came in many shapes and sizes to create different sounds. There were also percussion instruments made of metal. These included hand cymbals, tambourines, and sistrums, which produced a higher-pitched/jingling sound.
An Egyptian invention, the sistrum dates back thousands of years. It consisted of a handle topped by a frame that held metal disks, a type of upright tambourine. It was played by shaking just as maracas are played today. The sistrum was particularly important in Egyptian temple ceremonies that honored the goddesses Isis and Hathor. It is still used for religious worship in the Coptic Church today.
While it is impossible to appreciate music fully through visual representations, tomb wall paintings help us understand music's role in ancient. Egypt and the types of sounds the instruments made. Many scenes found in tombs show musicians and dancers entertaining guests at parties. Some of these images represented the funeral banquet held in honor of the deceased and the happy afterlife the deceased hoped to enjoy. The musicians at Egyptian parties were professionals, hired for the occasion (see illustration at left). Guests would sit, drinking and eating, while watching the show. Party music was played by groups that included instrumentalists and singers. Sometimes, dancers would accompany them. This tradition continued until relatively recently. Even today, at old-fashioned Egyptian weddings, hired musicians and dancers entertain the crowd while the guests sit and watch.
In the well-known tomb of Nakht from Thebes, the tomb owner and his wife are seated on fine chairs in front of a table piled high with offerings of food and flowers. Other guests sit and smell lotus flowers. In the midst of this gathering are a blind male harpist and a group of three female musicians. The male harpist is the only one who appears to be singing. The young women are very beautiful, which, no doubt, added to the entertainment. Two are dressed in sheer white dresses and one wears only a belt and collar necklace. One girl plays a standing harp; the second, a lute; and the third, a double flute.
Now Here's a 'Happy' Scene
Tomb decorations often depicted religious rituals, where, for example, we see women shaking sistrums, and funeral processions. One particularly lively funeral procession scene comes from a 19th-dynasty tomb at Saqqara. It shows several women dancing while playing tambourines. Smaller girls dance and clack pairs of short sticks, something like castanets. A group of men is marching along behind, carrying staffs and raising one arm. We might assume that these men are singing or chanting along with the rhythm.
Caption: Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.
--present-day American author and poet Maya Angelou
Angela Murock Hussein is an archaeological consultant and the assistant director of the Mochlos Excavations in east Crete.