19 Feb 2020

Oldest Music in the World

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For fifteen years Prof. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer puzzled over clay tablets relating to music including some excavated in Syria by French archaeologists in the early ’50s. The tablets from the Syrian city of ancient Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) were about 3400 years old, had markings called cuneiform signs in the hurrian language (with borrowed akkadian terms) that provided a form of musical notation. One of the texts formed a complete cult hymn and is the oldest preserved song with notation in the world. Finally in 1972, Kilmer, who is professor of Assyriology, University of California, and a curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley, developed an interpretation of the song based on her study of the notation.

The top parts were the words and the bottom half instructions for playing the music. Kilmer, working with colleagues Richard L. Crocker and Robert R. Brown produced a record and booklet about the song called Sounds From Silence.

The song, it turns out, is in the equivalent of the diatonic “major” (“do, re, mi”) scale. In addition, as Kilmer points out: “We are able to match the number of syllables in the text of the song with the number of notes indicated by the musical notations”. This approach produces harmonies rather than a melody of single notes. The chances the number of syllables would match the notation numbers without intention are astronomical.

This evidence both the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago flies in the face of most musicologists’ views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks, 2000 years ago. Said Crocker: “This has revolutionized the whole concept of the origin of western music.”

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Gerard Van der Leun

I was dubious about this at first but I have since discovered that with three gummies and five bong hits you can indeed dance to it.



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