The Oldest Song In The World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

For lovers of music around the world, it can come as a bit of a shock but we only have access to the music produced by mankind from the last few centuries. Yes, there are musical notations which give us a hint to what kids were rocking a few hundred years ago.

The fact of the matter is that we have little idea about the vast majority of the music produced throughout history. Recorded songs are obviously a thing of the last century only. You’ve never heard the Ed Sheeran of the 10th century. For that matter, we haven’t heard the voice of whoever was dissed as Justin Beiber of the 10th century (sorry Beliebers).

Musicologists (people who study music instead of playing it) believed for a long time that ancient music wasn’t very harmonious. The diatonic scales and harmony are traced to the Ancient Greeks. That’s ancient enough you think? But your own i-pod addiction isn’t new in the historical scale of time. Millennia ago people were grooving to their own beats.

Now with new archaeological discoveries we may have an idea as to what the hip sounds were back then. It just goes to show that music has been our companion for quite some time.

In the early 1950s, clay tablets were unearthed dating back to around the 14th century BCE. WFMU states, “In in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit, these tablets contained cuneiform signs in the hurrian language.” What these tablets contained was old time sheet music. Really old time. Professor of Assyriology at the University of California, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer produced a musical interpretation in 1972. She discovered the musical theory behind these notations during the 1960s.

In his 1988 article for the magazine Archeologia Musicalis, Richard Fink writes that “the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago.” “This”, Fink tells us, “flies in the face of most musicologist’s views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks.”

Kilmer’s colleague, Richard Crocker claims that the discovery “revolutionized the whole concept of the origin of western music.” You hear that? Even in the 14th century BCE there were Sumerian teenagers getting bullied by their piano teachers to ‘practice their scales’. I’m just kidding; they hadn’t invented pianos back then. This is actually part of what makes it difficult to imagine their music.

We can’t really figure out accurately what the Ancient Sumerian equivalent of the electric guitar was. Sumerian bands probably used an instrument closer to the Ancient Greek lyre to pick up groupies back in the day. We have a version of the hymn played on a midi keyboard that might interest you.

In an audio book called Sounds from Silence, Kilmer and Crocker narrate information about Near East music in ancient times. They also give listeners an interpretation of the song, titled “A Hurrian Cult Song from Ancient Ugarit,” performed on a lyre, an instrument likely to be much closer to what the song’s first audience heard. Unfortunately, you need to buy that version to hear it.

Midi keyboard cover sounding pretty good right now, huh?