July 11, 2014

Sumerian Music: Listen to the World's Oldest Song

Lately, there has been a story floating around the internet about the discovery of the “world’s oldest song,” a Sumerian hymn that was translated from a clay tablet. While a fascinating story worthy of excitement and discussion, it is not a new story. The song came from a collection of music inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets, excavated in the early 1950s in the ancient Amorite city of Ugarit. 

Ugarit Corbel: The Entrance to the royal palace where
 the Hurrian songs were found.

 These clay tablets date to approximately 1400 BCE, making the songs the oldest found so far. They are Hurrian songs that include a 3,400 year-old cult hymn called Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, or A Zaluzi to the Gods. The hymn is known to archaeologists as simply, h.6, and is of an unknown composer(s).

Head of Ningal
Nikkal, or Nikkal-wa-Ib, was a goddess of Ugarit/Canaan and later Phoenicia. Her Sumerian equivalent is the goddess Ningal, the mother of Inanna and Ereshkigal. Nikkal was the goddess of orchards, whose name derives from Akkadian/West Semitic "´Ilat ´Inbi" meaning "Goddess of Fruit.”

In the sixties, Anne Kilmer, a professor of Assyriology at the University of California, interpreted the musical notation using mathematic calculations. According to Professor Kilmer, the tablets found were primarily lists of numbers for mathematical operations, along with instructions for a singer accompanied by a nine-stringed sammûm, a type of lyre. Once Professor Kilmer was able to understand the mathematical function of the coefficient numbers, researchers were able to conclude that the tablets were, indeed, related to numbers and not just a coincidence. From there, they were able to translate the music. 

It was widely believed that the harmony did not exist before the ancient Greek Delphic Hymns, but thanks to these tablets and the work of researchers like Professor Kilmer, we can now say that harmony existed 3,400 years ago! There have been numerous musicians arranging and recording the tune, many with their own creative interpretations. However, I happen to like the following version most because it is based on the original transcription of the melody, as interpreted by Professor Richard Dumbrill, a leading expert in the archaeomusicology of the Ancient Near and Middle East and founder of ICONEA, (International Conference of Near Eastern Archaeomusicology).

Have a listen! For all you musicians out there, here is a link to the sheet music so you can give it a go