Musical Instruments of the Ancient World

Musical Instruments of the Ancient World

For all the time humans have been able to hear, we have loved playing and listening to music. But when did we begin creating instruments with which to play this music?

MUST Program Assistant, Megan, had the opportunity this summer to visit The Louvre in Paris and see some of the ancient Egyptian musical instruments in their collections. This got us thinking about the histories of the instruments play every day. Where did they come from? How have they changed?

Join us on a brief trip through history, and learn more about your favorite instruments!

The body
The earliest musical instruments were the human body itself! Singing, clapping, drumming on the body–the human body requires no storage, next to no upkeep, and little-to-no training to get started. No wonder it’s still one of the most common instruments today! Though techniques and styles have changed over the millennia (beat-boxing, or tongue-singing anyone?), the mechanism has remained the same!

Early percussion
Once early peoples realized they could make sounds with the impact of one body part against the other, they began to experiment with using tools to make different sounds. Clappers, rhythm sticks, and percussion blocks made of shells, plants, or stone were used to keep time and accompany the voice.

Egyptian cymbals at The Louvre

In Mesopotamia, round 2500 BCE, images of instruments became common. Much of our knowledge of early instrument come from these illustrations and sculptures. The sistrum was an early metal shaker from Mesopotamia, with metal rings on adjustable bars, so the musician could adjust the amount of rattle that came from the shaker. These were later common in Egypt as well.

Early flutes
Flutes were invented soon after percussion instruments. Fashioned from reeds, wood, or grasses, these early flutes transformed into metal flutes and trumpets more recognizable today. As instrument technology became more precise, people were able to use instruments to mimic the melodies of the human voice. Starting with two tubes of different sizes, which produced different sounds, these eventually evolved to become instruments similar to the pan-flute.

Monkey Playing a Lyre

Lyres, lutes, and stringed instruments
The Louvre explains of the sculpture above, “The lyre and the lute seem to have been introduced at the same time from Asia to Egypt, from 1550 BCE, where they were very popular.” Many instruments were popular during Egypt’s New Kingdom, including oboes, trumpets, lyres, lutes, castanets, and cymbals. Stringed instruments were new on the scene, having been brought to Africa from Mesopotamia and the Middle East. The frame drum also makes an appearance during this time period.

The lyre continued to be a favorite instrument in Ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Greek lyres were often made from turtle shells. Strings were made of a cord made from animal intestines. Picks, or plectrums, made from wood were used to strum the strings. Lyres transformed over time into lutes, guitars, violins, and other stringed instruments.

Plectrums used to strum lyres, and another view of the Monkey Playing a Lyre statue, above.

We hope you enjoyed this brief glance at early musical instrument history. For more information about the objects above, and to see more ancient musical instruments, you can visit the Louvre’s website here. For a taste of what ancient Egyptian music may have sounded like, this article has a few videos so you can listen for yourself! And stay tuned to the MUST blog in the coming weeks for more insights into the history of musical instruments!

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