Listen to the Oldest Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

Sep 2, 2014

By Open Culture

In the early 1950s, archaeologists unearthed several clay tablets from the 14th century B.C.E.. Found, WFMU tells us, “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform signs in the hurrian language,” which turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400 year-old cult hymn. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, produced the interpretation above in 1972. (She describes how she arrived at the musical notation—in some technical detail—in this interview.) Since her initial publications in the 60s on the ancient Sumerian tablets and the musical theory found within, other scholars of the ancient world have published their own versions.

The piece, writes Richard Fink in a 1988 Archeologia Musicalis article, confirms a theory 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.” So, academic debates aside, what does the oldest song in the world sound like? Listen to a midi version below and hear it for yourself. Doubtless, the midi keyboard was not the Sumerians instrument of choice, but it suffices to give us a sense of this strange composition, though the rhythm of the piece is only a guess.

[cbc_video id=”38307″ volume=”30″ width=”640″ aspect_ratio=”16×9″ autoplay=”0″ controls=”1″]

25 comments on “Listen to the Oldest Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

  • 3
    alaskansee says:

    Don’t worry in a few thousand years (3,400 approx.) your species will evolve enough to appreciate it, unfortunately not enough to enjoy the music of the day but at least your distant relatives will enjoy the vintage rap crap.

    Why is evolution of species faster than musical taste? The wonders of reality! Why when everyone that has preceded you with the same tired contextual refrain is it so hard for you to understand the same musical taste? Why do you want spring flowers in the winter?

    Your plastic flowers make me sad. (for you)

    I’m with John Peel, I’m only interested in current results of musical inquiry.

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  • Answers of this ” floweriness ” make me glad I am a philistine.

    I doubt anyone’s distant relative will enjoy rap crap anymore than than the music of Lawrence Welk and his bubbles!

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  • Clever people those Sumerians. They even wrote the original fictional circular ARK and Flood story, which was later revamped and copied into the OT as Noah’s flood story! !

    The ark is a huge circular coracle, 3,600 square metres in dimension or two-thirds the size of a football pitch, made like a giant rope basket strengthened with wooden ribs, and waterproofed with bitumen inside and out. This was a giant version of a craft which the Babylonians knew very well, Finkel pointed out, in daily use up to the late 20th century to transport people and animals across rivers.

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  • better than expected

    Curious, started with a preconceived notion?

    didn’t sound too bad

    I liked it, partly because it sounds similar to western European medieval tunes, to my ears anyway.

    *iirc, a small group of folks played their rendition of early human music. Involved at least a small flute/recorder, and tapping on a hollow skull.

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  • Byron’s words to this?

    For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
    And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
    And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
    And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

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  • I imagined that it would sound like some sort of dirge. I guess the fact that it conformed to a sort of western aesthetic surprised me a bit, hence the thumbs up.
    Well….not quite thumbs up, but not thumbs down either.

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  • 10
    John Gohde says:

    I would call it total bunk. I think somebody obviously filled in too many of the blanks. In short, the researcher was less than honest, IMHO.

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  • 13
    alaskansee says:

    Not sure who Lawrence Welk is, perhaps I was not looking when he made the sort of massive social political difference that his colleagues in the rap crap industry did.

    You need to be mighty white and hellish sheltered to not know how important rap is. Beethoven had talent but what a trivial contribution he made to society.

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  • 15
    Ivan Allan says:

    “your species”? So you are an alien to earth?

    BTW Rap may be a form of street poetry, but it has little to to with musical talent and ability… and you certainly don’t have to be a musician to perpetrate it as almost all rappers can attest.

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  • As I started to play this, I recalled I have a small idol from the same general area and time on my desk, trying to identify it. Makes one wonder how long has it been, if ever, it was around the music…

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  • Hmmm. I’m no kid, and not an uban A-American. But I love rap. I loved it the first time I heard it, since it was the only political music at that time being made by Americans. I think it still is, actually. Moreover, I have a real yen for rhythmic tones and counts, and most other music has little of either.

    However, the lyrics became increasingly woman-hating, and I couldn’t listen to it for a while. But so many groups don’t go off the deep end that I don’t feel small when listening to most of it.

    If you don’t see how much talent and ability it takes to pull off a great rap performance/song, you really can’t be much of a musician yourself. An artist must continue to grow, learn, and take big chances; a performer who’s an artist leads, not follows. Alaskansee’s point about that old tired refrain–it was said about every genre which ever existed musically, I’ll wager, for thousands of years. What’s especially true about American music is that its best stuff has been derived from African-Americans, particularly in the 20th and now 21st centuries. If you throw in gospel and chain gang songs, you have our entire history.

    Plus ca change. . . .

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  • Rhythm is everything and without it even Stairway to Heaven would sound like a disjointed mess. I suspect that about 80% of the nuance of this piece of music is missing which is what makes it sound so random and foreign.

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  • Rubbish! Beethoven has made a massive contribution to society all over the world over 200 years. It’s just not as literal as rap.
    His music speaks of humanity and it’s a lesson many people have taken to heart – ‘Diesen kuss der ganzen Welt’

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  • Please explain how important it is. That it gives voice to those who might otherwise not be heard is obvious. That is has something important to say is not. IMHO, if you filter out the thug music there are a few things that shed light on a unique viewpoint, but what more?

    Beethoven on the other hand created and entire lifetime of music created out of whole cloth. Many many have stood on his shoulders, including rappers.

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  • 23
    Greater says:

    On RD page there shouldnt be such mistakes. Ugarit is an Amorite/Canaanite city and later became a mixed city but with Canaanite culture. the song is written in Akkadian a Mesopotamian writing system but the song has nothing to do with the Sumerians. Ugarit is now in Syria, ancient Syrian culture is Canaanite.

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  • Nitya

    I imagined that it would sound like some sort of dirge. I guess the
    fact that it conformed to a sort of western aesthetic surprised me a
    bit, hence the thumbs up. Well….not quite thumbs up, but not thumbs
    down either.

    I think that thinking along western lines is the problem here. To me it sounded as the spoken word sung. I know that sounds obvious but the spoken word being a different one to the eastern ear. Have a listen to the song below and see if I can alter your perspective. The way the words and the story is depicted rather than the beat.

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