Friday, June 19, 2009

Music in Ancient Egypt

Although music existed in prehistoric Egypt, the evidence for it becomes secure only in the historical (or "dynastic" or "pharaonic") period--after 3100 BCE. Music formed an important part of Egyptian life, and musicians occupied a variety of positions in Egyptian society. Music found its way into many contexts in Egypt: temples, palaces, workshops, farms, battlefields and the tomb. Music was an integral part of religious worship in ancient Egypt, so it is not surprising that there were gods specifically associated with music, such as Hathor and Bes (both were also associated with dance, fertility and childbirth).

All the major categories of musical instruments (percussion, wind, stringed) were represented in pharaonic Egypt. Percussion instruments included hand-held drums, rattles, castanets, bells, and the sistrum--a highly important rattle used in religious worship. Hand clapping too was used as a rhythmic accompaniment. Wind instruments included flutes (double and single, with reeds and without) and trumpets. Stringed instruments included harps, lyres, and lutes--plucked rather than bowed. Instruments were frequently inscribed with the name of the owner and decorated with representations of the goddess (Hathor) or god (Bes) of music. Both male and female voices were also frequently used in Egyptian music.

Professional musicians existed on a number of social levels in ancient Egypt. Perhaps the highest status belonged to temple musicians; the office of "musician" (shemayet) to a particular god or goddess was a position of high status frequently held by women. Musicians connected with the royal household were held in high esteem, as were certain gifted singers and harp players. Somewhat lower on the social scale were musicians who acted as entertainers for parties and festivals, frequently accompanied by dancers. Informal singing is suggested by scenes of workers in action; captions to many of these pictures have been interpreted as words of songs. Otherwise there is little evidence for the amateur musician in pharaonic Egypt, and it is unlikely that musical achievement was seen as a desirable goal for individuals who were not professionals.

The ancient Egyptians did not notate their music before the Graeco-Roman period, so attempts to reconstruct pharaonic music remain speculative. Representational evidence can give a general idea of the sound of Egyptian music. Ritual temple music was largely a matter of the rattling of the sistrum, accompanied by voice, sometimes with harp and/or percussion. Party/festival scenes show ensembles of instruments (lyres, lutes, double and single reed flutes, clappers, drums) and the presence (or absence) of singers in a variety of situations.

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