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Greater Phoenicia

11. Music

Music forms an important part in the cultural life of every society.  In the ancient Middle East, the major instruments used to produce music were stringed instruments, such as the harp or lyre, wind instruments, such as the flute and the trumpet, and percussion instruments, such as drums.  Source: Nicholas Hardwick


If we consider the ancient world, it is clear that music and musical instruments have been important in all civilisations.  Ancient civilisations have provided for later ages investigations of musical theory, various types of instruments, systems of tuning, various occasions for music to be performed and an emphasis on technique and specialisation.


Accounts of music and examples of songs are known from the Egyptians, Mesopotamia, the Hebrews, including the Bible, which contains the Psalms, and the Greeks.  In the Bible, musical instruments are referred to and there is musical notation to the Psalms.  The earliest ‘manifesto for new music’ was by the Greek Timotheos of Miletos and is dated 420 BC. In artistic contexts in these civilisations, we have representations of musical instruments and the performance of music.  These civilisations share cultural aspects with the Phoenicians, so they provide us with evidence about what Phoenician music was like.


Herodotos refers to a song called ‘The Linus’, which was played in Phoenicia, Cyprus, Greece and Egypt.  It is not however clear what this song was like because there are few surviving records which allow us to reconstruct the details of music in this period.


In order to consider Phoenician music, we need to be aware of the fact that the father of ancient musical theory was Pythagoras (c.570-c.495 BC), who received his musical training in the temples of Phoenicia, where he gained familiarity with the ceremonies and mysteries of the festivals.  He gained his knowledge of music by observation.  There are stories that he visited a brazier’s shop where the workers were beating metal against an anvil.  He listened to the sounds, observed the variance in pitch between the hammers and the smaller implements and carefully worked out the harmonies and discords between the sounds.  He examined the metals and the tools and made a mental note of their weights.  Using these observations he constructed experimental devices in his home and from his experiments he produced a theory of music, and wrote about it in his Theory of Music and Colour.  (See Hornblower sv. Pythagoras (1), Pythagoreanism)


The history of music in Phoenicia is known well before Pythagoras.  Excavations at the ancient Phoenician city of Ugarit in 1929 produced cuneiform tablets dated to c.1400 BC, which contain a hymn to Nikkal, who was the wife of the moon god.   (Cuneiform is the writing system developed in ancient Mesopotamia, which uses wedge shaped marks applied by the end of a stick to wet clay to produce syllables to represent the writing system).   Because over one thousand tablets have been discovered so far, they provide us with a very good idea of ancient Phoenician music in this period, since these tablets contain the notation of the song and its words.  In addition, they contained very sophisticated musical terminology, such as instructions for the singer who was accompanied by the musicians as well as advice on tuning.  These tablets were part of thousands which revealed a Canaanite civilisation very similar to that described in the Old Testament of the Bible.  Consequently, the evidence for music in the Bible, including the Psalms and other sounds recorded there, can be used to assist in our understanding of ancient Phoenician music.


Many fragments of cult songs continued to be recovered by archaeologists during the early 1950s.  These included three pieces of the same tablet in different states of preservation, which fit together to form a complete text which is known as the ‘Song Tablet’.  The complete tablet measures about 19 cm in length and 7.5 cm in height.  Both sides and the edges are inscribed with cuneiform characters, which run horizontally from left to right across the tablet.  It is written in Ugaritic cuneiform script and there are three parts to the writing on the tablet.


The text has been studied by many distinguished scholars from several countries in order to attempt to reconstruct its musical significance, and, although many of the details are obscure and there are conflicting theories about the significance of the text, the essential content of the musical theory is reasonably well understood.

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on Ancient Music