December 6, 2023

In the early 1950s, archaeologists discovered several clay tablets from the 14th century BC. WFMU tells us that “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform characters 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, created the interpretation below in 1972. (In this interview she describes how she arrived at the musical notation—in some technical detail.) Since her first publications in the 1960s on ancient Sumerian tablets and music theories found in them, other scholars of the ancient world published their own versions.

Piece, writes Richard Fink in 1988 Archeology Musicalis the article confirms the theory that “both the 7-tone diatonic scale and harmony existed 3,400 years ago”. This, Fink tells us, “contradicts the views of most musicologists that ancient harmony was virtually nonexistent (or even impossible) and that its scale was only about as old as the ancient Greeks.

Kilmer’s colleague Richard Crocker claimed that the discovery “revolutionized the whole concept of the origins of Western music”. So, academic debates aside, what does the world’s oldest song sound like? Listen to the midi version below and hear it for yourself. The midi keyboard was admittedly not the Sumerian instrument of choice, but it’s enough to give us a sense of this strange composition, even if the rhythm of the piece is only a guess.

Kilmer and Crocker released an audiobook on vinyl (now on CD) titled Sounds From Silence in which they tell information about the ancient music of the Near East, and in the accompanying booklet they present photographs and translations of the tables from which the above song comes. They also provide listeners with a rendition of a song titled “Hurrian Cult Song from Ancient Ugarit” performed on the lyre, an instrument likely much closer to what the first audiences of the song heard. Unfortunately, you’ll need to purchase this version, but below you can listen to another lyre rendition of Michael Levy’s song, as transcribed by its original discoverer, Dr. Richard Dumbrill.

Note: An older version of this post appeared on our site in 2014. It’s oldie but goldie. So we hope you will enjoy coming back to it.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, you can find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, please consider making a contribution to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue to provide the best free cultural and educational materials to students everywhere. You can donate via PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

Related Content:

What ancient Greek music sounded like: Hear a reconstruction that’s ‘100% accurate’

Hear the Epic of Gilgamesh read in the original Akkadian and enjoy the sounds of Mesopotamia

Download the 10,000 First Recordings of Music Ever Made Courtesy of University of California-Santa Barbara

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *