Music of the Egyptians

When the great Alexandrian Library of 495,000 works of Persian, Chaldean, Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek and Roman literature was partly destroyed during Julius Caesars’s battles with the native Egyptians, in 47 B.C., and finally, A.D. 391, by Christian fanatics, history suffered an irreparable loss. Treasures of learning in all branches, the records of early civilizations perished, never to be replaced. Today we are dependent upon the discoveries of explorers in the ruins of the great Egyptians cities, temples, tombs and pyramids. The Egyptians believed that articles of necessity to the living being were necessary to the individual in a future existence. If certain things could nit, in reality, be placed in the tomb, a pictorial representation would have almost equal value in the invisible world. In Egyptian tombs pipes or “flutes” have been found, and in one instance, in the tomb of a musician, the bronze cymbals he played when alive. In the various tombs and ruins that have been examined by explorers, pictorial representations of practically every phase of Egyptian life have been found. The sources for our knowledge, almost wholly inferential, are, then, the various pictorial and sculptured representations of the Egyptian musical instruments and the manner in which they were used, and a few fragments of their sacred books, which were forty-two in number, two being devoted to music, although but one fragment has been found. It must be noted, further, that the Egyptian Government, although nominally a monarchy, limited, not absolute, was in reality theocratic. The priestly caste had final power, and the rules and regulations drawn up by them prescribed the minutest detail of life, crushing all possibility of independent thought and freedom of action, a condition fatal to high artistic development.

Place of Music in Egyptian Life

To show the place of music in Egyptian life, the following from Ambros’ history will serve admirably: “From these decorations [on the walls of tombs] we perceive that the Egyptians made great use of music. We find harps of many sized and shapes, small and easily portable, to others beyond the height of a man, crude and of the utmost simplicity, to others elaborate and extremely rich in decoration. We note an almost endless variety of lyres, guitars and mandolins [that is, similar in type to the instruments we know by these names], single and double flutes, played by hands of numerous musicians, together with male and female singers. Music was used to accompany the dance, the funeral cortege, the banquet and other social functions. Inscriptions show that there were musicians of high social position at the court.”

Egyptian Instruments

The records show a development of music from a crude simplicity in early days to a brilliant and complex system alongside of the changes in other arts and the sciences, some of the discoveries going as far back at 1625 B.C. We give illustrations of several forms of the Egyptian harps. The number of strings varied from three or four to twenty-one. Mr. J. F. Rowbotham, the English historian of music, says that “taking B below the bass staff as the lowest note of the Egyptian scale, (since it likely followed the Assyrian in this respect) the compass of the great harp would extend to E, first line, treble staff. The small harps of various sizes had a compass from D, third line, bass staff, to D or E above the treble staff. Another series of stringed instruments, known under the general name, lyres, had the same compass as the small harps; the lutes had a low G, (bass) string, and the highest note was C or D on the treble staff; various forms of the flutes had about the same compass; pipes, [which may be represented by the flageolet of today] had a compass of about one octave upward from E, fourth space, treble clef. Other instruments were of the percussion character, tambourines, drums, cymbals, etc. Although the Egyptians used their instruments in combination, there is reason to believe their practice was the alternation of groups, only occasionally using all simultaneously, to secure fullness and power of tone.”

Philosophy and Practice of Egyptian Music

The consensus of opinion is that Egyptian music was melodic in character, the instruments or voices playing or singing in different octaves, rejecting other intervals. As the Greeks seem to have drawn from the Egyptians much of their practice in music, it is reasonable to suppose that they would have used harmony if the Egyptians had been accustomed to make use of it. As to the Egyptian theory of music we have no information. Since, however, Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, was a student of the Egyptian school for priests, we infer that his teachings were founded on the science he acquired there; hence it is probable that the Egyptians were familiar with a seven-fold division of the octave and the mathematical relations of the fourth and fifth, as well as other intervals of the scale. Of the old Egyptian hymns we have no remains unless it be, as some assert, that fragments still exist among the Coptic Christians.