The Oldest Surviving Song

My husband and I are movie buffs, and one genre we like to watch on occasion is a well-done sword-and-sandal movie epic. Partially, that’s because my husband first fell in love with movies when his grandmother took him to see Ben Hur when he was six years old. Spartacus and The Ten Commandments (in all its campy glory) are also favorites around our house.

If you watch films like that often enough, you start to believe that we know what ancient music sounded like. The Roman army used a lot of drums and brass with a slightly discordant sound, just as they did in Ben Hur. The ancient Israelites played the lyre and sang in a minor key like Lilia in The Ten Commandments.

Um, no. Those scores were just some Hollywood composer’s idea of what ancient music sounded like. In some ways, music is the most transient of all art forms. Even if there are written records of ancient compositions, they’re no good to us because the knowledge of how to read most musical notation systems has been lost.

That’s why I was so interested yesterday to read that there is a two-thousand-year-old song that has not only survived but has even been recorded recently. You can hear it here:

Isn’t that cool?

According to a BBC article, the breakthrough came because scholars have found some ancient documents that described a vocal notation system and explained how different pitches in the scale related to each other. We know what the instruments looked like because of vases and other ancient art, so we can recreate them. And we have a short song by a composer name Seikilos that was inscribed on a marble column about 200 C.E. That’s the song in the You Tube recording.

This post on the History Blog features another version of the same song, this time with someone singing the lyrics.

However, to me, these two versions sounds rather different, so maybe there’s still a bit of mystery here after all.


Filed under Historical Oddities

3 responses to “The Oldest Surviving Song

  1. Very cool. I can almost see people dancing to it. I was particularly intrigued by your link to the History Blog and how the Egyptians brought around a coffin with a wooden image of a person lying inside while the servant sang ‘Gaze here and drink and be merry, for when you die, such will you be.’ Sounds like a party-killer to me!

    • Ancient Egyptian beliefs were something else. A fascinating time. You can see why it was written about so much. Of course, the time period you’re writing about had some pretty grim beliefs about life after death if I recall correctly.

  2. That’s pretty freaking amazing!

    I remember my mind being blown when I learned Bach’s Cello Suites were discovered/rediscovered by Pablo Casals in like, the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, and those were a couple hundred years old. But they kind of pale in comparison.

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