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.