Sumerian Music – the real deal

Sumerian Musical Notations

While doing research for my retelling of Gilgamesh I was trying to discover what types of musical instruments the Sumerian people played, and how sophisticated their pipes, flutes, drums and sitars might be.  As it turns out, very.

Not only did the Sumerian play a significant number of wind, percussion, and string instruments, they also devised a musical notation system thousands of years before civilization adopted Guido d’Arezzo’s system in the 900’s (the same system that we use today).

Because the Sumerians left records of their music, some truly enterprising and amazing people recreated the melodies that survived thousands of years, buried in the rubble of Iraq.  Some of the ancient instruments that were recovered from burial sites, like the famous Lyre of Ur, were lost after our attack of Iraq and looted in the aftermath of war.  Luckily for us there were a few enterprising scholars who had seen enough artifacts, photographed enough objects, and collected enough pieces to recreate many of those precious instruments.  (See Lyre of Ur Project and Mr. Andy Lowings)

Now we also have this impressive collection of hymns played during sacred ceremonies. They are so peaceful and quiet that it’s hard to believe these were composed by a civilization that was in constant warfare, had the most advanced military technology of its time (ahead of the Egyptians) and spread from its birth on the Fertile Crescent as far as the Hindu Kush to the east, the Caucasus to the north, and Egypt to the west.

The records of the time do show that Sumerians had a number of percussion instruments.  And because they frequently traded with the Hindu Kush and African states (Meluha), I am wondering whether the plain percussions reproduced in these amazing videos might be the result of a musical annotation that was only meant to guide the beat, not to dictate how to perform it.  In other words, I’m venturing a wild guess that the percussion for these pieces was a lot more elaborate than these performances show.  Nonetheless, I have no evidence for this guess, only an intuition.

Sumer was one truly astounding civilization, rising literally from the dust.  Is it a wonder that it attracts so much speculation from Ancient Alien theorists?

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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