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Music of Mesopotamia

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Music of Mesopotamia

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This article treats the music of Ancient Mesopotamia (see music and Ancient Mesopotamia). Ancient Mesopotamian culture was influenced by the Sumerians, about whom far less is known. The cultures from Ancient Mesopotamia were among the first that developed writing, the first known Sumerian writing dating from 4000 BCE.

Melodically Ancient Mesopotamian music was organized with complex modes and modal types, including pentatonic, diatonic, and chromatic scales, similar to contemporary Arab and Indian music such as in a current raga or maqamat. Ancient Mesopotamian harmony was most likely limited to fourth and fifth chords (dyads), as in African and archaic Italian folk music, and the systematic use of drones which the Ancient Mesopotamians originated. Rhythmically, the music was intricate and complex, as witnessed by the rhythmic complexity of Mesopotamian influenced Syriac, Arab, Indian, and medieval European musics, all of which share 2 against 3 (as hemiola or cross-rhythm). (ibid, p.11)


Instruments which originated in Ancient Mesopotamia include the bow harp, lyre or lute, and the reed pipe. These instruments spread north into Egypt, then Greece, through Greece to Rome, and through Rome to Europe. From Egypt they spread south and westward further into Africa. Contemporary East African lyres and West African lutes preserve many features of Mesopotamian instruments. (van der Merwe 1989, p.10)

The vocal tone or timbre was probably similar to the pungently nasal sound of the narrow-bor reed pipes, and most likely shared the contemporary "typically" Asian vocal quality and techniques, including little dynamic changes and more graces, shakes, mordents, glides and microtonal inflections. Singers probably expressed intense and withdrawn emotion, as if listening to onself, as shown by the practice of cupping a hand to the ear (as is still current in many Arab and folk musics). (ibid, p.11)

Religious music

Ea, ruler of the deep, was the patron god of music. The sound quality of the drum (Babylonian: balag), made from a bull hide, and pipe, made from reed, were also metaphorically compared to their material's stength, the bull being strong and the reed weak. Instruments were often decorated with images of Ea or bulls, while Ea wrote his name with the sign for a drum, it serving as a personification of his essence. Ramman, god of thunder and winds, was associated with the singing voice and the reed-pipe (hallhallatu). One of the names of Ishtar translates as "the soft reed-pipe". Her partner Tammuz was the "god of the tender voice". (Wellesz 1957, p.230-231)

Temples, which existed in all large cities employed liturgists, most importantly the precentor (Sumerian: gala, Akkadian: kalu) who intoned the cantillation, the chief precentor (Sumerian: galamah, Akkadian: kalamahhu) being the highest position in the city. Many were part time employees and all where unconsecrated, though they were well educated, especially in cantillation (kalutu), formed guilds and were housed in the temple college. They also employed a choir of temple musicians (Sumerian: nar, Akkadian: naru), who where both instrumentalists and vocalists who started providing the response during liturgy and eventually became increasingly associated with private penitential events, including funerals and magic, and dissociated from sacred public service and seen in secular culture. Another sacred musical occupation was called ilukaka (Sumerian, Akkadian: zammeru), which probably meant generic musician or instrumentalist, though the zammeru also sang in services. (ibid, p.231-232)


  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0193161214.
  • Wellesz, Egon, ed. (1957) New Oxford History of Music Volume I: Ancient and Oriental Music. Oxford University Press.
  • Fink, Bob (2005) On the Origin of Music Section I, "Role of the Drone in Evolution of Harmony" Greenwich.
Ancient music
Music of ancient Greece - Music of ancient Rome - Music of ancient Mesopotamia - Music of ancient Egypt - Music in the Bible
Preceded by Prehistoric music | Succeeded by Early music

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