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Seikilos epitaph

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Seikilos epitaph

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The Seikilos epitaph is famed as the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. The song, the melody of which is recorded, alongside its lyrics, in the ancient Greek musical notation, was found engraved on a tombstone, near Aidin, Turkey (not far from Ephesus). Also on the tombstone is an indication that it is by one Seikilos, for his wife, who presumably is buried there. Above the lyrics (transcribed here in modern Greek font) is a line with letters and signs for the tune:

The Seikilos "score" The Seikilos "score"

Translated into modern musical notation, the tune is something like this:

The Seikilos epitaph melody The Seikilos epitaph melody


The following is a transliteration of the words which are sung to the melody, and an English translation:

Hoson zes, phainou
Meden holos su lupou
Pros oligon esti to zen
To telos ho chronos apaitei
While you live, shine
Don't suffer anything at all
Life is short
And time demands its toll

The find has been dated variously from around 200 BC to around AD 100. While older music with notation exists (for example the Delphic Hymns), all of it is in fragments; the Seikilos epitaph is unique in that it is a complete, though short, composition.

Some scholars believe that an extant corpus of Chinese music, first recorded in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), predates this work as well as the earlier fragments of Greek music. This is based on the conjecture that because the recorded examples of Chinese music are ceremonial, and the ceremonies in which they were employed are thought to have existed "perhaps more than one thousand years before Christ" (Aalst), the musical compositions themselves are likely to have been performed, even in 1000 BC, in precisely the manner prescribed by the sources that were written down in the seventh century AD. It is based on this conjecture that Aalst dates the "Entrance Hymn for the Emperor" to c. 1000 BC. Even allowing for the hypothesis that the Emperor's court musicians transmitted these melodies with complete fidelity over sixteen centuries and that the Chinese court ceremonies never changed, there is no material evidence to date the composition, or any other piece of Chinese music, to earlier than the Tang dynasty (Pan). This leaves the Epitaph of Seikilos the oldest complete musical composition that can be reliably dated. It is the inscription of the Epitaph that is actually dated to the first century AD; it would be possible likewise to form a conjecture that the song itself was sung before this.


  • Historical Anthology of Music. Two volumes. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1949. ISBN 0674393007

Chinese Music. J.A. van Aalst, 1884, 1933.

  • Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980.

China. Rulan Chao Pan, 1980.

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.