Very Old Music: Hurrian Hymn #6

We know music has been around for a long, long time. The Divje Babe flute, named after the excavation site from which it was found, suggests musical instruments were being made as far back as 43,000 years ago. Ranging across pre-history, instruments of various kinds, ranging from rattles to drums to bells have all been found in the archaeological record. What did their music sound like? Would we even consider it “music?” Who knows? Time is not kind to the ephemeral.

But in the 1950’s, excavators of a site at Ugarit, Syria found a group of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform. Building upon Emmanuel Laroche’s compiling and cataloging, researchers Anne Draffkorn Kilmer and Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin worked out the musical nature of the tablets. Of all the pieces that were found, only one song is complete, given the title “Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal.” It looks like this:

Hurrian Hymn

Hurrian Hymn Tablet

These tablets date to about 1400 BCE, and form the world’s oldest known song. Part of the tablet contains instructions for tuning the instrument, the other part notates the music itself alongside the lyrics of the hymn. Even if it is incomplete, it is a very exciting thing! It is so exciting, even non-musicians get excited about it! You can even perform it! Can you imagine, hearing and playing music written 3,400 years ago? That’s crazy pants!

You can hear a performance of Duchesne-Guillemin’s transcription at the bottom of this page:

It’s right around this point that researchers and lay people diverge. The lay public continues to be chuffed about the whole business, and reasonably so!, while researchers break out their pipes and deerstalkers to go brood in a corner about all the things they still don’t know.

Things like: “We know it’s written for an instrument called a sammûm, but is it a harp or a lyre?” (Probably a lyre? Most likely. Or not?)

Or, “Duchesne-Guillemin’s transcription is really cool, but are there other, valid interpretations of the notation?” (Yes, five, in fact, and they’re all quite different)

And, “What other questions can I think of to ensure I keep getting research funding?”

The transcription issue is especially a downer. The specter of “notation vs. interpretation” floats nearby and dunks doubt over whether we really know what the song is at all. Dr. Richard Dumbrill wrote one of the several other interpretations that exists. You can give a listen here:

Even a cursory comparison will show the two interpretations are considerably different. But, from a certain perspective, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much whether we’ve gotten the “right” melody. The work of all these researchers is a special achievement in archaeology and musicology regardless of any definitive conclusion. The Hymn to Nikkal’s discovery continues to inspire and impress, as can be heard in pianist Malek Jandali’s adaption for keyboard:

Until new evidence comes to light (and it very likely won’t), there is no knowing what the song “actually” is. Where does that leave us? Like remembering an old childhood memory, hazy in its recollection, the Hymn to Nikkal reminds us of a thing we know happened – even if we can’t quite place what it was.