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The Oldest Songs in the World - And Other Landmarks in the History of Music
Have you ever wondered what might be the oldest song in the world? It may surprise a few teenagers to learn that it goes back to before they were born! And even further back than the music their parents like to listen to. Back before the Beatles, Elvis and Bill Haley. The history of pop and rock and soul and indeed all the other genres of music as we know them is but a blink in the eye in the history of music.
So let's go back past the times of easy listening, back past the days of the big bands, swing and jazz, back before classical music had its heyday, and before the first transcripts of folk music were written down. When was music first invented? When exactly were the first songs composed? And what did they sound like?
This article isn't a history of music. It's a collection of recordings - landmark firsts. Here you will find the first ever song to be written down, the oldest complete musical score, and the oldest known song in the English language. I also include a few songs which are not so old, but which have set other records forever cemented into our history. The first ever song recorded as sound, the first to be sung in outer space, and even the first non-human composition. But the inspiration of the article is those really ancient pieces - because that's where the history of music really began.
N.B: Please note, all of my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
Of course it isn't possible to say when people first sang songs or created melodies. Or even which came first. Songs may have existed for as long as varying tone or inflection of voice has been a human capability. Perhaps the first was a repetitive chant to stir the men of a tribe and to get the adrenalin flowing before an animal hunt - or to celebrate the outcome of the hunt. Some scholars suggest songs which imitated natural sounds were the very first to be created, incorporated into shamanistic beliefs in unseen or animalistic spirits. Even 'motherese' (baby talk) - the naturally exaggerated raising and lowering of the voice by mothers to communicate with infants - has been put forward as a possible origin for musical intonation.
It is hard to believe that instrumental melody - or at least rhythm - did not also manifest itself at a early stage in human evolution, though the date we choose depends in part on the definition we apply to music. If we think of music as being a form of emotional expressionism, then perhaps it dates to the origins of human creativity - the first cave art, the first ritual ceremonials. This was certainly more than 50,000 years ago. How did it begin? They say 'everyone's got rhythm' - the banging together of two stones, the hitting of a stick against a tree, or a man blowing over the open end of a hollow bamboo stem - a natural pipe, or flute.
A genuine flute - carved from an animal bone with pierced holes on the sides to create different notes - has been found in a cave in Germany. It has been dated as being about 43,000 years old, and this maybe similar to the oldest instrument deliberately fashioned to create music. More flutes made from bone or ivory, and later from wood, have been found throughout Europe and Asia in increasing abundance with the passing of the milennia. And in relatively more recent prehistory, evidence of stringed instruments such as harps and lyres have been found.
So we can say with some certainty that 'music' existed far into our distant past. But of course throughout most of prehistory such compositions would have been passed on through oral traditions. Traditions now lost to us. Which takes us to the question - which is the oldest piece of music we actually know about?
A Cautionary Note
After all that has been said above, one must of course exercise a note of caution. In the next three sections - 'The Oldest Known Song', 'The Oldest Known Melody' and 'The Oldest Known Song in the English Language' - we cannot say the pieces are definitely the first ever composed. But these were the first to have been written down. They ARE the oldest songs we know of.
This recording of Hymn No 6 was created after research by Professor Anne Kilmer, an expert in the culture of ancient Assyia.
1) The Oldest Known Song
During the mid-1950s archaeologists excavating in the ancient city of Ugarit in Syria, discovered a large number of clay tablets. These clay tablets, which have been dated back to 1400 years BCE, had strange cuneiform markings upon them, which were soon identified as belonging to the Hurrian language.
The Hurrians were a people who lived in the regions of Southern Turkey and Northern Syria and Iraq. They weren't a nation, but a distinct culture within the empire states of the time. Unfortunately their language is not fully understood. What's more, the tablets are believed to have been written in a local Ugarit dialect of the language. That all makes the clay tablets very difficult to decipher.
However, scholars did realise that the text, plus an arrangement of number symbols and dividing lines between portions of text, were all indicative of this being a form of musical notation, depicting some of the songs of their culture, together with a set of instructions for how to play the songs on a 'sammûm', a type of nine-stringed harp or lyre. In total 36 melodies were discovered, though only one is reasonably near to being complete. That is known today as 'Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal', 'A Zaluzi to the Gods', or simply 'Hymn No. 6', an ode to Nikkal, the Goddess of the Orchards. Along with the musical notes, the tablet describing Hymn No 6 includes lyrics, and researchers have come up with this interpretation of one verse:
‘Once I have endeared the deity, she will love me in her heart,
the offer I bring may wholly cover my sin,
bringing sesame oil may work on my behalf in awe may I'
Unfortunately, both the lyrics and the musical notation remain difficult to translate. It's known that the notation refers to the different strings on the lyre-like instrument, but it bears no relation to the familiar 5-line musical staves we use today, and despite exhaustive anaysis, experts in Hurrian culture and musicology are divided on the intended sound. As a consequence at least six very different versions of the melody have been produced, none of which can be described as definitive. Two are played here (plus a third at the foot of the page which includes a rather more attractive modern arrangement plus lyrics), and we cannot say which - if any of these - would be most recognisable to an ancient Hurrian. Nonetheless, 'Hurrian Hymn No 6' remains the very first reasonably complete song for which we have genuine written evidence.
More information can be found on this Wikipedia page about Hurrian Songs
A very different version of Hymn No 6, performed on a lyre - quite similar to the original instrument on which it may have been played. The video also shows images of the sammum lyre, and scenes from Ugarit.
A short recording of the 'Seikilos Epitaph'
2) The Oldest Known Melody
'Hurrian No 6' may be the world's oldest song which we have written down, but frustratingly we cannot say for certain what it really sounds like. To discover the first song which we can play today with confidence as to the authenticity of its melody, we have to move forward about 1400 years to the final century BCE or to the first century AD, and a Greek composition now known as the 'Seikilos Epitaph.' This was a song which was found in 1883, engraved and remarkably well preserved on a marble column over a woman's grave near Ephesus, Turkey, and it is believed to be from a message from Seiklos, perhaps for his dead wife. There are inscriptions which have been translated as:
'I am a portrait in stone. I was put here by Seikilos, where I remain forever, the symbol of timeless remembrance'
The notes of the tune were also recorded, and with them, a precious handful of lyrics; lyrics which have been loosely translated as:
'While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all,
Life exists only for a short while,
And time demands its toll.'
Very poignant words from so long ago. Of course, ancient Greek text is much better understood than ancient Hurrian, and so is ancient Greek musical notation. As a result it has been possible with confidence to recreate this song for a lyre.There are elements missing, such as modulation (key changes), but the basic melody is not in doubt, and alphabetical characters and accents denote the rhythm and changes in pitch. More information can be found on this Wikipedia page about the Seikilos Epitaph
One final note - there may be some film buffs who find this music strangely familiar. It is. The 1951 movie 'Quo Vadis' may not have been historically accurate in all areas of its depiction of the life of Nero, but musical director Miklós Rózsa certainly strove for authenticiy both in the lyre he gives actor Peter Ustinov to play as Emperor Nero, and also in the song he sings. The melody of 'The Burning of Troy' draws very strongly from the 'Seikilos Epitaph.'
A nice recording of the 'Seikilos Epitaph' - how it may have sounded 2000 years ago.
The song 'Mirie it is while sumer ilast'
3) The Oldest Known Song in the English Language
For most readers of this page, English is their first or second language, and most of the songs we know will be commonly sung in English. But which was the first ever song composed and performed in the English tongue?
As we have seen, musical notation - the writing down of music - may have existed for a long time in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, but is first known in England only from about 1020 AD. And at that time the purpose was largely to ensure the uniformity of hymn rendition throughout the country. And those hymns were sung in Latin.
If Latin was the official language of song, a few decades later the Norman invasion of 1066 meant that the official language of the ruling classes became Norman French. English didn't get much of a look in, and nothing of much consequence was written in this, the language of the Saxon underclass. Indeed, it was the 13th century before the first ever English language music was written down, written in what is known as Middle English. Two examples are known from this time.
The first of these has come down to us through a single score on a piece of paper which was discovered, secreted within the pages of an old book. It wasn't religious - it was secular - intended to be sung by ordinary folk, and it's believed to date to the first half of the 13th century. As such, it could be described not merely as the first ever song in English, but also as the first ever 'pop song'. It is called 'Mirie it is while sumer ilast' in Middle English, or 'Merry it is while summer lasts' in the modern vernacular. A version of the song is played above, though the limited fragment which survives contains just a single line of rather obscure notation and one verse. That means some interpretation is required. A good description of the recording can be found at Early Music Muse
There is however, another much more complete contender dated to the same time period, and this one is much more reliably authentic in modern recordings. Again it is a song about summertime (it seems summer and religion were the only things anyone ever sung about!) 'Sumer Is Icumen In' was probably composed in the first half of the 13th century century, and certainly no later than 1264 - because a manuscript from this date includes a copy.
The song takes the form of a 'round' in which one singer begins, and then after a set period of time, another starts again from the beginning. It tells of the coming of summer and the various events which occur in the countryside at this time - in the fields, the woods and in the farmyards - a simple tale, though some see allegorical meanings in the words - perhaps relating to adultery (cuckoos are referenced in the lyrics, and these birds often are pictured as immoral). Interestingly, the manuscript includes an alternative set of lyrics in Latin which tell of Jesus's sacrifice. However, the opinion of scholars is that the secular song came first. The composer is not known, but the name 'W. de Wycombe' is often put forward. Alternatively, John of Fornsete, a monk from the Abbey of Reading is proposed by others. Perhaps one wrote the secular verses and the melody, and one wrote the Latin? An excellent discourse on the song is available from Early Music Muse.
At first hearing, the secular song may not sound English, but of course the language has developed - as with 'Mirie', this is Middle English, the form of the language spoken between the Norman Conquest and the Tudor period. And many of the phrases and words if listened to carefully or written out as text, can be easily translated into modern English. The title itself is quite easily understood: 'Sumer Is Icumen In' becomes 'Summer has Come in' or 'Summer Has Arrived'. Selected other lines include:
'Lhude sing cuccu' - 'Sing loudly, cuckoo!'
'Growep sed' - 'The seed is growing.'
'Awe bleteþ after lomb' - 'The ewe bleats after her lamb'.
Today the song may sound surprisingly familiar. It was attractively performed at the Munich Olympics opening ceremony of 1972. And most famously - or notoriously - this was the song which played over the gruesome final scenes of the cult 1970s horror movie 'The Wicker Man'.
Oh, and there is one other dubious claim to fame. One phrase ‘Bucke uerteth’ is less easily translatable but is interpreted by some experts as the first ever written evidence of a particular four-letter word. Shall we say it translates as ‘the goat breaks wind’ ?
The 1972 Olympics - and a performance one of the first ever songs sung in English.
A series of short recordings of 'Au Clair de la Lune' from 1860. The opening 12 seconds is the original. But each of the 5 successive recordings incorporates a different restorative process, making the voice clearer and clearer.
4) The First Song Recording
Thomas Edison recorded 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' in 1877 - the world's first recording of sound which could be instantly replayed. Now of course that could best be described as a nursery rhyme, rather than a song, but however one describes it, it wasn't the first piece of music to be recorded. That honour was actually achieved nearly 20 years earlier by Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Scott was a printer who invented a contraption he called a phonautograph. This device enabled him to record soundwaves and then display those soundwaves as a pattern of lines - a phonautogram.
The difference between Edison's much more famous achievement and Scott's is that whereas Edison's recordings could be instantly replayed, Scott's could not - there was merely a visual representation of the recording - it was a bit like having a music recording on a tape or a DVD, but not having the machine to play it on until it was invented more than 100 years later. Indeed, the recording which was made by Scott on 9th April 1860, was only rediscovered and converted into an audio file in 2008. It turned out to be 'Au Clair de la Lune'. (Other recordings have also been discovered including the first ever recorded speech, and also 'Jingle Bells', which may even predate 'Au Clair de la Lune', but that is frankly just an unintelligible sequence of sounds).
Bear in mind of course, the performances previously played on this page are of older songs, but the recordings are recent. This is different. In the YouTube rendition above, the first 12 seconds are entirely original so don't expect any decent quality. The tune is barely decipherable. But the subsequent recordings on the same video are a beautiful illustration of what can be done with restorative techniques. One note of caution - the recording may still be played back too fast, resulting in it being too high pitched - it's believed that the recording which sounds like the voice of a girl, may in fact have been sung by Scott himself. The recording below may be more authentic in that regard.
A very brief version of Au Clair de la Lune, less enhanced than the other recording in this section. However, it has been slowed down, lowering the pitch to reveal a man's voice - perhaps that of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville himself.
Being an astronaut is a serious business.
5) The First Song to be Sung in Outer Space
In this section I include two songs - the first music played in outer space and the first to be sung on another world.
In 1965 the astronauts on Gemini 6 decided to have some fun. The date was 16th December - just 9 days before Christmas - and Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra sent a message back to Mission Control. At a time of heightened Cold War tensions plus UFO scare stories, it might have raised a few eyebrows. The message said:
'We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He's in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio ..... Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one ..... You might just let me try to pick up that thing'.
No worries - the imaginary 'object' was Santa Claus and his reindeers, and Stafford and Schirra then picked up a harmonica and sleigh bells they'd brought on board to give a rendition of 'Jingle Bells' - the second time that song has been mentioned on this page, and the first time music was played in outer space. A video recording is included below.
It's good to see that astronauts do not have to be intensely profound in all they say and do, and the next piece is a charming recording from Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene A Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt in December 1972. This was the last Apollo moon landing, and Cernan and Schmitt relaxed and broke into song. Almost anything that Apollo astronauts did on an alien world would have been a historic first, and the moment they decided to sing was of course, no exception. The song they chose was appropriate enough - 'I was Strolling on the Moon One Day'. A recording is included above.
(To be accurate the original song is 'The Fountain in the Park' also known as 'While Strolling Through the Park one Day', but the brief Apollo version is perhaps sufficiently different to be given its own name!)
Maybe such momentous occasions should have been marked with something more appropriate - a triumphal anthem perhaps. Instead we got 'Jingle Bells' and 'Strolling on the Moon'. Oh well, what's life without fun!
A first reindeer-powered UFO sighting by the Gemino 6 astronauts, Eugene A Cernan and Harrison Schmitt? - or the first ever opportunity to sing a song in outer space.
6) The First Song Created by Artificial Intelligence
This last one's a bit suspect, but I think it has a place here as it is perhaps the very beginnings of the future of music, and to present it, we've come right up to date - to the year 2016. It's been described as the first ever music composed by a non-human.
'Sony' has just recently developed 'Flow Machines', a software programme which enables a computer to play around with musical sounds and create something entirely original out of them. Initially the researchers used the software to produce various very short experimental tracks - primarily jazz themed - and some examples of these early compositions can be heard on this Flow Machines WebPage. However, It has not yet been possible to ascertain which of these was actually the very first to be created.
But in September 2016, Sony set to work on creating a full blown pop song. An extensive database of 13,000 tracks of human-composed music from many different genres had been fed into the computer, and then the programme was given a prompt to produce music in a particular style - in this case, the Beatles. Elements from tracks throughout the Sony database were then drawn together by the software and combined in that style. Finally, the music was arranged and lyrics were written by the French composer Benoît Carré.The finished result has been called 'Daddy's Car' and a recording of this first ever computer song can be heard below.
Are we really there yet? Human compositions were initially fed into the computer, the Beatles style was dictated by a human, and a human arranged the resultant melody and added the lyrics. All the software did was to create the melody, which may be described as derivative, rather than truly revolutionary. But before you dismiss this, isn't all music derivative? One could argue that every composer who ever lived has been influenced by others who have gone before. Why should an artificial composer be any different? And perhaps future artificial intelligences will be influenced in their compositions by 'Daddy's Girl'? No doubt one day, all human input may be gone from the process all together - aside from putting the plug into the wall. This may be the very first step in that process.
A full Artificial Intelligence composed album is due out in 2017. 'Daddy's Girl' will be one of the tracks and it will surely receive much publicity - much more publicity than when 'Hurrian Hymn No 6' was first performed. But of course creation of music is one thing. Appreciation of music is something else entirely. That will remain the preserve of human beings, as it always has been since that day in Ugarit 3,500 years ago when someone sat down with a clay tablet and composed 'Hymn No 6.'
A Few Final Thoughts
They say records are made to be broken, but records which are historic 'firsts' can never be broken. So it is with these - unless even older clay tablets, stone carvings, manuscripts or sound recordings are one day found. It has been interesting for me to research the earliest sound recordings on a phonautograph, the first music performed in outer space and the first ever pop song created by artificial intelligence. All deserve their place in the history books.
But particularly poignant are the truly old songs and melodies. How nice to be able to listen to these pieces and to think of the people who lived long ago, and maybe to imagine the pleasure they received when they performed them in ancient Syria or ancient Greece or in Medieval England. It gives one an insight into their lives which cannot be gained merely from reading works of dry text. I hope I have been able to give you an insight too into these extraordinary pieces of music. Thank you.
The video above gives just one more interpretation of Hurrian No 6, the oldest song in the world, with vocals starting at 1.48. How accurate is it? Who can say for sure? But listen through to the end - it has a peaceful melody and haunting vocals - musical creativity as old as history.
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