ANCIENT SUMERIAN LYRE MUSIC

The oldest music notation, on a tablet from Ugarit, ca. 1400 B. C. has been translated and arranged and recorded by Prof. Anne. Kilmer in "Sounds from Silence," available on our store page. An enclosed 24 page informational booklet explains the details of research in this fascinating subect.

Demo CD, "Seven Modes for an Ancient Lyre" by Janet Smith plays examples of music in all seven lyre tunings, using sampled lyre strings.

Also available on the store page, along with other items, "Seven Modes for an Ancient Lyre" CD. Examples of music in all seven lyre tunings are played, using sampled lyre strings with accompanying harp, flute, percussion, etc. Two different arrangements of the "Hurrian Cult Song from Ancient Ugarit ca1400 B.C." are included. Other pieces based on very old near eastern melodies.

Left: Front view of The Great Bull-Headed Lapis Lazuli Lyre from Ur, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

PURPOSE OF THE "SEVEN MODES" PROJECT

"Seven Modes for an Ancient Lyre" stemmed from a much larger project involving three professors from the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970's. This larger project resulted in the production of "Sounds from Silence," a boxed record album with a 26 page booklet. The booklet enclosed with the record contains all the scholarly information about the various ancient Mesopotamian texts from first and second millennia B.C. that enabled Professor Anne Kilmer to create the Hurrian Hymn from Ugarit in modern music notation. It also has excellent illustrations, photographs and diagrams, and a bibliography of research sources. It was made long before the Seven Modes CD came along.

After "Seven Modes" CD author Smith joined Kilmer's research effort In the mid 1990's, she was able to suggest a connection between the ancient lyre tuning instructions and present day procedures for tuning the piano; this was published in a paper, "Laying the Rough, Testing the Fine," to which Kilmer contributed more information that had come to light since her album was issued.

Kilmer suggested that perhaps a demo tape of the seven ancient diatonic tunings would enhance her lectures on this subject. Smith made a simple demo tape using samples from Kilmer's lyre replica. This cassette tape, with other examples added later, developed into a Compact Disk format, and eventually was offered for sale in museums in conjunction with the "Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur" travelling exhibit from the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

The tunings on "Seven Modes" represent the same scales that come to Western Europian music from ancient Greek times, and do not contain intervals other than the familiar whole and half steps in our major and natural minor scales. Microtonal variations or the augmented second are not found in the texts from the first and second millennia B.C.

Short answers

Listening to the Seven Modes CD without first hearing one of Prof. Kilmer's lectures, or without knowing about the album "Sounds from Silence" with its enclosed booklet, people sometimes want to know:

  • Smith composed the songs herself, and included two traditional near eastern diatonic melodies in the group on her CD. She was trying to avoid direct imitation of any modern music styles, east or west, other than brief variations in some central portions of the songs. These variations all stay within diatonic modal limitations, which makes them eligible for the exercise, which is to demonstrate the seven modal tunings, not to suggest performance styles or actual pieces.
  • This music does not use any non-diatonic scales, and no near eastern performers or specific near eastern instruments other than the ancient lyre. That is why it does not sound very eastern to our ears. It does used some diatonic modes (playable on piano white keys) that are less common today, but all these are described in the ancient tuning texts.
  • The demo tape, and the ensuing CD were not intended to represent actual music compositions from the second millennium B.C., (of which we have no more than the one example, Anne Kilmer's "Hurrian Hymn"), but only to demonstrate the seven lyre tunings known from ancient Mesopotamian texts.

A more lengthy discussion of what the Seven Modes CD is demonstrating

On our CD, and also in near eastern music today, the familiar major and minor scales we know are also interspersed with music in the other diatonic modes whose names we know from Greek times, but which unfortunately became reassigned in a different order during the middle ages. (Ionian, Dorian, Phyrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian are the names often used today).This confusion of names is why we use the term "C mode" instead of the terms "Ionian," for the regular major scale, and "A mode" instead of "Aeolian," for the natural minor, for instance.

Near eastern music still occasionally uses some of these diatonic scales, but in modern times other more "exotic" sounding modes with microtones and augmented intervals larger than one whole step, are more common. Ancient eastern music did not use these more recent non-diatonic scales.

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Why do these scales sound familiar, and not "eastern"?

These modes result from the use of the basic overtone series generated by a single plucked string, which vibrates in subsections as well as in its entirety. One harmonic overtone is used as a reference tone to generate another note in the same scale on another string. This series of overtones or harmonics, described in many treatises on acoustics over the centuries, has not changed in thousands of years, and is based on the laws of acoustics, and therefore not subject to change. From the same set of acoustic overtones, a similar set of scales results each time. The modern day procedure of "Laying the Bearing Octave" on a piano keyboard follows the ancient procedure to generate the notes in a central octave of the piano, to use as a reference for tuning the remaining keys out in octaves. On the piano these tones are first tuned to equal temperament.

We do not deal with the topic of temperaments on our simple demo tape/CD. The modal lyre samples are arranged basically in equal temperament on an electronic keyboard for this recording.

The ancient Greek modes, the Mesopotamian tunings, and modern day piano tuning procedures all use the same "diatonic" system. In fact even the Chinese pentatonic scales, (shorter versions of the same modes), and music from many other cultures have all based their scales or modes on this diatonic series of tones. From there, the cultures differ in their particular variations and conventions.

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