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A New Reconstruction of the Hurrian Hymn

[Joe Monzo]

(This page is accompanied by an audio file: download the mp3 here.)

From Yahoo Tuning Group, message 11624 (Sat Aug 19, 2000 4:48 pm):

From: Joe Monzo
<Date: Sat Aug 19, 2000 9:48am
<Subject: the oldest musical score
> [Troubledoor, Fri Aug 18, 2000 6:55pm]
> In Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) in Syria, an ancient tablet was
> discovered in the 1950s dating back to 1400 BC. The oldest known
> musical score, it takes the form of interval names and number
> signs, and even has lyrics. The text is identified as a hymn
> to the moon goddess Nikkal.
> There is some controversy among ancient musicologists over the
> proper interpretation of the notes, but all agree that it is a
> genuine musical score.

Troubledoor then gives the URLs containing interpretations by M. L. West:

and A. D. Kilmer:

I'm stunned that someone else should post precisely these links at this particular time at *my* favorite cyber-hangout, because I've been very deeply involved in research into these matters for the last two months.

I had prepared a post to the List exactly one month ago that I never submitted, because the webpages to which I wanted to refer are not yet ready and, indeed, I do not feel that I have yet gathered enough evidence to support my speculations about these documents, and in fact I'm not at all sure yet that my interpretations are correct. In particular, my conception of the basic scale may be totally wrong... but I'm accepting it for now, until I dig more deeply.

To say that 'there is some controversy' about the proper reconstruction of this piece is a vast understatement: since the first recognition that this tablet contained musical content, by H. G. Gu"terbock in 1970 (Revue d'Assyriologie), there have been no less than 9 different attempts at reconstruction, varying wildly:

1971 David Wulstan
1974 A. D. Kilmer
1976 M. Duchesne-Guillemin
1977, 1978 Thiel
1982 Raoul Vitale
1982 M. Duchesne-Guillemin
1988 Cerny
1993 M. L. West
1998 R. J. Dumbrill

The latest account, Dumbrill's _The Musicology and Organology of the Ancient Near East_ (Green Press, London, 1998) is by far the most in-depth examination of the entire subject, at almost 700 pages. He provides generous samples of the book on his site:

Unfortunately, since it's $140, I don't think I'll be able to read the rest of the book until I can find it in a library, and again unfortunately, even tho I've been searching far and wide, I haven't yet found it anywhere.

I found Dumbrill's reconstruction to be the most musical of them all so far, and based my original idea on his. Then I became convinced, along with some of the scholars trashed by Dumbrill, that the Babylonian tablet CBS 10996 was really defining *harmonic* and not melodic intervals. So I made 2 other reconstructions, based on 2 different basic scales. The one in the link below is the latest.

> [Troubledoor]
> The find was especially interesting because it overturned
> conventional views of ancient music, showing that the diatonic
> (7-note) scale and musical harmony were in use more than a
> thousand years earlier than was thought.

In fact, there's no doubt at all in my mind that the 12-tone so-called 'Pythagorean' scale was invented by the Sumerians *at least* 1400 years before Pythagoras lived! (... if, in fact, it was not invented even earlier by another culture.) There exists substantial proof for this: the earliest Babylonian musical tablet which we've found surviving so far (CBS 10996) provides a clear recognition of the complete 'cylce of 5ths' and 12 different modes or tunings could be achieved by raising or lowering the tritone, and thus shifting the position of the tritone in the new scale. King Shulgi of Ur may have been the first person to have recorded this scale; he boasts of having discovered what seems to be this tuning method.

And as I stated above, I also agree that notes were played simultaneously to produce harmony.

The Sumerians may have even figured out how to tune *12-tET* as long ago as c. 2500-2000 BC! But I still have much more research to do before being able to present a good case for this.

There is absolute proof that they knew how to arrive at arbitrarily close approximations of the square-root of 2 (tablet YBC 7289), which could have been of use in calculating 12-tET.

And there is also proof that they limited their cycle of modes to 12. This may be a clue that the scale was tempered, because assuming Pythagorean tuning, the 12th raising or lowering of the tritone would give a scale identical to the starting one, except that it would be a semitone higher or lower (respectively) than the original. Tempering the scale would remove that problem. The CBS 10996 tablet also seems to give a tuning procedure which provides a way of checking intervals in more than one way, perhaps to assist in tempering by ear.

Ernest McClain (first in _The Myth of Invariance_, and in more depth in _The Pythagorean Plato_) makes a case for the Greeks having calculated 12-tET, and of course I think it can be shown that, just as the Babylonians took over the Sumerian culture as their own, much of the Greek music-theory, science, math, mythology, etc., was taken from the Babylonians and thus goes back to Sumerian roots.

I've been doing a lot of research into the Bible too, and can see that a lot of ancient Hebrew writings are also based on Sumerian originals. I have a *lot* more to say about this, but it's off-topic... But anyway, Dr. Ewald Metzler, who purports to have reconstructed the original tablets of the 10 Commandments, also sees evidence of ancient Hebrew music- theory in its dimensions:

And see this webpage concerning the possibility of Sumerian 12-tET:

As for this Hurrian hymn being the oldest existing musical score, I don't think it is. The CBS 10996 tablet is older, and I believe that *it* is the oldest score. More on that below...

I will have *much*, much more to come on this during the rest of this year. The post on which I was working follows below:

------- post drafted a month ago, never submitted: ------

Hey folks, big news (to me, at least):

In my quest to unravel the history of tuning and music-theory, I'm convinced that I've correctly deciphered the fundamental basics of Sumerian music-theory, and thus have traced my history back to its ultimate beginning.

Because the Sumerians were the first culture to invent writing itself (c. 3200 BC), we will not find a written music-theory older than this.

The oldest evidence is actually preserved on tablets inscribed during the 'Old Babylonian' period (roughly 2000-1600 BC), just after Sumerian died out as a spoken language and the inhabitants of Mesopotamia became exclusively Semitic-speaking (Akkadian). But these Babylonians preserved intact for over 1500 years just about everything in Sumerian culture, including their music-theory and the written Sumerian language (and religion, and science, and math, and architecture, etc., etc...).

Because of this decipherment, I've also reconstructed H6, the only surviving more-or-less complete Hurrian hymn (excavated at Ras-as-Shamra, Syria), which has so far been thought to be the oldest musical score yet found (c. 1400-1200 BC). I believe my reconstruction to be more correct than any of the 9 or so others that have been made. The mp3 audio file and score of it are given above.

And I qualified the status of this text with 'so far' because I also believe that the notorious Old Babylonian tablet describing the intervals on the lyre (CBS 10996, a collection of math problems for use in schools, now in the University Museum in Philadelphia) is not just a 'text' for studying, but is actually a score to a sort of etude, for learning the primary intervals of '5ths/4ths' and '3rds/6ths' as they progress around the 'circle of 5ths', and as the whole series progresses thru the series of modal retunings - a sort of 'Hanon exercise' for a budding young Sumerian lyrist:
download MIDI file of Monzo's reconstruction of CBS 10996 here

This tablet dates from before 1600 BC, making *it* the oldest musical score in existence. Admittedly not a very interesting 'piece' (whereas the Hurrian hymn in my reconstruction sounds - to me - emotionally powerful), but still not bad.

(How ironic that I've lived in Philadelphia all these years, and in fact spent a great deal of last year right on the Penn campus where this tablet lives, without ever having taken a look, and am now searching far and wide in California for any copy of it I can find in any book, without success!...)

I won't say anything more technical right now, as I have yet to write the paper putting all of this together. There's already been a vast literature on this subject, (since the first article in 1960), and I think it's important to trace the history of the interpretation of these tablets before I present my own work on them.

Right away while working on the Hurrian hymn, I got the idea of having it performed on one of Johnny Reinhard's AFMM concerts. And since (AFAIK) the Hurrian language hasn't been decoded yet, I thought of Sasha Bogdanowitsch doing the vocal part. How 'bout it, guys?....


See my Speculations on Sumerian Tuning, my letter to Jacky Ligon and my webpage about the nefilim for some of my more unusual speculations about the Sumerians. Also see my posts the the Yahoo Tuning Group in message 10930 (Mon Jun 26, 2000 11:12 pm), the footnote to message 11107 (Sat Jul 8, 2000 9:28 pm), and message 11624 (Sat Aug 19, 2000 4:48 pm) for more on Sumerian and Babylonian music.