Babylonian Song

We’ve been talking about early notated chant, but forms of musical notation existed long before the ancestor of our present system found its way onto parchment. This little phrase was decoded and transcribed from musical notation on a cuneiform tablet. Its origins are Babylonian, c. 1200 BCE. I made this little MIDI recording from the transcription found in Vol. I, p. 32. The harp is employed not to conjure a mystical, ancient mood (although that’s nice too), but because harps appeared in coeval iconography.

This little transcription awes me. Taruskin goes into no detail on how it was decoded, nor does he show the original notation. It raises mounds of questions. Nonetheless, it’s pretty remarkable. The phrase is simple and diatonic; it almost sounds like a carol. It’s amazing that something so distant can sound so familiar.


  1. Mark Samples says:

    Thanks for doing this. Great idea!

    1. Mark Samples says:

      Thanks for this link. I checked it out last night—lots of interesting manuscript images.

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    Thanks Phil – I’ll check it out. This topic is really fascinating..

  3. As you can tell from this post and my other one (on orality), I’m just tuning into this blog and am starting at the beginning.

    Anyway there’s an interesting article about Babylonian music and harp tuning here:

    1. Mark Samples says:

      Robin, Thanks for the link, and we hope you continue to chime in as you go through the posts!

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