"Music is the universal language of mankind," wrote American poet, Henry Wadsworth. As I'm jamming to k-pop in my room at the moment, I can attest to this statement. Even scientists at Harvard, in a recent study, found that music carries a set of unique codes and patterns, which are in fact universally understood.
This is why even the oldest song in the world, Hurrian Hymn No. 6, resonates with us 3,400 years later. The discovery of the melody is relatively new compared to the historic remains of musical instruments as archaeologists have found traces of musical instruments such as primitive flutes made of bone and ivory dating back as far as 43,000 years.
The oldest known song in history was an ode to a Sumerian goddess
The oldest existing song was found on clay tablets excavated in the 1950s from the Royal Palace at Ugarit (present-day Ras Shamra, Syria) dating back to the 14th century. The complete song is one of 36 such hymns in cuneiform writing (a type of writing that was used in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia); it is the only one that survived the trials of time in a substantial form.
Historians believe that ancient Hurrians (ancient non-Semitic people of northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and eastern Asia Minor about 1500 b.c) composed the song "Hurrian Hymn No. 6" as an ode to the goddess Nikkal. For the Hurrians, she was the Akkadian Goddess of the Orchards - wife of the Moon God, Yarrikh, and daughter of the summer God, Khirkhibi, whose name meant "Great Lady and Fruitful".
Is the Sumerian hymn the oldest known form of western music?
Richard Fink, an archaeologist writes in a 1988 Archeologia Musicalis article that the hymn is proof that "the 7-note diatonic scale (the foundation of western music) and harmony existed 3,400 years ago as well.
This disproves previous assumptions of most musicologist's views that ancient harmony was non-existent and the music scale originated from Ancient Greek. When, in 1972, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, was interpreting the song, she found that the number of syllables in the text of the song matched the number of notes present in musical notations.
Kilmer says, "the chances the number of syllables would match the notation numbers without intention are astronomical,” in an interview with the Daily Mail.
Musicians have tried to recreate the hymn ever since its interpretation
Professor Kilmer who is also a curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley tells Far Out Magazine that she spent 15 years deciphering the writings on the clay tablets discovered in Syria by French archaeologists in the early 1950s. The tablets, according to historians, formed “a complete cult hymn and is the oldest preserved song with notation in the world.”
In 1972, Kilmer developed an interpretation of the ancient song based on her study of the musical notation. She also wrote a book, Sounds From Silence, about her exploratory journey which comes with a CD recording of the song. Here is a midi keyboard (a piano-style electronic musical keyboard) version of the hymn.
If the midi keyboard version didn't sound historical enough to you, the scholars Anne Draffkorn Kilmer and Richard Crocker have produced variants of the Hurrian songs in Iyre - a musical instrument native to ancient Ugarit. Here’s a version of musician, Michael Levy playing it on the lyre.
It's the oldest melody, not the oldest composition
According to HISTORY, the television network, “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” is the world’s earliest melody, but the oldest musical composition to have survived in its entirety is a first century A.D. ancient Greek tune known as the “Seikilos Epitaph.”
The song from ancient Greece was found engraved on a dated marble column that marked a woman's gravesite in Turkey - the piece was inscribed on a tombstone. As the name suggests, the composer, Seikilos, wrote the piece as an epitaph to honor his deceased wife. The inscription read, “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.”
The column also includes musical notation as well as a short set of lyrics that read: “While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / And time demands its toll.”
Musicians have attempted to decide both the compositions and tried to recreate its melodies note-for-note. For instance, Dr. David Creese of the University of Newcastle performed "Seikilos Epitaph" using an eight-stringed instrument played with a mallet, and ancient music researcher Michael Levy has recorded a version of the same strummed on a lyre.
Unfortunately, attempts to decode the Sumerian hymn, "Hurrian Hymn No. 6" has faced challenges as it's been difficult translating its ancient cuneiform signs into sheet music. So, there's no definitive version of the ancient harmony.