Music is an aspect of human being that has always been there. In that post we go back in time
to study the role and nature of music in ancient Egypt. What was its purpose? When and where was
it played? What types of instruments did they have? What was the meaning of music for them?
The main objective of this exhibition relates to the different types of musical instruments that can be
found along the ancient Egyptian history from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period, the context
“instruments”, “statues and figurines” and “reliefs”. The “instruments” exhibited are harps, flutes, a
drum membrane, sistrums and trumpets; the “statues and figures” are basically those which
represents both gods or men playing instruments or even a statue of a musician; and as a “relief” we
have the famous tomb's paintings of Nebamun (the most famous representation of
musicians and dancers of ancient Egypt) and the musical scene of the mastaba of Werirenptah. In
order to understand the role of these objects in the Egyptian society we will proceed to summarize
their historical context.
Trough the whole Egyptian history, music had its own development with an evolution of
instruments types and its uses. Therefore, as L. Manniche proposes, we can distinguish differences
of the characteristics of ancient Egyptian music in the Old and Middle Kingdom, and in the New
Kingdom and Late Period.
Nevertheless there are aspects that are common for such different periods. One is the banquets
representations in tombs, where the guests appear mostly drinking, dancing and playing musical
instruments. In the New Kingdom these scenes, as the one of Nabamun, takes an erotic significance,
what can be attested by the presence of unguent cones, mandrake fruit, wigs and lotus flowers.
We see that during the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom there are instruments that loose their
priority during posterior times. During the Old Kingdom the musical core was composed by harps,
end-blow flutes and simple clarinets (flutes and clarinets used to be just one meanwhile there used
to be more than one harp).
But we best start talking about the most important musical instruments during the Old Kingdom.
The most common one, which can be found in the majority of representations, is the harp. There are
two main types of harps in ancient Egypt; one is the arched one, that can be found since the 4th
Dynasty and can be considered the native Egyptian harp type, and the other is the angular one,
imported later and most commonly used during the New Kingdom. Inside the arched type there are
two harpists, two flautist and a man playing an unusually long clarinet and six chironomists.
at the same time other sub-types. One of them, the 'shovel-shaped' type is the generally one used in
the Old Kingdom. This harp was named in ancient Egyptian as bnt. L. Manniche describes it with
the following words in her book “Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt”:
“The 'shovel' was covered with a membrane to provide an enclosed shallow space. The inside
surface of the shovel, concealed from view, sometimes had painted decoration. A wooden
suspension rod passed across the membrane from the lower end of the neck and served as a means
of attaching the strings. At the upper end of the instrument the strings were wound around the
neck.” (1991, p.26)
The strings in that type of harp used to be around five and seven, but some of them had between
eight and ten, or even twelve. The strings were place so close that replicas made nowadays to
experiment with the sound have shown that only a very slight touch would produce a clear note.
This bnt harp continued to exist during the New Kingdom as well, one example is the harp of the
British Museum shown in our exhibition (38170). However, this type of harp doesn't appear in
representations after the Middle Kingdom.
Other important instrument was the end-blown flute (m3t). It changed little in appearance during the
course of Egyptian history, in fact, flutes found in the Middle Kingdom tombs look like the Old
Kingdom tombs ones. These type of flutes had only three or four finger-holes positioned at the
bottom of the instrument and to play it the musician should have blown across the upper edge of it,
holding the flute in a oblique position. The m3t disappears from the ensemble in the Middle
Kingdom but it was still used in posterior times in both rituals and popular areas.
The ancient clarinet was identical in appearance to the one played in Egypt nowadays. S. Emerit
describes it as follows:
“It is a simple reed instrument with two parallel pipes tied together by string.”
A very important figure very represented during the Old Kingdom was the chironomist, the 'one
who makes signs using the hands'. This figure seems to have had the role to indicate the notes to the
player. There used to be one chironomist per a few persons so there were more than one in a group.
According to the studies of Hickmann they could indicate the range of notes to play by the
musician, marking them visually by their arms positions. The scholar made a study based in the
hypothesis that in tombs representations, the figures of the chironomists and their arms positions
indicate a musical notation.
Even when the chironomist is very frequent in the Old Kingdom he rarely appears in the Middle
Kingdom and he absolutely disappears in the New Kingdom, fact that make us think that they were
not essential any more.
We have evidences of the introduction of new types of instruments from abroad in the latter period
of the Middle Kingdom. An example of that is a portable boat-shaped harp and an early
representation of a lyre in a tomb of Beni Hassan. In that tomb, the lyre is brought by a bearded man
from the country he has left (MSS 29853, 272). Both instruments will be explained with more detail
We have more evidences of music performances during the New Kingdom because of the richness
paintings' tombs at Thebes. They are rich thanks to the banquets scenes where the entertainment
made by musicians and dancers are depicted. In this moment the musical core is composed by
harps, lutes, double oboes and occasionally with additional instruments such as lyres, tambourines
and other types of harps. Meanwhile, people clapping their hands and singing enjoy the group.
The harp mostly represented during that period is the boat-shaped one. The special characteristics of
it is that it was larger and it played lower notes at the same time that it was decorated with
paintings imitating an animal's skin and it had around nine and twelve strings secured between pegs
and the neck. But there were a portable version of that instrument as well, the so called portable
boat-shaped harp or shoulder harp, with just four strings.
Other harp type was the laddle-shaped harp, sporadically seen in the Middle Kingdom. This harp
had around seven and eleven strings and it was represented for a long time in the banquet ensemble.
One example of it is the one depicted in Ineni's tomb. It had a strong curved neck with some
decoration at the tip of the neck.
The lute is known to the Babylonians some thousand years before it appeared in Egypt around the
18th Dynasty. It was an instrument made with a natural tortoiseshell or carved from wood which has
the sound-box covered with a membrane. It differs from the harp because its strings are all the same
length. But the lute is not the only important instrument that appears in representations of that time
period. The other one is the lyre (knnr), coming to Egypt from Asia. It is made of a sound-box that
projects two arms joined at the top by a yoke. They could be symmetrical or asymmetrical but only
the first one is known as soon as the early 18th Dynasty.
The oboe (wdny) is known from the Sumerian city of Ur since 2000 B.C, but it was introduced in
Egypt in the beginning of the New Kingdom. The oboe took the place of the clarinet in banquet
ensembles and was always played by women.
This instrument was made of a pair of tubes made from natural reed with mouthpieces inserted into
the upper end of the tubes. Nevertheless the tubes were not tied together as it is the case of the
clarinet. At the same time, hand clapping and a rectangular tambourine were added to the group of
musicians, as we can see in the representations of the tomb of the mother of Senenmut.
After the end of the Ramesside period there are no evidences of contemporary music in the next 600
years because of a change in the Theban tombs decorations. During the Late period we can see
some differences in the use of instruments. For example, it is more common the use of the angular
harp instead of the arched one. The form of the lute changed as well into the pear-shaped body and
a shorter neck, which appeared by the end of the 18th Dynasty but was more used during the Late
period. The lyre lost its curve form adopting a rectangular outline. The rhythm is still played by
women clapping their hands but now we can see as well the use of a barrel-shaped drum.
But music was not only played in banquets. One of the most important context of ancient Egyptian
music is the religious one. The oldest goddess associated with music was Merit, considered the
personification of music and a chironomist goddess. According to Diodoro, Thoth was another deity
linked to music as he is described as the one who can observe the 'harmony of the musical sounds
and their nature'. But a god that can be ordinary seen with instruments is Bes, protector of homes.
secular music. Because of that he can be found playing instrument such as a drum meanwhile it is
common to see representations of a musician playing for him.
But anyway, the goddess of music per excellence was Hathor, the 'mistress of dance' and 'mistress
We have seen briefly the types of instruments that can be found in a secular area, but one of them is
only and always found in a sacred context: the sistrum. This instrument was commonly associated
to the goddess Hathor as it usually had a Hathor head represented in the handle. There are two
different forms of sistrums: the old one, the naos-shaped sistrum, usually made of faience; and
'arched' sistrum, made of metal. As this kind of instrument was usually related to the papyrus it is
believed that it was linked to the myth of how Hathor took refuge in the papyrus swamps of the
delta with her infant son. It is curious that in the liturgy of the Coptic church the sistrum is still used
to be extended to the four cardinal points to emphasize the power of God. But it is remarkable to
say that the sistrum was not only used to invoke Hathor but other gods as well as it is the case of
Amun. Another instrument very used in a religious context is the round tambourine by the end of
the New Kingdom. The earliest representation known of that instrument comes from the tomb of
Kheruef, from the reign of Amenhotep III. As it had representations on its membrane evoking
Hathor and Isis, it is believed that the round tambourine had rebirth connotations.
The other area where music had an important role was the military one, both in a military campaign
or in a military procession. However, the first time the army musicians were depicted at Deir el-
Bahari, in the temple of the queen Hatshepsut, the use of drum in that context is known even earlier
thanks to the drum found close to the coffin of a tomb in Beni Hassan from the Middle Kingdom.
Apart of the drum, the trumpet was the other important instrument in a military situation. This
instrument appears as well in the representations of Deir el-Bahari. The most famous example
comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun, that would have had two functions: on the one hand as a
sacred objects of rebirth in the Afterlife and on the other hand as a military instrument in the real
life. It is worth to mention that these trumpets are the only instruments which have been made to
produce an authentic ancient Egyptian sound.
EMERIT, S. (2002) À propos de l’origine des interdits musicaux dans l’Égypte ancienne, BIFAO,
102, p. 189-210.
EMERIT, S. (2013) Music and musicians, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.
HICKMANN, H. (1987) Musicologie pharaonique, études sur l'évolution de l'art muscial dans
l'Égypte ancienne, Baden-Baden & Bouxwiller.
HICKMANN, H. (1956) 45 siècles de musique dans l'Égypte ancienne a travers la sculpture, la
peinture, l'instrument, Paris: Richard-Masse.
MANNICHE, L. (1991) Music and musicians in ancient Egypt, London: British Museum Press.
MANNICHE, L. (1973) Rare fragments of a round tambourine in the Ashmolean museum, Oxford,
Acta Orientalia, XXXV.