Musical Notation

views updated May 29 2018

Musical Notation

Written Notation.

The Egyptians developed a sophisticated writing system as early as 3500 b.c.e., and likewise developed music from the earliest periods of their history. They did not, however, apparently combine their talents in writing and music to create a system of music notation as did their neighbors. The Egyptians must have been aware that their neighbors in Syria had a system for the transcription of musical notes at least by 1500 b.c.e., as did the Greeks by the first millennium b.c.e. Yet scholars have not identified any musical notation in a written form in Egypt until after the Greeks had conquered the land about 322 b.c.e. Even then, there is only one possible example of musical notation, discovered on a statue depicting a woman playing a harp while a man sits before her with a writing board. On the board is a series of horizontal lines with longer and shorter vertical lines attached to it. The lack of comparative material hampered musicologists' efforts to interpret the notation. The only other possible evidence of ancient notation comes from ninth-century c.e. Coptic manuscripts that may reflect an earlier native Egyptian system of musical notation. The Coptic Church (the Egyptian Christian Church) does preserve some memories of ancient Egyptian customs, but it is impossible to prove that the Coptic system of notation that post-dates the Old Kingdom by thousands of years preserves an older form of musical notation.

Hand Gestures.

Scholars conjecture that the hand gestures made by singers indicated pitches to the harpists or wind players that accompanied them. If true, the representations of singers—called "chironomists," or "one who makes signs using the hands" in Greek—especially on Old Kingdom tomb walls, preserve evidence that instrumentalists could be led in particular songs. Scholars have tried to find a correlation between the hand gestures that singers made and the note or pitch that a harpist or clarinet player played in numerous representations in Old Kingdom tombs without much success. Other scholars have argued that these hand gestures were spontaneous expressions accompanying singing. There is some evidence that gestures were a critical component of a musical performance; the word for singing in Egyptian, hesi, uses the final hieroglyphic sign for an arm, which might indicate that singing is done as much with hands as it is with the voice. As with many issues relating to the role of music in Egypt, there is not enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion.


Hans Hickman, "Ein neuentdecktes Dokument zum Problem der altägyptischen Notation," Acta Musicologica 33 (1961): 15–19.

—, "La chironomie dans l'Egypte pharaonique," Zeitschrift fur ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 83 (1958): 96–127.

Bo Lawgren, "Music," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 2. Donald B. Redford et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 450–454.

Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

musical notation

views updated Jun 11 2018

musical notation Method of writing down music – its language. Staff notation defines the absolute and relative pitches of notes; crotchets, quavers, etc., indicate their time values.