Oldest music

Specifically, music that an expert can say that when played on appropriate instruments sounds just as it did lo those many years ago.

I believe that Gaudi Amasigitatur is the oldest song, but do we know that the music for that is the same that was used way back when?

And what were some of the prior means of reproducing music for later playback?

For some reason that was the question foremost in my mind this morning when I woke up and I figured I’d ask here for people to point me in the right direction.


This thread asked something very similar. The music in my answer to that OP deals with vocal music, not instrumental, because there the single important item that needs to both exist and survive is a notation system that makes it possible for us to reconstruct the music. Many early notations that survive do not record enough information for the music to be recreated - these only served as aide memoires within what remained essentially oral traditions (primarily religious chants).

The histories of instrumental music are doubly complex, because there’s the survival of (and changes to) the music itself, and also to the instruments. For example, a modern violin is audibly different to one from 100, 200 or 300 years ago, and that’s a small timeframe in comparision to really old music. Evidence for musical instruments goes back to prehistoric times. Some music traditions and associated instruments (I’m think Asia and Africa in particular) have long long lineages, but it’s hard or impossible to know how much they have changed over time. The exact construction and use of ‘old’ instruments is a difficult thing to identify, because we have to rely on surviving artifacts (which are few and far between), written descriptions of how instruments were built and played (also scarce, and can be sketchy on important details), and iconography (contemporary pictures of instruments, which also rarely provide much detail).

Thanks for the link to Perotin on the other thread, which I’ve added to my wish list. Quite a contrast with the Amon Tobin CD I’m listening to atm.

FYI, here’s a page on “Gaudeamus Igitur” http://www.arach.net.au/~algernon/gaudeamus/.

Thanks, Gorilla Man. Reading, now.

Music is known to have been made by many of the classical civilizations, and we even know quite a bit about Greek musical theory, as well as the names of tunes to which some of the Psalms in the Bible were set (though not what those tunes were). But actual preservation of specific melodies (harmonization developed later) is scarce.

As regards church music, some of the oldest Orthodox chants date back to the heydey of the Byzantine Empire, about 600 or so. Most of the Gregorian chants date from the Middle Ages. Venantius Honorius Fortunatus, who died in 600, wrote Vexilla Regis, Pange Lingua, and * Salve Festa Dies*, all of which are still commonly sung in churches of several denominations. And the words to a communion hymn, “Father, we thank Thee who hast planted,” dates from 110 AD, though it’s normally sung to Louis Bourgeois’s Rendez à Dieu, which only dates to the 1500s.

On the secular side, some traditional folk music is known certainly to date well into the Middle Ages. Elements of Orff’s Carmina Burana were derived from medieval students’ drinking songs.

There may be music historians around who can fine-tune this stuff better than I; those are data which I’ve picked up over the years, not an attempt at pinning down Oldest Music.

Note, though, that that linked album of the Hilliard Ensemble’s version of Perotin’s music has come in for some criticism on what some consider to be an anachronistic style – I would recommend Ensemble Gilles Binchois’ Les Chants des Cathédrales for a more accurate performance.

Similarly, the Benedictine recordings of Gregorian chant popularized in recent years bear little resemblance to what it likely sounded like, being based off the Solesmes reforms of the last century. If you want to hear more accurate reconstructions of medieval chant, check out Ensemble Organum’s Chant Cistercien, Ensemble Gilles Binchois’ Les tons de la musique, and the few pieces of Gregorian chant recorded by Cappella Romana.

“Gas music from Jupiter!? Hah!” --Harry “Happy” Cox, Everything You Know Is Wrong Firesign Theater :stuck_out_tongue:

I fully agree - my reason for linking to the Hilliard version was that it had online samples available. (I wouldn’t normally advise anything recorded by them … :wink: )

About 30 years ago they deciphered musical notation from a Babylonian cuneiform tablet and actually gave a performance of the piece, sung in the Akkadian language to the accompaniment of a reconstructed Babylonian lyre. The performance was done in some museum where the musical archaeologist worked. I forgot who it was, though. Anyone remember this?

Here’s some background and midi files on the Akkadian hymn.

Reconstructions of the Hurrian hymn are, to say the least, conjectural. Different scholars have created vastly different end products - the likelihood that any one of them sounds remotely like the music originally did is low.

Oh, Hurrian, not Babylonian. Thanks, Sugaree! My memory was scant on the details after 30 years. One tends to think “Babylonian” by default when thinking of ancient Mesopotamia. The Hurrians came from farther north and spoke an unrelated language (written in cuneiform nonetheless). At any rate, dating back to 1400 BC, this one certainly wins the prize.

Maybe I can help. I’m cunnilingual. :stuck_out_tongue:

That was the point of my last reply: that reconstructions of that piece cannot fit with the OP’s request for music that “sounds just as it did lo those many years ago”.

Still pretty fascinating, though. :wink:

This Neanderthal flute might be a contender for the oldest instrument. We obviously have no way of knowing what music was played on it, but it does give us some insight into how they perceived sounds.