What's the earliest song with lyrics?

Seems to me like lyrics are a (relatively) modern part of music. I’m curious what is the oldest known song with lyrics? Do we know if the oral tradition of storytelling often involved music? Was there ever a time in human history before we put words to music? If so, do we have any hints as to what changed?


There is a music critic in Substack I like to read who claims that heroes always had theme songs. With lyrics. So the answer to your question would be: No one knows because this song is lost in the depths of pre-history.

Greek hymns go back to the 7th century B.C. and I’d assume they weren’t the first.

Perhaps some of the psalms in the Book of Psalms are even older?

Mi Chamocha (the Song of the Sea) from the Book of Exodus is dated between the 13th and 5th centuries BCE.

The oldest surviving complete song is
Seikilos epitaph - Wikipedia .

The Iliad and Odyssey we’re probably sung rather than recited as there is evidence of musical accompaniment.

While not as complete as the Seikilos epitaph, some of the Hurrian Hymns are near-complete, and are definitely songs with music and lyrics, and much older than the epitaph.

Here’s one loose interpretation of h.6, the Hymn to Nikkal.

Almost certainly. For one thing, melody acts as a mnemonic aid.

Doubtful. Chimps have particular vocalizations that accompany their rain and fire dances, so the combo probably predates modern humanity.

Wait - chimps have rain and fire dances? Fascinating.

I think your premise is wrong - music without lyrics is a modern invention, from no earlier than the 16th Century.

That’s definitely not true either - instrumental dance music was a thing, and definitely so in the Middle Ages. We have many art pieces that document this, as well as the actual music.

But was music actually written without lyrics, or did musicians just sometimes play instrumental versions of songs?

I would have thought the opposite. Singing is one of the most universal forms of music. No accompaniment needed. Wrapping a tune around words is a natural thing to do.

Thus any question of the earliest is lost in the mists of time. But a lullaby might be a good bet.

Music for dance is also something that is lost into pre-history.

The rhythmic nature of words and of dance throw a long shadow throughout the history of music.

Maybe it is going to come down to when we acquired language versus a sense of melody. The two are likely not independent.

Hard to say - we do know many, probably most, dances were accompanied by singing (usually by the dancers), but others, not. One would think if they had lyrics, this would be mentioned.

Wiki does say

In the late middle ages, some purely instrumental music also began to be notated, though this remained rare. Dance music makes up most of the surviving instrumental music, and includes types such as the estampie, ductia, and nota.

The estampie, in particular, is noted to be found in both vocal and instrumental forms (that is, separate compositions in those forms). Note that it’s a contemporary music theorist making these distinctions.

Music, including singing and instrumental, seems to a universal in all human societies. Banging a stick on a log, clapping, or singing as you forage together or to your child, one before the other seems improbable.

I recall reading in Ripley’s Believe it or not that the “Shadouf Song” is the oldest existing song. I’m not sure about that (sometimes the answer is “or not”), or what evidence supports any existing song siung while using the water-conveying device as the original, oldest song. But some people claim that this was listed in the Guiness book of records as “oldest song”

Thag Simmons performed Stegosaurus Blues approximately 150 million years ago. Unfortunately, Thag never had the chance to write the lyrics down.

Conclusive evidence from Walt Disney Studios…

The Beau Brummelstones covered that song about 25 million years later.

I had this on a 45 RPM yellow plastic record as a kid – talk about prehistoric!

I didn’t learn it was from a cartoon until decades later.