7 Musical Instruments That Have Originated in Ancient Egypt

Music has always played a big part in people’s lives. Whether it was for celebration, mourning or some other purposes, man often turns to music to set or define his mood and he has done this throughout history to this day.

Many of the musical instruments we love and play today have a deep and interesting history that stretches hundreds and thousands of years before our time.  Some instruments were even used in Ancient Egypt, where they were either a part of some religious ceremony or were used to entertain the Pharaoh in his court.


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What Was the Role of Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt?

Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut,  Goddess Hathor

Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, Goddess Hathor, via Flickr by Elena Pleskevich

Musical instruments in Ancient Egypt often bore the representation of Hathor, the goddess of music, who was also associated with fertility and childbirth and was usually depicted playing or carrying a sistrum. In addition to Hathor, other important deities, such as Isis and Sekhmet, were also shown on papyrus or shown on temple walls, they too with an instrument in hand – usually drums or menit.

As for the musicians themselves, they had a place in every social level in Ancient Egypt, from the poor streets of Thebes, to the temples in Memphis. Some of them even held considerable power and were close to the Pharaoh himself. This was the case with ‘sem’ayts’, women trained in the arts of music and employed in large temples as priestesses.

From what we know from the hieroglyphs, men and women in Ancient Egypt played different musical instruments. As such, men were typically drummers or trumpeters, and their music was more often used in warfare. On the other side, female musicians were typically a part of some religious ceremony, a hymn or a prayer.

7 Most Common Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt

Most of our knowledge of musical instruments in Ancient Egypt comes from the hieroglyphs. That way, for example, we know for sure that they played these seven instruments:

Menit

Menit, Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt

Menit, Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt, Credits: touregypt.net

Menit was a percussion instrument linked to Hathor. During her festival, for instance, priestesses of Hathor went from door to door, shaking it in order to bring health and long life to those inside. Of course, the instrument was used in other ceremonies, usually those that were supposed to bring some sort of healing or restoration, and its sound was usually accompanied by dancing.

Sistrum

Sistrum, Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt

Sistrum, Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt, Credits: Wikimedia

The word ‘sistrum’ in Ancient Egyptian means ‘to vibrate’. This was another instrument closely associated with Hathor and it originated from the ritual of cutting papyrus stems and rattling them together in a rhythmic fashion. This represented ‘opening your heart to Hathor’.

The sistrum was usually made of wood; however metal and ceramic were also used. The instrument was Y-shaped and had a metal band fixed between the stems, with smaller metal pieces secured to it. When shaken, this would produce a sound very much like the tambourine.

Drums

Drums, Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt

Drums, Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt, Credits: Wikimedia

Throughout history, drums were an integral part of the military. A skilled drummer would find a rhythm and the entire army behind him would advance against the enemy, or he would use it to help the oarsmen find a steady pace while their ship was afloat.

From what we know about musical instruments in Ancient Egypt, drums were typically barreled-shaped and played by hand, rather than sticks.

Trumpets

Tutankhamun's gilded bronze wooden trumpets

Tutankhamun’s gilded bronze wooden trumpets, via: thehistoryblog.com

The sound of trumpets was throughout military history the sound of victory and it all began in Ancient Egypt. The first trumpeters came from Egypt and they can be seen in old tombs, blowing a straight, short instrument called the ‘sheneb’.

What’s more, old Egyptians are also responsible for the first metal trumpet, although they initially used wood to make this instrument and signal their warriors in the heat of battle to charge the enemy.

Lute

Musicians of Amun, The one in the middle is holding a Lute, Tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty

Musicians of Amun, The one in the middle is holding a Lute, Tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty, Credits: Wikimedia

Organologists cannot entirely agree on the definition of a lute so its history and origins are a little vague. Regardless, some of the oldest lutes were made in Ancient Egypt, although the instrument itself probably came from Mesopotamia. From there, the lute spread to the ancient world, including Egypt.

Harp

Blind harpists depicted on tomb walls, Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1640 BCE)

Blind harpists depicted on tomb walls, Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1640 BCE), Credits: Wikimedia

The harps is one of the oldest string instruments so it’s little surprise that it can be seen on the wall painting throughout Egypt. It’s not entirely certain how the first harp came to be, but it is supposed that it was developed from an unlikely source – a hunting bow.

Cymbals

Cymbals

Cymbals, via www.unc.edu

The Egyptian variation of cymbals didn’t differ much from what this instrument looks like today. The major distinction was the sound they produced. Music historians believe the Ancient Egyptians tuned their cymbals to produce a sound similar to a small bell, while modern cymbals are largely not tuned.

Egyptians also played (typically together with drums or sistrums) a variation of cymbals called the ‘crotals’. These were wood or ivory-made clappers with two cymbals tied to its end.

Music was clearly held in high regard in the lands of the Pharaoh and whether it was played for the army or for some kind of prayer, those that played it held a high place in society. Add to that the fact that many musical instruments in Ancient Egypt not only survived to tooth of time, but are today immensely popular, and you can see the kind of influence Egypt has on today’s music.

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