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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin
Beginnings, as Far as we know Them

fig. 1-9 Harpist in the garden of Sennacherib, shown in a neo-Assyrian bas-relief from the palace at Niniveh, seventh century b.c.e., 500 years later than the earliest musical notation, of similar geographical provenance, to have been successfully transcribed in modern times. That piece, described in the text, could have been performed by one or both of the figures represented here.

This new “beginning” was established in 1974 when a team of Assyriologists and musicologists at the University of California at Berkeley managed to decode and transcribe the musical notation on a cuneiform tablet dating from around 1200 bce that had been unearthed on the site of the ancient Babylonian city of Ugarit, near Ras-Shamra in modern Syria.11 The tablet contained a hymn, composed in Hurrian, a dialect of the Sumerian language, to the goddess Nikkal, the wife of the moon god. The music can be read as being set for a solo voice accompanied homorhythmically by a harp or lyre, thus testifying to a practice of polyphonic composition many centuries before the rise of Christian chant. Most remarkable is how unremarkable this earliest preserved piece of music now seems: it consists of harmonic intervals recognized as consonant in most Western practice, and is easily notated on the normal Western staff because it conforms to the same disposition of diatonic whole and half steps used in Western music since the start of its continuous written tradition (Ex. 1-10). Like the Gregorian chant, the Babylonian melody conforms to the basic contents of the familiar diatonic pitch set, though not to any of our modern ways of patterning it.

Beginnings, as Far as we know Them

ex. 1-10 First phrase of Hurrian cult song from ancient Ugarit, transcribed by Anne Draffkorn Kilmer

Beginnings, as Far as we know Them

fig. 1-10 Attic Greek amphora (jar), ca. 490 b.c.e., showing someone singing to a lyre. Greek music theory was mainly confined to prescribing tunings for the lyre, in three genera, or types: diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic. These words have survived in modern musical terminology, although not with precisely the same meanings.

Pretty much the same may be said about the handful of ancient (if relatively “late”) Greek melodies that happen to survive in decipherable practical sources, as well as the earliest Greek Christian music that grew more or less directly out of prior pagan practice.12 The earliest such Greek remnant, the first of two surviving Delphic Hymns, or paeans to Apollo sung by a priestess at the Delphic oracle’s abode, was set down around 130 bce on a now only partly legible stone tablet that is kept at the National Archaeological Museum in Delphi. It employs a learned and artificial style, called the “chromatic [i.e., colorful] genus” by the Greeks, in which some of the strings of the lyre were tuned low in order to provide two semitones in direct succession. (Hence the adaptation of the word “chromatic” to denote the much later Western practice of inflecting scale degrees by semitones; Greek theorists also describe an “enharmonic” genus in which the semitones could be replaced by quarter tones.) Ex. 1-11a shows the second half of the melody, in which the embellishing “chromatic semitones” are most prevalent, adapted from a somewhat speculative transcription made about eighty years ago by the French archaeologist Théodore Reinach: it reproduces the melodic pitches exactly as “alphabetically” notated in the source but infers the meter and rhythm from that of the text.

Ex. 1-11b contains the earliest surviving artifact of actual Christian service music, a fragment from the close of a Greek hymn to the Holy Trinity, notated on a papyrus strip during the fourth century ce and discovered in 1918. The hymn is probably a translated extract from the liturgy of the Syriac Christian church. Although we cannot be certain (since it is our only example), it seems to be built up out of a diatonic formula-family. It is the earliest surviving representative, by six or seven centuries, of the Greek-texted music of the Orthodox (that is, official) church of the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire after Byzantium (or Constantinople), its capital until 1453.

Beginnings, as Far as we know Them

ex. 1-11a Second stanza of the First Delphic Hymn, transcribed by Egert Pöhlmann and Martin L. West

Beginnings, as Far as we know Them

ex. 1-11b Fourth verse of a proto-Byzantine Hymn to the Trinity, transcribed by E. Pöhlmann and M. West

Unlike the Western Roman church, which came to cultivate the traditional prose-poetry of the Psalter as its main sphere of musical creativity, the Eastern Orthodox church emphasized hymnody, newly composed “songs with praise of God” in metrical verse. This repertory, known as Byzantine chant, consists of hymns in many liturgical genres or categories ranging from the single-stanza troparion (for the Vigil, or Night Office) and sticheron (for the day services), which attach themselves to psalms in a manner matching that of the Gregorian antiphon—through the kontakion (from the Greek for “scroll”), an elaborate metrical sermon in as many as 30 stanzas—to the kanon (from the Greek for “rule”), a magnificent cycle of nine odes, each based on a different metrical prototype or model stanza called a hiermos.

One of the oldest melodies still in active liturgical use is the one called “Credo I” in modern chant books (Ex. 1-12). It is a setting of the Nicene Creed: a recitation of articles of Christian faith that was adopted in the fourth century, originally for use in the baptism ceremony. The Creed eventually joined the Eucharistic liturgy, sung first in the Eastern churches, later (sixth century ce) in Spain and in Ireland. It was adopted by the Franks in 798 and was formally incorporated into the “universal” (or “Catholic”) Latin Mass by Pope Benedict VIII in 1014, positioned between the Gospel reading and the Offertory as the divider between the synaxis and Eucharist services.

Beginnings, as Far as we know Them

ex. 1-12 Beginning of “Credo I”

Despite its late adoption, the formulas to which this venerable text is most often sung are demonstrably archaic and demonstrably Greek. Its formula-family, with its regular use of B-flat and E to surround the reciting tone on G, and its final cadence on E, is a rather exotic specimen within the Gregorian corpus. (But compare the Offertory on Justus ut palma in Ex. 1-5.) Yet although it seems to emphasize the odd interval of a diminished fifth, the melody nevertheless fully conforms to the intervallic structure of the diatonic pitch set. Transposed up a fifth or down a fourth it could be accommodated on the staff without accidentals. (The reason why it is not notated at that pitch level in the Gregorian sources will become clear in the next chapter.)

As these very old melodies suggest, there are many ways of patterning and embellishing the diatonic pitch set, giving rise to any number of historical, culture-bound musical styles. Tracing their development will be one of this book’s primary tasks. Yet history also suggests that the pitch set as such—the raw material, so to speak, that precedes patterning—may be a natural “datum,” given to a degree in external nature (the physics of sound) but, more relevantly, in human nature (call it the physiology of sound cognition). Within the tradition of Western music, there may be cognitive universals that, as in language, underlie and undergird all cultural practices, and (the downside, some may feel) set limits to them.


(11) Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, Richard L. Crocker, and Robert R. Brown, Sounds from Silence: Recent Discoveries in Ancient Near Eastern Music (Berkeley: Bit Enki Publications, 1976).

(12) All the extant fragments of ancient Greek music have been collected and given new and authoritative transcriptions in Egert Pöhlmann and Martin L. West, Documents of Ancient Greek Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001016.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001016.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001016.xml