Music was as important to the ancient Egyptians as it is in our modern society. Although it is thought that music played a role throughout the history of Egypt, those that study the Egyptian writings have discovered that music seemed to become more important in what is called the ‘pharaonic’ period of their history. This was the time when the Egyptian dynasties of the pharaohs were established (around 3100 BCE) and music was found in many parts of every day Egyptian life.
The ancient Egyptians were very organized and this included how they organized and arranged music and musicians. They brought music to their religious ceremonies, but it was also played and performed in workshops, palaces, the farms, on the battlefield and even in their tombs. The Egyptian gods Hathor and Bes were their gods of music and they had many ceremonies devoted to them that involved song and dance to accompany the playing of musical instruments.
Egyptologists are the professionals that study Egypt. When examining the hieroglyphs (pictures) they have found that Egyptians created a wonderful selection of musical instruments. They had stringed, wind and percussion instruments. They also accompanied their musical performances with hand clapping as well as singing by both men and women. Many instruments that have been found show how much they valued them because they had them inscribed with the names of their gods.
The percussion instruments included rattles, hand-held drums, bells, castanets and an instrument called the sistrum. The sistrum was a hand-held metallic instrument in the shape of a ‘U’ and had small metal or bronze pieces hanging from it. When moved or shaken it gave off many sounds, depending upon the metal. Some sounded like a loud clanking, while others a soft jingling.
Wind instruments looked very close to the ones we use today and included trumpets as well as both single and double reed flutes and some flutes without any reeds. The stringed instruments were all plucked, rather than ‘bowed’ (like a violin) and there are many images of Egyptians playing lyres, harps and lutes.
Ancient Egyptians had a number of professional musicians that performed for many occasions. Since their society was set up with social levels, this meant that different musicians could play only for specific events. A musician with a high status could play for religious ceremonies at the temples, where a lower class musician might only be able to play for regular community members. The highest honor to achieve was the status of ‘shemayet’, which gave these musicians the ability to play for a particular god or goddess and these musicians were mostly women.
he royal family of the pharaoh had personal musicians of the highest quality. These included not only those that played instruments, such as the harp, but also singers. Lower class musicians performed as entertainers for many of the festivals and parties and it was common to see dancers and informal singers perform with them.
Egyptians valued music in all of its forms as part of their religious praise to their gods as well as part of celebration of everyday life. Some of the pictures that have been found show groups of people playing instruments, clapping their hands, and singing, and the ‘inscriptions’ (which are their words) underneath the pictures have been translated into the words for songs. The Egyptians wrote lyrics for some of their music and they are like the same type of poetry that has been used in many other cultures. Some of these songs praised their gods, while other songs were written just for the pharaoh, his wife and members of the royal family.
The people of ancient Egypt shared the same love of music as so many civilizations around the world. And, just as other cultures, they used music to express their emotions and feelings