Ancient Egyptian dance and music: Musical instruments, singing, the sound, dance
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Harp, New Kingdom
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
Bronze sistrum, a sort of rattle
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
My body says, my lips repeat:
Workers harvesting flax are being accompanied by a fluteplayer. The overseer Iankhef leaning on his staff of office exhorts the musician: "O fellow, blow and do not oppose our officialdom!"
Musical instrumentsEgyptian musical instruments were well developed and varied. They included string instruments such as harps, lyres, lutes, percussion instruments like drums, rattles, tambourines, bells (first used during the Late Period) and cymbals (Roman Period), wind instruments like flutes, clarinets, double pipes, trumpets, and oboes.
Singers and flute player
In the second century BCE the Alexandrian Ctesibios invented the hydraulic organ which used water pressure to deliver air to the organ-pipes. 10]. They were generally made of wood and probably did not project very far. Harps were often decorated and could be expensive works of art
[My majesty made] a splendid harp wrought with silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite, and every splendid costly stoneDuring the New Kingdom there were harps of various shapes and sizes, the number of their strings was increased, and their sound boxes were improved. Some of the harps had columns, but these were rare.
The large sized instruments were often covered with flowery or geometrical ornamentations. In one picture on a tomb, a harp is shown with a jaguar's skin, an instrument for rich people. Harps were played at parties, social gatherings, and ceremonial events, often in conjunction with other instruments, such as double pipes and rattles.
The marks on the instrument's neck have been interpreted by some as being frets.The New Kingdom lute consisted of a small oblong wooden sounding box, flat on both sides, with six or eight holes, and a long neck, often decorated with ribbons, from which two to four strings were strung. It was played with a plectrum or bare fingers. Similarly to modern string instruments different notes were played by pressing the strings against the neck of the instrument at various spots seemingly marked by frets.
Another string instrument classified as a guitar because of its flat back and curving sides, may not have looked much like a modern guitar. It was improved if not invented by the Egyptians.
Votive ivory clappers
...... the Great King's Wife, his beloved, abounding in her beauty; her who sends the Aton to rest with sweet voice, and with her two beautiful hands, bearing two sistrums, the mistress of the Two Lands, Nefernefruaton-Nofretete, living forever and ever.or Ptah
......... by command of this thy son, who is upon thy throne, lord of gods and men, sovereign celebrating the jubilees like thee [when thou] bearest the two sistrums .....
Harpist and drummer
... that they may give a mortuary offering of bread, beer, oxen and geese, incense, clothing and everything good and pure to the spirit of Osiris the priest, the <ymy> - yz, the hzk-priest, Pehet, deceased, called Nesihor ..... offspring of the housemistress, the musician of Min, Tesheremehit, deceased.or the songstress of Amen Inaros, daughter of another songstress
... that he may give a mortuary offering and offerings of food and beer to Osiris the songstress of the temple of Amon, Inaros, deceased, the possessor of worthiness [in the presence of] the great god, the lord of the sky; daughter of Harkheb, deceased .... Her mother was the songstress of Amon and Horus, Tesherenetyah, deceased ....During the New Kingdom the singers' titles of Smaj.t and Hsj.t became quite common among the female relatives of high officials. In contrast to the Servant of the God, Hm.t nTr, of the Old and Middle Kingdoms who had served female deities only, these songstresses officiated at ceremonies of male gods too.
Some ceremonial texts used during the worship of Isis or Nephthys for instance have survived. Their structure seems to imply that they were sung alternatingly by two priests and included solo passages interpreted by priestesses .
In Old and Middle Kingdom tombs inscriptions of songs can be found, hymns sung to the accompaniment of a harp. These Harpers' songs praised the dead and death, keeping the name of the deceased alive by repeating it:
The singer Tjeniaa says:The somewhat hedonistic Harper of a King Intef who ruled during the First Intermediate Period or the Middle Kingdom, saw the ephemeralness of this life and was also much less positive than earlier harpers about the chances of an afterlife, but during the New Kingdom there was a religious revival:
This land which has no enemies: [All] [its (lit. our)] kindred [rest in it] since primeval times. Those who come into being in aeons upon aeons, they will [all (?)] return to it. There is no lingering in the Beloved Land (i.e. Egypt). There is no one who will not reach it (i.e. the afterworld). The time spent on earth has the nature [of a dream]. It is said, "He may be [whole], he may be whole!" about him who reaches the West. He who travels north and south will finally land(?) on the bank. [How beautiful] is your journey when you are united with the lords of Eternity.
Singing, often accompanied by the clapping  of hands, was integral to Egyptian culture, sacred and secular. Tedious long-drawn-out jobs like grinding corn were accompanied by chanting, though whether these were songs praising the master of the house as suggested by some tomb inscriptions
May all the gods of this land give strength and health to my masteris open to doubt.
At banquets singers played an important part. In the Story of Wenamen, Zakar-Baal, when he wanted to distract Wenamen
....... sent out his letter-scribe to me (i.e. Wenamen), he brought me two jars of wine and a ram. He sent to me Tentno, an Egyptian (female) singer, who was with him, saying: "Sing for him; let not his heart feel apprehension."Herodotus, who was better placed than any other man of his time to compare between different cultures, often saw similarities which were probably just happenstance:
Besides other customary things among them which are worthy of mention, they have one song, that of Linos, the same who is sung of both in Phenicia and in Cyprus and elsewhere, having however a name different according to the various nations. This song agrees exactly with that which the Hellenes sing calling on the name of Linos, so that besides many other things about which I wonder among those matters which concern Egypt, I wonder especially about this, namely whence they got the song of Linos. It is evident however that they have sung this song from immemorial time, and in the Egyptian tongue Linos is called Maneros. The Egyptians told me that he was the only son of him who first became king of Egypt, and that he died before his time and was honoured with these lamentations by the Egyptians, and that this was their first and only song..
During the New Kingdom, when foreign conquest brought Egyptians into closer contact with Asiatic peoples and their music and many new instruments and with them new sound qualities were introduced, they also encountered the scales prevailing in the Near East. On the whole they seem to have preferred keeping their traditional tonality, although some musicologists think that during this period they began to use a heptatonic scale .
The Greeks who settled first in the Delta, and since the third century BCE in many places upstream, above all in the Fayum, must have had an even greater impact on Egyptian music. These influences were mutual. Pythagoras (c.580-500 BCE) who created a musical theory based on mathematics, was brought up in Egypt.
Egyptian music must have changed a great deal during the last couple of millennia. We have even less clues to what the music sounded like than we have to how the Egyptian language was pronounced. One should therefore be very wary when extrapolating. To get an idea of what the ancient music may have sounded like, coptic church music, and Nubian and Egyptian folk music might be helpful. A recording called "The Music of Upper and Lower Egypt" and published by Ryko, was done by the Grateful Dead while they were on tour in Egypt of folk singers and musicians.
Excerpt. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
All the people of all the dwellings of the court heard; they came, their mouths rejoicing, they proclaimed (it) beyond everything, dwelling on dwelling therein was announcing (it) in his name; soldiers on soldiers [were shouting (?)], they leaped and they danced for the double joy of their hearts.
But unfortunately, apart from a number of depictions, little is known about ancient Egyptian dancing. It seems to have been uni-sex.
Acrobatic dancers, Karnak;
Mixed gender pair dancing as we know it today was unknown. Egyptian dancing may heve been influenced by the Nubian tradition, which became very popular in Rome during the days of the empire, and is still alive in parts of the Sudan today. Dancers from the south were brought to Egypt and seemingly much admired.Egyptian choreography appears to have been complex. Dances could be mimetic, expressive - similar to modern ballet with pirouettes and the like, or gymnastic, including splits, cartwheels, and backbends.
A few pictures of acrobatic dancers have been found, generally depicting a number of dancers performing the same movement in unison.
For sociable banquets the dancing girls were often selected from among the servants or the women living in the harem of the nobleman in whose house the party was held; possibly professional dancers were also hired for these occasions. Pictures of such gatherings show girls performing slow elegant dance steps, which may have alternated with wild acrobatic movements.
Public celebrations were accompanied by dancing, be it spontaneous or orchestrated
All the people of all the dwellings of the court heard (of the coronation of Hatshepsut); they came, their mouths rejoicing, they proclaimed (it) beyond everything, dwelling on dwelling therein was announcing (it) in his name; soldiers on soldiers [were shouting (?)], they leaped and they danced for the double joy in their hearts.
Dancing was also part of religious functions. According to tomb depictions staid ritual dances seem to have been performed by the muu, men wearing crowns of reeds. 
One of a line of dancers with weights fastened to their pigtails, dancing to clapping.
Herodotus, at times not the most reliable of witnesses in his eagerness to make foreign cultures as comprehensible to his Greek audience as possible, was struck by the absence of organised dancing at the feast of Osiris, equated by the Greeks with Dionysos, and reported that
... the rest of the feast of Dionysos is celebrated by the Egyptians in the same way as by the Hellenes in almost all things except choral dances....while pilgrims to Bubastis
... sail, men and women together, and a great multitude of each sex in every boat; and some of the women have rattles and rattle with them, while some of the men play the flute during the whole time of the voyage, and the rest, both women and men, sing and clap their hands; and when as they sail they come opposite to any city on the way they bring the boat to land, and some of the women continue to do as I have said, others cry aloud and jeer at the women in that city, some dance, and some stand up and pull up their garments.
Exotic dancers exercised a special attraction. When Harkhuf was on his way back from Yam  with a dwarf, he received instructions from Pepi II to return as fast as possible.
....... Come northward to the court immediately; [...] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and gladden the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkere, who lives forever.Pepi, who was still a child at the time, may have been more impressed with the diminutive size of the dancer than with the spiritual powers the dwarf from the land of spirits attempted to express through his movements.
 It seems it's not as straightforward. Thomas Hare (Stanford), knowledgeable in Japanese music, suggests that by tilting the flute, altering the position of one's lips and half-holing one can achieve a number of different scales and that the ancient Egyptians might have done just that. At least in the case of Japan the most easily played scale, used in folk music, doesn't seem to have been the oldest according to historical evidence.
 Yam: tribe and region in Nubia
Songs to the harp are made for you,Clapping and stomping also had magical qualities. They were often used to keep daemons at bay.
 During part of the Osiris worship, prior to the god's mummification, music was seemingly deemed to be inappropriate but was taken up again with the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, the joyful event of revivification. This ritual silence may have been the inspiration for a handful of Late Period writings prohibiting music.
 In the Tale of Sinuhe the protagonist got homesick when he thought of how wonderful his funeral would be back home:
A funeral procession is made for you on the day of burial; the mummy case is of gold, its head of lapis lazuli. The sky is above you as you lie in the hearse, oxen drawing you, musicians going before you. The dance of the mww-dancers is done at the door of your tomb; the offering-list is read to you; sacrifice is made before your offering-stone. Hermann Junker ed., Grabungen auf dem Friedhof des Alten Reiches, Band IV: "Die Mastaba des Kai-em-anch", Wien und Leipzig 1940, p.87
|Index of Topics|
|Main Index and Search Page|
|Offsite links||(Opening in a new window)|
|These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.|
| Danseurs Mouhous|
| 'The mysterious Muu and the dance they do' by Greg Reeder|
| 'La musica en el antiguo Egipto' by Marta Martín García, Profesora de Música; I.E.S. I. Albéniz. Leganés. Madrid|
| El-Kab : La tombe de Renini by Alain Guilleux with photos of Muu dancers|
|La danceuse de Turin|
|La dance acrobatique|
|Music and Dance|
|Music in Ancient Egypt|
|Wooden figure of Bes playing a tambourine (British Museum)|
|A pair of ivory clappers (British Museum)|
|Bronze arched sistrum with Hathor head decoration, Late Period (British Museum)|
|Arched wooden harp, New Kingdom (British Museum)|
|Painted ceramic vase in the shape of a woman playing the lute, 18th dynasty (British Museum)|
|'Mastaba de Kagemni Memi (LS10)' has a link to a large scale picture of dancing girls|
|La musique à l'époque pharaonique|
|Formación del concepto de musica del Egipto antiguo by Agustín Barahona|
|Música y trance en el Egipto antiguo by Agustín Barahona|
|The tomb N° 38 of Djeserkareseneb: view 33, view 43|
|Picture from the tomb of Amenemhab: two harpists, a floutist and what looks like a lyre player (From the excellent website of Thierry Benderitter)|
|Notes of a Harpist|
|Musical instruments (Petrie museum website)|
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