The Bible gives very little information about Hebrew musical forms and how they developed. For this reason, we must combine Bible study with history and archaeology if we wish to learn about the music of Bible times.II. Types of Instruments
I. Development of Hebrew Music. The history of Hebrew music goes back to the first person who beat a stick on a rock, and it extends to the temple orchestra and the "joyous sound" called for in Psalm 150. That first musician heard rhythm as he beat his primitive instruments.
For example, David is credited with inventing a number of instruments, although we do not know precisely what they were (cf. Amos 6:5). David called upon a chorus of 4,000 to offer praises to the LORD "with the instruments which I made to Praise" (I Chron. 23:5; cf. II Chron. 7:6; Neh. 12:6). David also composed songs, such as his lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan.
Though GOD directed Israel's social and religious development, the nation absorbed ideas from surrounding cultures. Israel was at a geographical crossroads and was exposed to ideas and customs from other parts of the world (Gen. 37:25), including musical style.
Many men of Israel married foreign wives whose customs gradually crept into Hebrew lifestyle. According to the collection of post-biblical Jewish writings called the Midrash, King Solomon married an Egyptian woman whose dowry included 1,000 musical instruments. If this is true, no doubt she brought musicians with her to play those instruments in the traditional Egyptian way.
The purpose the music served and the way in which listeners responded to it also influenced the development of Hebrew music. In times of war, it was often necessary to sound an alarm or send some other kind of urgent signal. Thus the Hebrews developed the shophar, an instrument like a trumpet with loud, piercing tones (Exod. 32:17-18; Judg. 7:18-20). Merrymaking and frivolity called for the light, happy tones produced by the pipe or flute (Gen. 31:27; Judg. 11:34-35; Matt. 9:23-24; Luke 15:23-25).
A. Distracting Effect. Hebrew leaders who ministered in the temple took great care to avoid using music that was associated with sensuous pagan worship. In cultures where fertility rites were common, women singers and musicians incited sexual orgies in honor of their gods. Even instruments not associated with pagan practices were sometimes restricted. For example, priests feared that a happy, melodious flute tune in the temple could distract someone's mind from worship. The prophet Amos condemned those "who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp" (Amos 6:5, RSV).
Of course, there were times when the distractions of music could be helpful. The soothing strains of David's lyre refreshed a tormented Saul (I Sam. 16:23). After Daniel was shut up in the den of lions, King Darius retired to his room and refused to let the "instruments of music" be brought to him (Dan. 6:18).
Music was an important part of everyday life. Merrymaking, weddings, and funerals were not complete without music. Even war relied on music, since special instruments sounded the call to battle. Aristocratic diversion and relaxation patronized the musicians and their skills.
B. Function in Worship. Music was also a part of the religious life of Israel. The Israelites' formal worship observed various rituals prescribed by GOD. Music served as an accompaniment to these rituals.
Temple music consisted of singers and an orchestra. The singers and musicians could come only from the males of certain families. Likewise, the types of instruments were restricted. Instruments that were associated with women, with raucous merrymaking (such as the Egyptian sistrum), or with pagan worship were banned from the temple orchestra.
The Old Testament lists several kinds of instruments in the temple orchestra (cf. I Chron. 15:28; 16:42; 25:1). These instruments include the big harp (nevel), the lyre (kinnor), the ram's horn (shophar), the trumpet (chatsotserah), the timbrel (toph), and cymbals (metsiltayim). After the Israelites returned from the Exile and rebuilt the temple, the orchestra was reestablished (cf. Neh. 12:27). The pipe or flute (halil) was probably now included, and vocal music became more prominent.
Beyond formal worship within the temple, music was a part of other religious activities. Instruments not allowed in the temple were played at other religious functions, such as feast days. Often the feast began with a musical proclamation; then music, singing, and even dancing were part of the celebration. Women singers and musicians were allowed to participate (Ezra 2:65; Neh. 7:76; II Chron. 35:25).
C. Limits of Our Knowledge. The Old Testament seldom mentions the forms of music, the origins of instruments, and so on. The way to play or make instruments was passed on by oral tradition rather than written record. Most of that oral tradition has been lost, leaving us with only the brief information in the Bible.
Very few ancient musical instruments exist intact, so we must guess at how they looked and sounded. By comparing Scripture references with the artifacts of other cultures, historians and archaeologists have helped fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge of music in Bible times.
This study is a continuing process, as newer translations of the Bible demonstrate. If we compare passages about music from the King James Version with more recent translations, some differences can be noted. The following lists of instruments give the name in the KJV for each instrument mentioned, along with the findings of more recent interpretation.
II. Types of Instruments. Musical instruments fall into three basic classes, according to the way the sound is produced: (1) stringed instruments, which use vibrating strings to produce the sound; (2) percussion instruments, in which the sound is produced by a vibrating membrane or metal shell; and (3) wind instruments, which produce sound by passing air over a vibrating reed.
A. Percussion Instruments. The people of Israel used a variety of percussion instruments to sound out the rhythm of their music. Rhythm was the vital element of their poetry and songs.
1. Bells. One kind of bell had a name (metsilloth) that came from the Hebrew word meaning "to jingle" or "to rattle". This type of bell is mentioned only once in the Bible (Zech. 14:20), where we are told that the Israelites attached these bells to the bridle or breast strap of horses.
3. Cymbals. Cymbals (metziltayim or tziltzal) were made of copper and were the only percussion instrument in the temple orchestra. They were used when the people were celebrating and praising GOD. They joined with trumpets and singers to express joy and thanks to the LORD (I Chron. 15:16; 16:5). Asaph, David's chief musician (I Chron. 16:5), was a cymbal player. When the people returned from captivity, Asaph's descendants were called to join singers and trumpets in praise to the LORD (Ezra 3:10).
In passages such as I Chronicles 16:5, some versions translate the Hebrew as castanets. It is now generally believed that this is inaccurate and should be cymbals.
4. Rattler-Sistrum. This is the correct translation for II Samuel 6:5. (The RSV uses castanets, while the KJV uses cornet.) The sistrum was a small U-shaped frame with a handle attached at the bottom of the curve. Pieces of metal or other small objects were strung on small bars stretched from one side of the sistrum to the other.
The use of the sistrum goes back to ancient Egypt and has counterparts in other ancient cultures. It was merely a noisemaker, played by women on both joyous and sad occasions.
6. Timbrel. Modern musicians would classify this instrument as a "membranophone" because the sound is produced by a vibrating membrane. It is correctly translated as either timbrel or tambourine. (KJV uses the term tabret.) It was carried and beaten by the hand. In very early times it may have been made with two membranes, with pieces of bronze inserted in the rim.
7. Gong. The "brass" mentioned in I Corinthians 13:1 was actually a metal gong. It was used for weddings and other joyous occasions.
B.Stringed Instruments. Archaeologists have found fragments of harps and other stringed instruments from Egypt and neighboring countries of the Near East. Scripture describes several stringed instruments that were used in Israel.
2. Harp. The harp (KJV also uses psaltery, viol, or dulcimer) was a favorite instrument of the aristocratic class and was lavishly made (I Kings 10:12; II Chron. 9:11). It was used in the temple orchestra and was appointed to "raise sounds of joy" (I Chron. 15:16).
3. Lute. This 3-stringed triangular instrument may have been one of the "instruments of music" mentioned in I Samuel 18:6. It was usually played by women and was excluded from the temple orchestra.
4. LyreTwo Hebrew terms are translated as lyre. (The KJV uses harp.) One is mentioned in only one book of the Bible (Dan. 3:5,7,10,15). This particular lyre (nevel) was frequently used for secular music, such as the merrymaking at Nebuchadnezzar's banquet. It was played by plucking the strings with the fingers.
A smaller lyre (kinnor) was considered to be the most sophisticated instrument. Its shape and number of strings varied, but all types of lyres produced a most pleasing sound. The lyre was used in secular settings (Isa. 23:16), but was welcomed in sacred use too. It was the instrument David used to soothe King Saul. Generally, this "little lyre" was played by stroking the strings with a plectrum, much as a guitar can be played with a pick. However, David seemed to prefer to use his hand instead (I Sam. 16:16,23; 18:10; 19:9). Skilled craftsmen made lyres of silver or ivory and decorated them with lavish ornamentation.
7. Trigon. The Book of Daniel frequently refers to the trigon (Dan. 3:5,7,10,15). The KJV incorrectly calls it the sackbut; the sackbut was not devised until several centuries after biblical times.
We do not know the exact shape and size of the trigon. The instrument appears to have been borrowed from the Babylonians and thus was not common among the instruments of Israel.
C. Wind Instruments. Despite their limited knowledge of metal-working, the Israelites fashioned a variety of horns and other wind instruments.
1. Clarinet. The primitive clarinet was a popular instrument in Bible times. It is mentioned in Isaiah 5:12; 30:29; and Jeremiah 48:36. It is incorrectly translated as pipe (KJV) or flute (RSV) in these verses. New Testament references include Matthew 9:23; 11:17; Luke 7:32; and I Corinthians 14:7. The clarinet probably was not used in the temple but it was a popular instrument for banquets, weddings, or funerals.
3. Flute. The flute (mashrokitha) was actually a big pipe. (The KJV uses pipe.) Because it was a big pipe and had a mouthpiece, it produced a sharp, penetrating sound, somewhat like an oboe. The flute was popular for secular and religious use but it was not mentioned as an instrument of the first temple orchestra. It was sometimes allowed in the second temple. Because of its penetrating sound it was used in processions (Isa. 30:29).
5. Pipe. Pipe usually refers to a wind instrument that was used to express wild joy or ecstatic lament. It is generally believed to have been a secular instrument, although Psalm 150:4 mentions its use in the temple for a religious celebration.
The King James Version uses the terms organ and flute instead of pipe.
6. Shophar. The shophar is best understood as a "ram's horn", as in Josh. 6:4,6,8,13. The KJV often uses trumpet, cornet, and horn to render this Hebrew word (cf. I Chron. 15:28; II Chron. 15:14; Hosea 5:8). It was designed to make noise, not music, so it could not play melodies. It was used to give signals and announce special occasions, such as the transfer of the ark (II Sam. 6). It was also used to frighten away evil spirits and gods of the enemy (Zech. 9:14-15).
7. Trumpet. The trumpet was similar to the shophar but was used by the priests. Trumpets were often used in pairs (Num. 10:1-10). Originally two were ordered for the temple; but the number could be increased to 120, depending upon the purpose (II Chron. 5:12).
Trumpets were made of bones, shell or metals - bronze, copper, silver, gold - all of which produced a high, shrill sound. It is generally believed that these trumpets, like the shophar, could not produce sounds in various pitches, so as to make music (melody). However, they could blow legato and staccato notes and trills. Thus, they could convey complicated signals to announce assembly, battle, and ambush.
One scholar recently uncovered controversial evidence suggesting that the ancient Egyptians produced written sheet music during the same centuries as the building of the mighty Sphinx, about 4500 years ago. Maureen M. Barwise claims to have deciphered musical hieroglyphs that date back as far as the fourth dynasty of the old kingdom, roughly 2600 B.C.
According to her translation, the music was written basically in a single melodic line. The earliest sacred pieces featured harps and flutes accompanied by timbrels and percussion sticks, joined later by trumpets, lutes, and lyres.
Ms. Barwise claims the Egyptian musicians used a "gapped" scale, producing music that was beautiful in spite of obvious peculiarities. She notes that it was similar to ancient Gaelic, Welsh, and Scottish fold tunes, with melodies like the droning of the Highland bagpipe.
The researcher undertook the unusual task of reproducing a number of tunes, translating them into the treble-clef keyboard. According to Barwise, the Egyptians understood timing, pitch, rhythm, and harmonic chords in addition to basic melody. The adapted tunes seem to cover a variety of musical moods, from the somewhat playful "Beautiful Moon-Bird of the Nile" to the rather stately grand march, "Honor to the Strong Arm of Pharaoh".
Egyptian music was considered sacred. Therefore, its composition was strictly governed by law and did not develop greatly over the centuries.
Wall paintings, bas-reliefs, and the literature of antiquity clearly show that the Egyptians were skillful musicians. Many experts believe that this early music was preserved in written form, but established archaeological theory holds that the melodies were an oral tradition.
Ms. Barwise's translation of hieroglyphics into music notation challenges the old school of thought and her scholarship has met mixed acceptance. Some critics agree with David Wulston's evaluation, that her work is nothing more than "a whimsical Tolkien-like fantasy (constructed) out of the most unpromising material".
On the surface, the music of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews seemed to have little in common. The Greeks sang of their gods and mythological battles; the Hebrews, on the other hand, devoted their songs to praising the one GOD. But there is an important link between Greek and Hebrew music, one that involves poetry, song, and religion. That link is the epic.
Students of literature know the epic as a long narrative poem that presents the deeds of gods or traditional heroes in a dignified manner. The eighth century BC saw the creation of two great Greek epics, the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey", which are attributed to Homer. The "Iliad" describes the clash of arms between Greeks and Trojans "on the ringing plains of windy Troy". The "Odyssey" relates the adventure-filled wanderings of Odysseus in his return to Greece after Troy's fall.
These epics glorify heroic valor and physical prowess. They also provide us with much detail of everyday life in ancient Greece.
The Greeks set many of their epics to music. Music helped narrators recall the wording of the epics, which tended to be extremely long pieces with dozens of verses and many names of people and places. By rhyming the lines, narrators found they could more easily remember the intricate story they had to tell.
The Greeks did not use these "story songs" as part of their worship. (Greek temples were used for sheltering gods, not religious assembly.) The use of the epic song in worship started with the Hebrews, centuries before the Greek epics were written. The earliest Hebrew worship songs arose out of a religious feeling toward GOD at important moments.
For instance, the first recorded appearance of story music was when Miriam, Moses' sister, sang with joy after the Jews escaped the pharaoh's men (Exod. 15:19-21). Many of the Psalms were epics (e.g., Psa. 114, 136-137) and the prophets sometimes burst forth in epic songs (e.g., Isa. 26, Hab. 3).
The Hebrews did not apply intricate melodies to their epics. The tonal range of their songs was probably not great, and they selected rhythm instruments rather than melodic instruments. The melodies of the Psalms and other story songs were well-known in their time, and were probably sung inverses by choirs. It is clear that the Hebrews came to consider the story songs an essential part of their worship. Their music sprang from the soul of a people whose everyday life was religiously ordered.
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