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The Legacy of Music in Ancient Civilizations
Explore the symphony of ancient civilizations, as we delve into the profound impact of music on culture, spirituality, and power throughout history
Lisa Mertz
6 min read

The Reverberation of the Past

The power of music to transcend time and space is evident when we delve into the realms of ancient civilizations. These cultures, sprawling across continents and epochs, utilized music as a universal language, a medium to express the inexpressible. Whether it was the rhythmic drums of Africa, the haunting lyres of Greece, or the melodic flutes of the Americas, each civilization had its unique soundtrack that played a crucial role in daily life, rituals, and celebrations. Music was not just an art form; it was a vital aspect of communication, a means to connect communities and generations. By examining the remnants of musical instruments, deciphering ancient scripts, and interpreting art and literature, we can piece together the symphony of sounds that once filled the air of these ancient societies.

Crafting Sound and Culture

The musical instruments of ancient civilizations were as diverse as the cultures themselves, each crafted with precision and care, reflecting the society’s values and resources. In Egypt, the sistrum, a rattle-like instrument, was used in religious ceremonies, its sound was believed to ward off evil spirits. In China, the guqin, a plucked zither, was associated with scholars and philosophers, embodying Confucian ideals of balance and harmony. The Greeks, known for their love of music and philosophy, developed the lyre, an instrument that accompanied epic tales and lyrical poetry. These instruments were more than just objects; they were extensions of the people, tools through which they expressed their joys, sorrows, and aspirations.

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Photo by Scarbor Siu on Unsplash

A Divine Connection and Celestial Harmony

The ancients believed in the divine connection of music, weaving it seamlessly into their spiritual practices and religious ceremonies. In the temples and sacred sites of India, chants and hymns resonated, creating a reverberant space filled with devotion and spirituality. Musicians and priests worked in tandem, using music as a conduit to the divine, facilitating a mystical experience for the worshippers. The African continent, with its rich tapestry of cultures, saw music and rhythm as integral to connecting with the ancestors and the spirit world. Rituals accompanied by drumbeats and song were believed to open portals to other realms, inviting divine intervention and blessings. The Mayans, with their advanced knowledge of the cosmos, integrated music into their astronomical observations and calendrical ceremonies. They believed that celestial harmony and earthly music were interconnected, and by aligning their musical practices with the movements of the stars and planets, they could maintain cosmic balance. Music, in these varied contexts, was not just an art form; it was a sacred practice, a means of transcending the physical world and reaching into the realm of the divine.

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Photo by Julie Sd on Unsplash

Melodies in Monarchies

The royal courts of ancient civilizations were vibrant centers of culture and power, and music played a crucial role in maintaining this grandeur. In Egypt, the Pharaohs recognized the power of music and employed skilled musicians to perform in their palaces and temples. These performances were not mere entertainment; they were sonic representations of the divine right and power of the Pharaohs. In the sprawling empire of the Mughals, music was a revered art form, and musicians were held in high esteem. Their compositions and performances were a blend of diverse cultural influences, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the empire. The court musicians were not just entertainers; they were cultural ambassadors, showcasing the sophistication and elegance of the Mughal lifestyle. In the Byzantine Empire, music played a ceremonial role, accompanying religious rites and imperial ceremonies. The grandeur of the court was amplified by choirs and musicians, creating an auditory spectacle that complemented the visual splendor of the empire. Music in these royal settings was more than just sound; it was a symbol of power, a tool for unifying the empire, and a means of showcasing the cultural prowess of the monarchy.

The Sonic Strategy

The role of music in warfare was multifaceted and crucial. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the talking drums served as both musical instruments and communication tools, sending messages across vast distances. The Vikings used war horns to signal and motivate their troops, creating a formidable auditory presence on the battlefield. In ancient Japan, the taiko drums were used not just to motivate the samurai but also to synchronize their movements, turning the chaos of battle into a coordinated dance of power and precision. These examples underscore how music was not just for celebration or reflection; it was a practical tool, woven into the fabric of war and strategy.

Dance and Music’s Ancient Embrace

In ancient civilizations, the harmonious relationship between dance and music was vital, serving as a form of expression, storytelling, and communal participation. In the Indus Valley, intricate dance routines were performed to the sounds of drums and flutes, narrating tales of gods, heroes, and the cycles of nature. These performances were not just for entertainment; they were a form of communication, passing down traditions and stories from one generation to the next. Similarly, in Ancient Egypt, dance and music were integral to religious ceremonies, believed to appease deities and ensure the flooding of the Nile. The dancers, adorned in elaborate costumes, moved gracefully to the rhythmic beats and melodic tunes, creating a captivating spectacle. In ancient Greece, the chorus in tragic and comic plays utilized dance and song to convey emotions and commentary, blurring the lines between actor and musician, movement and melody. These ancient performances remind us that dance and music have always been intertwined, each enhancing the other to create a richer, more immersive experience.

Legacies in Lyric and Rhythm

The musical legacies of ancient civilizations continue to reverberate through time, influencing and inspiring contemporary genres and artists. While many of the original compositions and performances have been lost, the essence of ancient music lives on, embedded in the rhythms, scales, and melodies of modern music. Classical compositions, with their intricate structures and emotive melodies, owe a debt to the musical theories of ancient Greece and Rome. Folk music, with its storytelling and use of traditional instruments, carries the spirit of ancient communal songs and dances. Even in contemporary pop and electronic music, one can trace the influence of ancient rhythms and scales, repackaged for a new generation of listeners. Beyond genres, the role of music in society, as a form of expression, communication, and community-building, remains a testament to its ancient origins. As we tap our feet, hum along, or get lost in a piece of music, we are participating in a tradition as old as civilization itself, a universal language that continues to connect, inspire, and move people across time and space.


Lisa Mertz
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