When you think of ancient Egypt, certain images come to mind. Glorious pyramids that tower above a vast sea of sand; ancient mummies encased in underground tombs; even fascinating hieroglyphics. Very few people would think of ancient Egyptian music. Nevertheless, ancient Egypt actually has a very rich musical history! They had unique instruments and complicated traditional dances.
Ancient Egyptians invented many different types of wind instruments. Most of these instruments were made with reeds until bronze became more common. Among these wind instruments are mizmars (flute-like instruments with seven finger holes) and zummaras (double-barreled pipe instruments which are made in two sections and then tied together). Yet another is the memet which may well be the ancestor of the clarinet. They also had a trumpet-like instrument known as a shofar .
The most common type of musical instrument used in ancient Egypt was percussion instruments. A percussion instrument is basically anything that produces a sound by being hit, rubbed, shaken or scraped, so even hands are considered percussion instruments in the right circumstances. Countless Egyptian tombs depict crowds of people clapping during ceremonies. Drums were also very common in the later part of Egyptian history, particularly during the Late Period, as were clappers. Cymbals were common as well as castanets and metal instruments called sistrums, which produced sounds when shaken because of the rings mounted in them.
Ancient Egyptians developed the lute, two different types of harps and three different types of lyres! The most popular type of harp was the arched harp and it came in a variety of sizes. They also used an instrument known as an oud, a guitar-like instrument. The ney, meanwhile, is a flute-like instrument that is actually still in use by bands today.
Interestingly enough, scientists today know nothing about the scales ancient Egyptians used because nobody ever wrote any down! There is not even any existing sheet music. So no one is sure what types of songs ancient Egyptians used to sing, although it is assumed that they did, surely.
Dancing was popular in ancient Egypt, regardless of the class of the people. Laborers worked in tempo while rhythmic music played on percussion instruments and street dancers worked hard to entertain shoppers passing by. Dance troupes were hired to perform at important dinner parties and at religious temples, and even harem women were trained in dance. Musicians were much respected, especially the ones highest up in the "pecking order". For instance, temples musicians represented the God of the temple, which makes them extremely important. Dances were classified in one of six ways: banquet dances, combat dances, harem dances, street dances, religious dances, and non-religious dances. The dances themselves were extremely acrobatic as illustrations on tombs show the dancers leaping, cart wheeling, and even performing handstands. However, the nobles never danced in public and there are no depictions of men and women dancing together, mostly pairs or groups of females together.
Although no sheet music exists today, it can be inferred that ancient Egyptian music was rich and varied. The instruments and wall paintings show a very vivid picture of just how important music was to the Egyptians. Music and dance have evolved a long way from the times of the ancient Egyptians. From the ancients performing drum beats and now evolving to such music as classical and hard rock as well as basic ney and oud instruments to the acoustic and electric guitars. Undoubtedly, the ancient Egyptians played a pivotal role in the evolution of our music and dance of today.