The 2600 BC Sound
Detail from the Standard of Ur, c. 2600–2400 BC
From The Chronicle Review:
When a hootenanny struck up 3,000—or 30,000—years ago, no recording engineer was there to capture what went down.
Can anyone know, then, what ancient instruments like the aulos and carnyx really sounded like, how they were played, or in what contexts?
Ensembles exist that boast of performing ancient music; they release recordings. But music archaeologists often question the authenticity of such performances. They know that unearthed instruments reveal their sounds, but little else.
While scribes sometimes wrote down melodies, players today are hard pressed to deduce what rhythms, ranges, intervals, or harmonics were used. “The only absolute we have is the instruments themselves, the fact they exist,” says Simon O’Dwyer, an Irish musician who specializes in playing ancient instruments of his country.
What music archaeologists do is rather obscured by the name of their field. Not only a branch of archaeology, it intersects importantly with many fields. It may entail philology, as Kilmer’s decryption did. It may entail poring over images, such as women tapping frame drums on Iron Age figurines excavated in Cyprus and musical scenes imprinted on Near Eastern seals.
Particularly useful, though, is the observation of living musical traditions—the field could almost be renamed historical ethnomusicology. After all, some musical traditions, such as those of Australian aborigines, thrived largely uninterrupted until recent times.