What Does the Oldest Human Music in the World Sound Like?

This relief depicts a group of Assyrian musicians and can be found in the Istanbul museum. . (Photo: Rapina Valyria/Shutterstock)

If you love the English language, you might know that it takes quite a bit of effort to understand older versions of the language. Many words have changed definitions entirely. Check out the Lexicon Valley podcast that delves into the original meaning of "sad" — which has gone through many more shades of meaning than you might expect for a simple, three-letter word. Other languages have changed more or less than English, but accessing anything over 200 years old requires effort and a translation of sorts.

But there is one language that isn't quite as complicated: Music. Yes, instruments may have been different in the past, but, some musicologists argue, music is timeless. The structures of songs we know now are close enough to the earliest written music that it can still be played today, and listening to them doesn't require much explanation.

"Music of various cultures, taken over a long evolutionary period, show patterns emerge (despite other differences) such as the universal use of octaves, 4th and 5ths, and the similarities underpinning the various musical scales between cultures," wrote Richard Fink in Archeologia Musicalis.

On that note (sorry!), let's check out what is arguably the "oldest song in the world" — at least according to Youtube declarations — backed up by research. It comes from the ancient city of Ugarit (now called Ras Shamra), which is in current-day northern Syria. The musical notations were printed on tablets, and are estimated to be from 1400 B.C., making them around 3,400 years old.

Here's the same song (known as Hurrian Hymn No. 6) performed with a solo lyre and a more interpretive style by Michael Levy. Any piece of music can sound different depending on who performs it and what instrument they use.

What happened to hymns No. 1-5, you ask? According to the video's description, "Although about 29 musical texts were discovered at Ugarit, only this text, (text H6), was in a sufficient state of preservation to allow for modern academic musical reconstruction."

Interestingly, ancient Jewish wedding music from the Babylonian empire in 564 B.C. is fairly similar, or maybe it just sounds that way to modern ears? Here it's played on a replica 3,000-year-old lyre.

And then there's the Seikilos Epitaph (an ancient Greek melody complete with lyrics) that was found in a grave in Turkey. It's estimated to be around 2,100 years old.


Wonder what this might sound like in the modern era? The VlogBrothers take a stab at it in the interpretation below. (Skip to 1:30.)

Of course, music was being played, sung and created in many other places in the world 2,000-3,000 years ago. But from what archeologists have found thus far, these are the only surviving proof of actual notes, melodies and lyrics, since the cultures that produced them recorded them — and they survived. Just think of all the other songs that are lost forever.