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The evidence for ancient Egyptian music comes exclusively from surviving religious structures such as temples and tombs, which limits scholarly understanding of this art form to its role within religious life. Relief sculptures and paintings created by artists for the walls of tombs and temples, as well as a few actual instruments found in tombs, are all that is left of Egypt’s musical tradition. The scenes carved in temples provide unambiguous evidence for music in religious life, but the scenes on the walls of tombs present considerable difficulties for interpretation because the tomb drawings served a very specific purpose in the Egyptian belief system regarding the rebirth of the dead. Scenes in tombs were meant to ensure through magical means that the deceased would be reborn into the afterlife and that the good things in this life could be made available magically in the next life. Egyptians particularly relied on scenes with erotic content to aid in the process of rebirth because they believed that sexual energy had the religious purpose of duplicating the sexual act that began the first birth so that one could be “reconceived” into the next life. Thus, the tomb scenes of parties involving men and women drinking wine while music entertains them aided the rebirth of the dead by their erotically charged content. While it is reasonable to conclude from these drawings that music served an important and pleasurable purpose in ancient Egyptian society, the magical purpose of these drawings presents only indirect evidence for how music truly functioned outside of a religious context.


The Egyptians used percussion, wind, and stringed instruments as well as the human voice to make music. Musicians played clappers as well as sistra and menats—two kinds of sacred rattles—in cult ceremonies. Harps also functioned in a religious context by accompanying songs about life and death. Other stringed instruments, such as lutes, joined with woodwinds for entertainment at parties, demonstrating the more secular nature of these instruments. Evidence for these instruments comes from both archaeological finds of actual instruments and the relief sculptures and paintings found on tomb and temple walls. Some instruments are indigenous, but Egypt also participated in a wider musical culture, importing many instruments from the Near East over time. Egyptian music gained from foreign imports in greater measure during the New Kingdom, when Egyptian political fortunes expanded the area of rule to include other cultures and their musical traditions. The Egyptians, for example, imported the Mesopotamian harp, though they never abandoned their native instruments. During the reign of Akhenaten, foreign musicians dressed in distinctive flounced gowns played the giant harp at court. Two musicians played this instrument simultaneously, suggesting that they played notes together in harmony.


The first percussion instrument in Egypt was probably the human hands in the act of clapping. The Egyptians depicted singers clapping in Old Kingdom tombs and called clapping mech . Beyond the clapping of singers, Egyptians developed an instrument to mimic human clapping; archeologists have recovered many examples of ivory clappers shaped like arms and sometimes ending in representations of human hands. Smaller clappers, called finger cymbals, were also part of the Egyptian percussion repertoire. Even jewelry could function as a percussion instrument; female singers wore or held the menat, a counter-weight for a necklace, and shook it so that its beads made a musical noise. Ancient Egyptians also had barrel-shaped drums made from tree trunks covered with hide in the Middle Kingdom, although these were primarily used for military purposes, both for marching and signaling. A ceramic drum covered with animal skin also came into use in the Middle Kingdom. A tambourine-like instrument called the ser was a hoop with a skin stretched across it, though the absence of the metal shakers found around the edge of a modern tambourine makes the term “frame drum” more suitable than “tambourine.” The sistrum, a rattle used almost exclusively by women in worship, did resemble a tambourine in its use of pierced metal disks suspended from rods to make noise.


The Egyptians played four wind instruments, each translated into English by the name of a modern instrument. The mat is a flute with a wedge on the mouthpiece. It was held across the musician’s body. The memet consisted of two tubes lashed together. This instrument resembles a modern Egyptian folk clarinet with a single reed. Almost exclusively used during the Old and Middle Kingdom, it disappeared with the invention of the wedjeny in the New Kingdom. The wedjeny consisted of two diverging tubes and resembled the ancient Greek aulos , a double reeded instrument. Egyptologists thus call it an oboe in English. Unlike these wind instruments, which were made from stalks of reeds, the trumpet was made of metal. The trumpets discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, for example, were made from silver and bronze with mouthpieces of gold and silver. Like the barrel-shaped drum, trumpets were military instruments used for communication on the battlefield and during marching.


Egyptians played several kinds of stringed instruments, including two types of harps, three types of lyres, and the lute. There are many different subdivisions of the harp types, but basically they are either arched—an indigenous Egyptian type—or angular—an import from Mesopotamia. The arched harp, the most popular in Egypt in all periods, was a curved rod inserted in a sound box. A collar in the shape of a ring attached the strings to the top of the rod, which were stretched to a rib in contact with the sound box. Each string had its own collar that allowed for tuning. Egyptian arched harps had six to ten strings, but since each string on a harp had only one pitch, Egyptian harp music made melodies with a very limited number of pitches. The shovel-shaped arched harp used during the Old and Middle Kingdoms came in a variety of sizes, which allowed for different tonal ranges, the smaller harps making higher pitches than the larger harps. Scholars conjecture that since harp music accompanied singing, the harp sizes may have complemented particular voices. The angular harp in use in Mesopotamia by 1900 B.C.E. did not entirely replace the arch-shaped harp in Egypt until nearly 900 B.C.E. The major difference between arched- and angular-shaped harps was the construction and the number of strings. In an angular harp, the rib was inserted into the sound box rather than being parallel to it as with the arched harp. Moreover, the angular harp has between 21 and 29 strings. Thus, the angular harp can produce between double and triple the number of pitches of an arched harp. The Egyptians clearly were reluctant to expand the pitch range of their music since they resisted adopting the angular harp. During the first millennium, however, the angular harp was popular in Egypt since it continues to be represented in reliefs of the period.


The three types of lyres that the Egyptians used are distinguished today as thin, thick, and giant. The thin lyre originated in Syria around 2500 B.C.E. and appeared in Egypt by 1900 B.C.E. Yet the thin lyre was not really popular until the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539–1075 B.C.E. ), nearly 500 years later, as evidenced by the fact that artists represented it more often in tombs. The thin lyre might have been called the djadjat , but was better known in the New Kingdom by its Semitic name: the kinnarum . Egyptians considered it a low-status alternative to the harp since the musicians playing it appear in the tombs of poorer people. The thick lyre was larger and had more strings than a thin lyre. The thick lyre first appeared in the Middle Kingdom (2008 to after 1630 B.C.E. ) in Egypt and lasted until the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 B.C.E. ). The giant lyre is best known from the Amarna Period (1352–1336 B.C.E. ). Curiously, depictions of musicians playing the giant lyre always portray them as dressed in the fashion of Canaanites, though no archaeological evidence of the giant lyre is known from Canaan. Another cross-cultural connection is evident in the Egyptian importation of the gengenty , a lute from the Near East. Though known in Mesopotamia about 2000 B.C.E. , it only became popular in Egypt during the New Kingdom. Lutes in Egypt were the exclusive domain of women.

Tutankhamun’s Trumpets

The poor state of preservation of most ancient Egyptian instruments made of wood or reeds makes it impossible to attempt to play them. But trumpet players have attempted to sound the trumpets of Tutankhamun, made from bronze and silver, at least three times during the twentieth century C.E. In 1933, Percival Robson Kirby played the trumpets without a modern mouthpiece. He found that it played only one note: one that corresponded with a tone between C and C-sharp. In 1939 James Tappern played the Tutankhamun trumpets with a modern mouthpiece as if they were modern instruments. In 1941, a final attempt was made to play the trumpet as an ancient player would have. Again only one note could be sounded. This one note must have been the original sound the trumpet made.


Bo Lawgren. “Music,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 2. Donald B. Redford et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 450–454.

Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

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