Styles & Forms | Near East | World of Music | Classical

The Near East includes two of the world’s earliest civilizations – Mesopotamia and Egypt. From the few artefacts found in Mesopotamia something is known about Sumerian instruments and the circumstances in which music was played.

The Egyptian musical culture shared characteristics with that of Mesopotamia; they played similar instruments and music was also closely associated with rituals and worship. Within the Bible lands lived the Hebrew peoples, whose musical culture was an important influence on music in the West because it formed the basis of early Christian liturgy. Much later, a distinctive relationship between music and religion was formed in the Islamic world.


Cuneiform texts, bas-reliefs and archeological finds provide information about the music of the Tigris-Euphrates valley civilizations, from around 3,000 bc to Hellenistic times. These included the kingdoms of Sumeria, Akkadia, Chaldea, Babylonia and Assyria. In Mesopotamian societies, music was central to religious rites, sacrifices and festivals. Temples were centres of cultural life and temple musicians were members of social elites. Sumerian precentors, who led the singing in worship, had their own guilds and moved in the same circles as mathematicians, astrologers and priests. Babylonian castes of temple musicians included lament singers and other specialists. After around 1830 bc, Babylonian liturgical services comprised psalms and hymns with antiphonal styles. Mesopotamian instruments included arched harps, flutes, drums, frame drums and lyres. Certain instruments were often endowed with cult symbolism: for example, the soundbox of a lyre found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur was built in the shape of a bull, symbolizing power and fertility.

The Bible Lands

The Bible offers a vivid picture of music-making for worship and in the daily lives of the ancient Jews. The Hebrew lyrics (c. 1200–100 bc) of the Old Testament tell of victories celebrated with women’s choirs, of music in religious festivals and of trumpet signals in war. In the great age of Hebrew music (1002–970 bc), the Levites, the hereditary priestly caste, performed instrumental and vocal music over generations. When Jesus worshipped in the Temple of Herod, he probably heard monophonic (single line) vocal music. The earliest instrument of worship, the shofar (ram’s-horn trumpet), came from a former nomadic epoch. Instruments were played in King Solomon’s temple (c. tenth century BC) but were later banned by the rabbis, forging an intensely spiritual style of sacred song. After the destruction of the Second Temple at Jerusalem in ad 70, worship shifted to the synagogue and a new system of cantillation ensued that persists to the present day.

Music in the Islamic World

From the seventh century ad, Islamic music spread from Arabia and was nurtured in Persia, Syria and Greece. To speak of ‘Islamic music’ is certainly a contradiction in terms, as music is banned from worship by orthodox Muslims; although the Qur’an does not speak against music, early Islamic scholars formulated prohibitions against it from the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. The chanting from the Qur’an by...

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