The Sumerian culture was this planets first true civilization, as far as we know thus far, to spring up around the 14th century B.C.E. It grew around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia. In modern times this would be in southern Iraq. The civilization flourished in what we call the Copper and Early Bronze ages.
That's over 3,300 years ago!
This is what the land of Sumer likely looked like in the Middle East during the height of the Sumerian reign:
There are certainly several other old civilizations like the Indus River Valley Civilization in India and the Yellow River Civilization in China for example, but Sumer set the tone for the world in terms of culture. The majority of people in the world still follow their economic, religious, and societal frameworks to this day! Most cults and western religions are just remixes of their ideas even to this day. But that's not all they were good at. They were pumping out some nice musical pieces as well!
In the 1950's some archaeologists were doing their thing out there and found a set of clay tablets pressed with all the cuneiform you'd expect. They dug these right out of the ancient city Ugarit and started studying them. Turns out that they included music... not just any music but the oldest song we have any record of!
The first song ever written looks like this:
The studious Anne Draffkorn Kilmer at the University of California figured out what it said in 1972, meticulously working out the notation system for the song. It's a religious hymn following a 7-note diatonic scale and even includes harmony, which musicologists thought didn't exist until the time of the ancient Greeks.
Here's the song. Take note that we can't really say if this was the rhythm or not. It could have included, and probably did have, more complex rhythmic motifs for all we know. We can only work with the pitches in the melody.
That's the jam right there. It may sound a little boring, but I bet it was a smash hit with a percussive beat behind it. Maybe we'll find some info about that one day on another tablet. We might already have it tucked away in some museum. It takes decades for scholars to translate all of the findings.
I'm willing to bet this song had lyrics that included a call and response from the priests and crowd. This is going by the "official" title of:
A Hurrian Cult Song from Ancient Ugarit
"When I say hey, you say ho!" I have to laugh because it's interesting hearing the oldest song ever being plucked out with MIDI notes after being typed into the Finale software. It sounds like something you'd hear from a Zelda game on Super Nintendo. I think it'd be fantastic if someone arranged and orchestrated it and played it with a string symphony orchestra.
Share this with your musician friends using the buttons below so they can scoff about how easier it was to write a hit back in the day!