One scholar recently uncovered controversial evidence suggesting that the ancient Egyptians produced written sheet music during the same centuries as the building of the mighty Sphinx, about 4500 years ago. Maureen M. Barwise claims to have deciphered musical hieroglyphs that date back as far as the fourth dynasty of the old kingdom, roughly 2600 B.C.
According to her translation, the music was written basically in a single melodic line. The earliest sacred pieces featured harps and flutes accompanied by timbrels and percussion sticks, joined later by trumpets, lutes, and lyres.
Ms. Barwise claims the Egyptain musicians used a gapped” scale, producing music that was beautiful in spite of obvious peculiarities. She notes that it was similar to ancient Gaelic, Welsh, and Scottish folk tunes, with melodies like the droning of the Highland bagpipe.
The researcher undertook the unusual task of reproducing a number of tunes, translating them into the treble-clef keyboard. According to Barwise, the Egyptians understood timing, pitch, rhythm, and harmonic chords in addition of basic melody. The adapted tunes seem to cover a variety of musical moods, from the somewhat playful “Beautiful Moon-Bird of the Nile” to the rather stately grand march, “Honor to the Strong Arm of Pharaoh.
Egyptian music was considered sacred. Therefore, its composition was strictly governed by law and did not develop greatly over the centuries.
Wall paintings, bas-reliefs, and the literature of antiquity clearly show that the Egyptians were skillful musicians. Many experts believe that this early music was preserved in written form, but established archaeological theory holds that the melodies were an oral tradition.
Ms. Barwise’s translation of hieroglyphics into music notation challenges the old school of thought and her scholarship has met mixed acceptance. Some critics agree with David Wulston’s evaluation, that her work is nothing more than “a whimsical Tolkien-like fantasy [constructed] out of the most unpromising material.