The history of music is as old as humanity itself. Archaeologists have found primitive flutes made of bone and ivory dating back as far as 43,000 years, and it’s likely that many ancient musical styles have been preserved in oral traditions. When it comes to specific songs, however, the oldest known examples are relatively more recent. The earliest fragment of musical notation is found on a 4,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet, which includes instructions and tunings for a hymn honoring the ruler Lipit-Ishtar. But for the title of oldest extant song, most historians point to “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” an ode to the goddess Nikkal that was composed in cuneiform by the ancient Hurrians sometime around the 14th century B.C. The clay tablets containing the tune were excavated in the 1950s from the ruins of the city of Ugarit in Syria. Along with a near-complete set of musical notations, they also include specific instructions for how to play the song on a type of nine-stringed lyre.
“Hurrian Hymn No. 6” is considered the world’s earliest melody, but the oldest musical composition to have survived in its entirety is a first century A.D. Greek tune known as the “Seikilos Epitaph.” The song was found engraved on an ancient marble column used to mark a woman’s gravesite in Turkey. “I am a tombstone, an image,” reads an inscription. “Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” The column also includes musical notation as well as a short set of lyrics that read: “While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / And time demands its toll.”
The well-preserved inscriptions on Seikilos Epitaph have allowed modern musicians and scholars to recreate its plaintive melodies note-for-note. Dr. David Creese of the University of Newcastle performed it using an eight-stringed instrument played with a mallet, and ancient music researcher Michael Levy has recorded a version strummed on a lyre. There have also been several attempts to decode and play “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” but because of difficulties in translating its ancient tablets, there is no definitive version. One of the most popular interpretations came in 2009, when Syrian composer Malek Jandali performed the ancient hymn with a full orchestra.