Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Music

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Musical Instruments

Sacred and Secular Evidence

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.

Types of Instruments

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.

Wind Instruments

The Egyptians played four wind instruments, each translated into English by the name of a modern instrument. Themat 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.

Stringed Instruments: Harps

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.

Stringed Instruments: Lyres and Lutes

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 thegengenty, 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.

Musical Notation

Written Notation

The Egyptians developed a sophisticated writing system as early as 3500 B.C.E., and likewise developed music from the earliest periods of their history. They did not, however, apparently combine their talents in writing and music to create a system of music notation as did their neighbors. The Egyptians must have been aware that their neighbors in Syria had a system for the transcription of musical notes at least by 1500 B.C.E., as did the Greeks by the first millennium B.C.E. Yet scholars have not identified any musical notation in a written form in Egypt until after the Greeks had conquered the land about 322 B.C.E. Even then, there is only one possible example of musical notation, discovered on a statue depicting a woman playing a harp while a man sits before her with a writing board. On the board is a series of horizontal lines with longer and shorter vertical lines attached to it. The lack of comparative material hampered musicologists’ efforts to interpret the notation. The only other possible evidence of ancient notation comes from ninth-century C.E. Coptic manuscripts that may reflect an earlier native Egyptian system of musical notation. The Coptic Church (the Egyptian Christian Church) does preserve some memories of ancient Egyptian customs, but it is impossible to prove that the Coptic system of notation that post-dates the Old Kingdom by thousands of years preserves an older form of musical notation.

Hand Gestures

Scholars conjecture that the hand gestures made by singers indicated pitches to the harpists or wind players that accompanied them. If true, the representations of singers—called “chironomists,” or “one who makes signs using the hands” in Greek—especially on Old Kingdom tomb walls, preserve evidence that instrumentalists could be led in particular songs. Scholars have tried to find a correlation between the hand gestures that singers made and the note or pitch that a harpist or clarinet player played in numerous representations in Old Kingdom tombs without much success. Other scholars have argued that these hand gestures were spontaneous expressions accompanying singing. There is some evidence that gestures were a critical component of a musical performance; the word for singing in Egyptian, hesi, uses the final hieroglyphic sign for an arm, which might indicate that singing is done as much with hands as it is with the voice. As with many issues relating to the role of music in Egypt, there is not enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion.

Work Songs


Tomb and building drawings present us with evidence that Egyptian laborers integrated music with their labor, although such evidence is fraught with barriers to interpretation. For instance, the pictorial combination of music and labor is an uncommon theme in Egyptian art so it is difficult to draw conclusions based on comparison. The songs themselves throw up barriers to a greater application to Egyptian life since the meaning of the words that accompany the image does not clearly relate to the work being depicted. Neither is it possible to determine whether the songs preserved on tomb walls represent songs that workmen actually sang in the fields or whether the songs represent only the hopes of the elite who paid for the tombs. Tomb walls, after all, depicted an idealized version of life on earth to ensure the continuation of such a life in the next world, particularly as it related to the growing and harvesting of crops which would provide the necessary food for the dead tomb owner in the next life. Yet there is enough evidence to show that workmen eased their labor through song. There is also evidence to suggest that musical instruments aided in hunting as a method to flush game out of bushes.

Agricultural Call and Response Songs

Agriculture was the basis of the Egyptian economy, and agricultural workers made up the majority of the population. Evidence for this agricultural activity and the songs sung during the workday is preserved on the walls of tombs. One Old Kingdom song preserves a call and response routine such as those that are still sung by Egyptian workers on archaeological excavations during the course of the work. This song, sung during planting season, begins with a leader singing “O West! Where is Bata, Bata of the West?” A chorus or perhaps another individual responds, “Bata is in the water with the fish. He speaks with the phragos-fish and converses with the oxyrhynchus-fish.” The song refers directly to The Story of Two Brothers that is preserved from a Nineteenth-dynasty papyrus (1292-1190 B.C.E.), nearly 1,200 years later. Though the manuscript dates later, the presence of the song in an earlier tomb suggests the story is older than the only known manuscript. Bata was a god who died but returned three times, first in the form of a pine tree, then a bull, and then a persea tree. The phragos-fish in The Story of Two Brothers helped with Bata’s rebirth by swallowing and thus preserving his phallus after he mutilated himself to prove he was telling the truth in a dispute with his brother Anubis. The Greek writer Plutarch assigned the same function to the oxyrhynchus-fish in the myth of Osiris, another god who died only to be reborn. The song thus suggests that Bata and Osiris are related. This story also emphasized for the Egyptians that the crops that die at the end of the season would be reborn through the planting of seed. Both fish thus reinforced the meaning of the song both as appropriate for the planting season and for the hopes of the tomb owner to be reborn in the next world. This song is preserved in six different tombs in Saqqara, demonstrating its common usage.

Harvest Songs In Paheri’s Tomb

Yet another call and response song from an Old Kingdom tomb represents workers encouraging each other through compliments while working in the barley field. Two groups of workers are singing similar songs while a flute player accompanies them. In the first group the leader sings “Where is the one skilled at his job?” The worker next to him responds “It is I!” A second leader sings, “Where is the hard-working man? Come to me!” The second worker sings, “It is I. I am dancing.” Through these compliments, boasts, and jokes the workers encourage themselves and each other to continue working. To judge by modern usage on archaeological excavations, such call and response songs were repeated with varying rhythms throughout the workday. Sometimes they are improvised, commenting on particular events of the workday. The harvest song in the tomb of Paheri is explicitly labeled a “part song.” The carving shows eight men harvesting barley with sickles while they sing. The first two lines describe the day, emphasizing that it is cool because of the northern breeze. The third and fourth lines emphasize that the workers and nature both cooperate to make the harvest go smoothly. Again this song depicts an ideal world where both workers and nature cooperate to ensure food for the deceased. It is not possible to know whether the song was actually sung or only expresses the deceased tomb owner’s wishes.

Plowing and Hoeing Songs

The plowing and hoeing songs are known from two New Kingdom tombs in Upper Egypt. The words of the songs seem to divide into call and response sequences. The layout of the text and the accompanying illustrations make it a little difficult to determine the correct order of the verses. The relief carving shows four men dragging the plow—a job normally performed by oxen—an old man steadying the plow, and a young man sowing seed. All of the figures face left. Further to the left are four figures hoeing, the next step in the process of planting the seed. These four hoeing figures face right. The words of the song appear directly above each group of figures. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing can also face either left or right and can also begin on the right side going to the left or vice versa, unlike English writing, which can only begin on the left and run to the right. It is thus easy to associate the lines of text with the proper group of figures because of this characteristic of Egyptian writing. The order of the lines, however, is unclear. It might be that the songs were an endless sequence of call and response so the slight confusion in the layout of the words might be a reflection of the fact that these songs have no real beginning or end. These songs emphasize the positive and show the stake that the workers have in the success of the crop, even though they work for a nobleman. The second plowing song in the tomb of Paheri is written above a group of workers sowing seed and plowing with oxen. A leader stands behind one of the plows with his own columns of text arranged near him. The arrangement of text and image here is clearer to modern eyes. The leader sings, “Hurry, the front guides the cattle. Look! The mayor stands watching.” The three men and the boy near the cattle reply, “A beautiful day is a cool one when the cattle drag (the plow). The sky does our desire while we work for the nobleman.” Such a song reveals the main purpose for depicting these scenes in a tomb in the first place; by depicting the sequence of growing crops and eager workers, the deceased ensures that he will have adequate food supplies in the next world.


In addition to agricultural work, music appears to have played a role in the hunting of game. Three scenes, each carved in different time periods, seem to depict servants flushing game with music. Yet it is not clear if the servants are just making noise to scare away birds, perhaps from crops, or if they are indeed flushing game. Furthermore, the scenes do not clearly demonstrate whether the servants are making music or are just making noise. The three examples come from an Old Kingdom tomb, from a block from a building in Tell el Amarna, and from a Roman period relief. The Old Kingdom tomb scene shows a small boat steered through the marsh by an oarsman and helmsman. Two other men stand in the boat. A boy holds two bird decoys with one hand while the other hand holds a tube on which the boy is blowing. Since not all of the tube is preserved, it is not possible to say for certain that it is a trumpet whose noise or song would flush out the game in the marsh, but the presence of decoys certainly suggests hunting given evidence of their use in the New Kingdom. In the Amarna relief only one stone block is preserved. On the left side, a woman holds a tambourine. There is also the figure of a second woman and a boy with up-raised arms. On the right side is a tree with one bird either alighting or flying off, startled by the tambourine. Again it is unclear whether there is a connection with hunting, though the bird’s pose is similar to other New Kingdom hunting scenes. A third Roman period relief shows women beating tambourines to scare birds out of the undergrowth. Such scenes suggest possibilities for the use of music in hunting that cannot be fully confirmed with the present state of the evidence.

Male and Female Musicians in the Old Kingdom

Gender Distinctions

Men and women both worked as musicians during the Old Kingdom. While some instruments—such as the harp and certain forms of percussion—could be played by either men or women, other instruments were gender-designated. Only men played single and double flutes and oboes, while women played the shoulder harp, frame drums, clap sticks, and the sistrum. Singing, another musical expression open to either sex, was so fundamental to almost every performance that the instrumentalists functioned either as accompanists to other singers or to themselves if they were singing. The singers and the instrumentalists were largely professionals, though there is evidence that women entertained members of their family as amateur musicians. In the Sixth Dynasty, for example, a tomb drawing shows the high official Mereruka and his wife Watetkhethor lounging on a bed while she played the harp. In other tombs there are examples of wives, daughters, or granddaughters of the deceased playing the harp for the deceased. The first known professional singer, named Iti, performed with the harpist Heknut during the Fifth Dynasty according to a depiction of the pair on the tomb of Nikawre in Saqqara. Since they do not appear to be relatives of Nikawre, Egyptologists assume that they were professionals.


Though all-male ensembles predominated in the Old Kingdom, all-female and mixed-gender ensembles are represented in tomb scenes of music making.

This conclusion is based on an interpretation of two different Egyptian artistic conventions. Relief sculptures and paintings in tombs are divided into registers. Each register can represent a different place, or in some cases the upper register can be read as located behind the lower register. In most Old Kingdom examples the male and female members of the ensemble are located in different registers. Yet, in the tomb of Queen Mersyankh III, the tomb owner herself is located in both registers, identifiable by her representation as a figure two times larger than the other figures in the relief. This placement of the queen suggests that the male ensemble members in the top register and the female singers in the lower register are understood as playing and singing together. The same is true of the dancers, also located in the lower register. The dancers and singers are probably closer to the tomb owner, while the all-male ensemble of two harps, a flute, and an oboe are behind the dancers and singers. A similar scene in the tomb of Debhen at Giza also uses the artistic device of the tomb owner spanning all the registers to signal that here five registers should be read as one behind the other, the topmost at the back. This scene includes two harps, two oboes, a flute and two male singers in the top register. The second register includes four female dancers and three female singers. These examples both come from the Fourth Dynasty (2625-2500 B.C.E.). By the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2500-2350 B.C.E.), in the tomb of Iymery, a scene shows female dancers and singers together with a male harpist, a male singer, and a male oboe player in the same register. Another musical scene in the tomb, however, separates four female singers and nine female dancers from a male ensemble made up of a flute, an oboe, two harps, and four male singers in different registers. Thus it is likely that the separation of male and female musicians in tomb scenes was more of an artistic convention than evidence that male and female musicians played separately. The grouping of men and women into separate groups may have been a division borne more of their association with particular instruments than a division based on gender. Perhaps the true separation is between the strings (harps), winds, and lower-voiced male singers in the back, and the higher-voiced female singers and percussion section in the front of the ensemble.

A Musical Bureau in the Old Kingdom


The Egyptians used the word khener to refer to a troupe of professional singers and dancers organized through a bureau. Earlier Egyptologists misunderstood the khener to be specifically attached to the harem because tomb drawings always depicted female singers and dancers entertaining a man in his private quarters. This erroneous identification stemmed from historians’ misunderstanding of Islamic customs in the Middle East and Victorian preconceptions about male/female relationships in ancient times. Victorian scholars were often embarrassed by ancient behavior that they considered lewd in their own time. European scholars also condemned their contemporaries in Islamic countries that practiced polygamy. In reality, many institutions had a khener, including the royal palace, the funerary estates that supported a king’s cult after he died, and the temples of the goddesses Bat and Hathor, and the gods Wepwawet and Horus-Iunmutef. Many titles found in tombs show that women were usually the supervisors of the khener, which is one indication of the degree of freedom enjoyed by women in ancient Egypt. Because the titles change in Egyptian according to whether the office holder was male or female, it is clear that the Overseer of the Khener and the Inspector of the Khener were women in most cases. There is also an example of a male Overseer of the King’s Khener. The evidence for the khener comes almost entirely from scenes on the walls of tombs and temples. Thus it is not clear if all the possible performance venues for the khener are represented in the evidence. The khener is often depicted entertaining the deceased in a tomb while he eats from the offering table. This could imply that the khener entertained at meals during life on earth. Other evidence that the khener entertained at secular functions includes some titles held by khener members. A member of the khener could also be the “overseer of all the entertainments of the secrets of the palace,” or the “overseer of all the fine entertainments of the king,” or the “overseer of the singing of the palace.” Some singers of the khener are even described as those whose singing “rejoice the heart of the king with beautiful songs and fulfill every wish of the king by their beautiful singing.” The khener also played for religious ceremonies. It is depicted in funeral processions and performing in front of the tomb during funerals. Specific kheners were also attached to temples of Hathor, Bat, Wepwawet, and Horus Iunmutef. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the khener was exclusively religious.

Banquet Music during the New Kingdom

Standard Ensemble

In the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) a standard ensemble developed for playing at banquets. These banquets are depicted on tomb walls and are a frequent component of tomb decoration, especially during the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.E.). Though the depictions in the tombs are connected with the tomb’s function of providing the necessities for the deceased to be reborn into the next world, still the banquet scenes also represent real banquets held in this world. Music was always included at these banquets. The standard ensemble included a harp, a lute, a double oboe, and sometimes a lyre. These instruments were played by both men and women either in mixed groups or in all-women bands. These bands seem to replace the Old Kingdom entertainers who played a single harp.

New Liveliness

The depictions of musicians at banquets during the New Kingdom are considerably livelier than depictions carved during the Old Kingdom. It is possible to attribute part of this change to developments in art style that allowed New Kingdom artists more freedom in depicting people. Yet even the poses of the musicians have changed. In the Old Kingdom, musicians at banquets were seated and separated from the dancers. New Kingdom scenes depict standing musicians who tap their feet in time to the music. They often stand near the dancers rather than being separated into a different register. Their fingers seem to move over the strings and some even sway in time to the music. All of these changes suggest that New Kingdom music at banquets was much livelier than the music played in earlier times.

Musicians’ Clothing at New Kingdom Banquets

Female musicians dressed in a much greater variety of clothing during the New Kingdom than they did during the Old Kingdom. In the Old Kingdom, female musicians wore a tight sheath dress with straps. This outfit, in fact, was commonly worn by almost all women during the Old Kingdom, including nobles and goddesses. The greater variety of dress types available in the New Kingdom was exploited by musicians, too. In the earlier representations from the time of Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.E.), some female musicians are depicted in the old style of sheath dress. The harpist and lute player in the tomb of Rekhmire, for example, both wear this older attire as do the harpist and double oboe player in the tomb of Amenemhet. Yet in the contemporary tomb of Wah, a lute player and an oboe player each wear loose-fitting, transparent gowns with only a girdle of beads around the waist. It is difficult to determine if this instance of nudity indicates lower social status. They also wear headbands and a single lotus flower over the forehead. In the tomb of Djeserkaresoneb, decorated during the reign of Thutmose IV (1400-1390 B.C.E.), four female musicians are depicted playing the harp, lute, double oboe, and lyre. The harpist wears a white linen dress with a striped shawl that is knotted at the waist to hold it in place. The lute player wears only jewelry, including a broad collar made of beads, bracelets, armlets, and a girdle around her waist. The double oboe player wears an elaborate New Kingdom dress made of transparent fabric. Finally, the lyre player wears the traditional sheath dress. In the nearly contemporary tomb of Nakht the band consists of only a harpist, lute player, and double oboe player. The harpist and double oboe player are dressed similarly in white linen sheaths with overlying cloaks made from a transparent fabric. The lute player is once again nearly naked wearing only a broad collar, bracelets, armlets, and a girdle around her waist. All three women wear garlands of flowers in their hair including a lotus flower positioned over the forehead. They also wear the typical cones of scented fat on top of their wigs. This cone melted during the course of the evening, providing a sweet scent. It seems likely from these examples that there was a great deal of variety in the performers’ dress during the Eighteenth Dynasty. Female musicians in the New Kingdom often performed at parties nude, wearing only jewelry, or wearing very sheer clothing that revealed the body. Many scholars have interpreted this custom as evidence that these women belonged to a lower social class. Yet Egyptian women of all classes wore clothing that was appropriate to the warm climate and that emphasized the female form. Elite women wore diaphanous gowns even when portrayed praying to the gods. Ancient Egyptians appeared to be very comfortable with nudity and did not consider it a mark of low status.

The Office of Chantress

Two Ancient Titles

Two ancient Egyptian titles refer to women who chanted the ritual for gods and goddesses. They participated in the daily ritual and in special festival liturgies. In the daily ritual, singers “woke” the deity in the morning and sang the god to sleep in the evening. Their titles are heset, literally “singer,” and shemayet, literally “musician.” Since most of the evidence for “singers” and for “musicians” comes from titles on coffins, it is nearly impossible to determine the difference between the two titles. The title “singer” appeared earlier, first known from the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.). The title “musician” is better documented from the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.). The titles nearly always associate the woman who holds it with a particular deity, including Isis, Mut, Osiris, Montu, and Amun. These titles are united in translation under the name “chantress.”

Organization of the Chantresses

The women who served as chantresses generally came from the upper class, and even queens belonged to the most important group of chantresses: those who served the god Amun, king of the gods. The chantress accompanied her singing with a sistrum. This sacred rattle was closely associated with the goddess Hathor, whose symbol often appeared as decoration on it. Many representations of the queens and princesses show them holding the sistrum while they chant for the god. Queen Nefertiti was described as “one who pacifies the god with a sweet voice and whose two hands carry the sistra.” Organized into four groups known as phyle, the chantresses served in rotation at the temple over the course of the year. The role of chantress was an honored one in Egyptian society with the chief of each phyle reporting directly to the High Priest of the temple in which the phyle served. The chantress was less a professional musician than a priestess who recited or chanted the liturgy before the statues of the god.

The Social Status of Musicians

Modern Scholarly Bias

Scholars from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries differed widely in their hypotheses regarding the status of musicians in ancient Egypt. This difficulty stems, in large part, from their projections of the modern status of musicians—particularly female musicians—onto an ancient culture. For example, scholars assigned to female musicians of ancient Egypt the same class associations that they knew in Europe and America. One Victorian scholar suggested that only non-elite women became professional musicians. A mid-twentieth century scholar, on the other hand, suggested that young, elite girls learned to play the harp in ancient Egypt much as upper-class ladies in America learned to play the piano. Others suggested that musicians held a place of honor but were also slaves, a statement that has no basis in the evidence. In fact, there is no evidence that explicitly comments on the social status of musicians, although evidence from tomb drawings suggests that musicians and singers throughout ancient Egyptian history enjoyed elite status in their society.

Old Kingdom Status

In the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.), tomb drawings indicate that there was no professional class of female musicians, but there was an amateur class of high-status women who played for the men of the household. Women playing the harp in tomb representations were nearly always family members of the deceased. They include a daughter in the tomb of Idu and the tomb owner’s wife in the tombs of Pepi at Meir and of Mereruka at Saqqara. The latter is significant in that Mereruka’s wife was specifically identified with her name, Watetkhethor. The Egyptians attached great importance to the preservation of personal names in a tomb, because the purpose of a tomb was to ensure the survival of the tomb owner’s name for eternity. When an additional name appeared in a tomb, even the name of a wife, the Egyptians considered this to be an honor. Further evidence that these family members were relatively high status comes from the tomb of Pepi of Meir. His wife, depicted as a harp player, also bore the title “King’s Companion,” a recognition of her high status at court. There is some evidence to support the theory that men could be professional musicians; the male singer Khufwy-ankh enjoyed high status at court. He was a singer, Overseer of Singers, and flutist who owned a tomb in Giza near the Great Pyramid. Both the location of the tomb near such an important structure and the fact that a musician could own a tomb at all is an indication of his high social status. Clearly the Old Kingdom evidence supports the idea that elite men and women learned to play music and that music was a part of elite society.

Middle Kingdom Status

In the Middle Kingdom, the evidence for musicians is sparser than in other periods. Yet there are examples of musicians among the elite, or at least the class that obtained stelae for monuments in Abydos and even among princesses. The high official Seba-shesu boasted in his tomb that he trained ten musicians. Stelae from Abydos belonging to Neferhotep, Renseneb, and Sathathor were decorated with artistic renderings of musicians. If these prominent men and women included musicians on monuments intended to honor their own memories, musicians must not have been considered shameful. In literature there are examples of both princesses and goddesses taking on the role of musician. The daughters of Senwosret I in The Story of Sinuhe played the sistrum and sang in honor of Sinuhe’s return to Egypt. In the late Middle Kingdom story contained in Papyrus Westcar, a group of goddesses and a god disguised themselves as professional musicians, indicating that there was nothing reprehensible about being a musician.

New Kingdom Status

There is more evidence to support a growing class of professional musicians in the New Kingdom (1539-1070 B.C.E.), as indicated by the presence of musicians with no relationship to the deceased on tomb walls. There is also more evidence of the elite status enjoyed by musicians in both literature and tomb drawings. A passage in Papyrus Anastasi IV, for example, expresses the disappointment of the parents of a man who has become a drunk, a lout, and a customer of prostitutes; they suggest that this is not the behavior they expected from him since he is a highly trained musician. The high status of the chantress in the New Kingdom—which sometimes included queens who chanted the ritual for the god—also suggests that musical training was an elite trait. Singers served the gods and succeeded each other as the office passed from one generation to the next in elite families. For example, the female family members of Rekhmire, a vizier of the king, were nearly all musicians. Thus it seems likely that there was no shame in being a musician in the New Kingdom.

Musical Deities

Hathor and Ihy

The Egyptians associated the deities Hathor, her son Ihy, Bes, Isis, and Osiris with music. Egyptians honored the goddess Hathor and her son Ihy at her temple in Dendera as the deity of the sistrum and the menat, rattles played primarily by women during worship of the gods. Hathor’s temple in Dendera has a roof supported by columns shaped like sistra. One of the sanctuaries in the temple is known as the “shrine of the sistrum.” In the crypts below the temple there are relief sculptures of sistra that were specially decorated and part of the temple’s treasure. Hathor’s son, Ihy, also was depicted in the Dendera temple playing the sistrum.


The god Bes has associations with music in the temple and in the home. In the temple of Philae in southern Egypt, relief sculptures of Bes depict him playing the harp, playing the frame drum, and dancing in honor of Hathor. In the home Bes was associated with childbirth. The combination of the two areas—music and childbirth—explains why the goddesses who act as midwives in the story found in Papyrus Westcar disguised themselves as musicians. Furthermore some musicians in New Kingdom paintings bear a tattoo of the god Bes.

Isis and Osiris

Isis and Osiris had no real connection with music according to Egyptian traditions. Yet Greek and Roman traditions about Egypt closely associated them with Egyptian music. By the time that Greek philosophers and historians like Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) took an interest in Egyptian music, Isis and Hathor had merged in the minds of many people. Thus as the religion of Isis and Osiris spread across the Mediterranean Sea, Isis took with her some of Hathor’s associations with music, along with the reputation given to her by Plato—that she had established all the forms of Egyptian music. In Apuleius’ Latin novel Metamorphoses, written in the second century C.E., Isis transforms the hero Lucius from an ass or donkey back into a man with the use of a sistrum. The Greek writer Plutarch (45-125 C.E.) recorded that Osiris ruled the world by the power of his reason and his music. In reality, the Egyptians themselves called Osiris the Lord of Silence and forbade music during his worship except during one joyous ceremony called the Raising of the Djed Pillar. Plutarch also preserved the tradition that the trumpet could not be played at Osiris’ temple at Busiris because its sound reminded the god of his evil brother, Seth, sometimes represented as an unidentified animal who could make a similar sound.

Music during the Reigns of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Rich Musical Documentation

The reigns of Akhenaten and Nefertiti spanned only seventeen years from 1352 to 1336 B.C.E. Yet Akhenaten’s artists decorated the palace, tombs, and temples with many scenes of music making. This brief period witnessed a dramatic change in Egyptian religion. Akhenaten abandoned the worship of Amun, the King of the Gods, and substituted the god Aten, the physical disk of the sun. He closed Amun’s temples and moved the royal court from homes in Thebes and Memphis to a new city at the site of Tell el Amarna. Thus this period is called the Amarna Period and includes the reign of Tutankhamun, who restored the religion of Amun and returned the royal court to Thebes. The richness and diversity of the scenes of music-making demonstrate some key trends in music during this time. Many scenes show Akhenaten’s six daughters playing the sistrum and menat—two sacred rattles used in worship—suggesting that the royal daughters had a prominent role in the musical life of Aten’s cult. Also, the presence of foreign musicians at court in drawings demonstrates the cosmopolitan nature of Akhenaten’s reign. The foreign musicians may have accompanied foreign wives to court, though the evidence that Nefertiti, his primary wife, was a foreigner is not conclusive.

Music at the Palace Women’s Quarters

A scene from a tomb in Amarna representing the women’s quarters at the palace of Akhenaten and Nefertiti at Amarna includes many musical instruments. The scene shows six different rooms. In one room, musicians manning a harp, lyre, and lute play for a woman who is singing and perhaps dancing. In a second room, a woman dressed in foreign clothing dances to a harp player and another instrumentalist whose image is too damaged to interpret. Four other rooms appear to be for instrument storage. Included in them are lutes, lyres, and the giant harp imported from Mesopotamia in this time period. Akhenaten’s many wives and daughters clearly spent some of their time at home playing music. Notably the instruments shown in their domestic quarters are not the same instruments that they played in religious settings. In the temples they played mostly the sistrum, an instrument not depicted in this private, domestic scene.

Sistrum Playing in the Amarna Period

During the Amarna Period the royal daughters and the queen played the sistrum for the Aten rather than Hathor. Though Hathor had been the main deity associated with sistrum playing in traditional Egyptian religion, her worship was not practiced during the Amarna Period. Thus the two sistra found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and the sistrum depicted on a block from an Amarna building omit the normal decoration with Hathor’s head. Instead the sistra from this period have simple handles shaped like papyrus plants. The rattle disks themselves are housed on snake-shaped rods. Perhaps the sound of the sistrum was associated with the cobra who protects the royal family.


Included among the treasures buried with Tutankhamun were a pair of ivory clappers. Amarna artists depicted men playing clappers during processions. Yet the clappers found in Tutankhamun’s tomb were inscribed with the names of women: Queen Tiye, Akhenaten’s mother, and Merytaten, his eldest daughter. These instruments were carved to end in human hands recalling through their shape the arms and hands that Amarna artists gave to the sun disk.

Amarna Professional Musicians

Amarna professional musicians included native Egyptian women and men as well as foreign men. The foreign women playing instruments in the women’s quarters of the palace show them playing privately for themselves. Many representations of foreign musicians are damaged, however. Since clothing worn especially by Syrian male and female musicians was so similar, it may be that some scenes that do not preserve the head have been misinterpreted as men rather than women. At present it is not possible to know for certain.

Female Musicians

In the Amarna Period, including Tutankhamun’s reign (1352-1322 B.C.E.), female musicians played in the same combination of instruments often found earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty (from 1539-1352 B.C.E.). The biggest difference is that the strings are sometimes doubled in number during the Amarna Period. Thus while earlier groups consisted of a harp, a lyre, a lute, and an oboe, the Amarna ensembles have two harps, two lutes, and two lyres and sometimes omit the oboe altogether. The detailed reliefs also show a waisted lute (narrowing in the middle of each side) that anticipates the shape of the modern guitar.

Male Musicians in the Amarna Period

Amarna artists depicted male musicians only during the first four years of Akhenaten’s reign in buildings at Karnak. Neither the tombs nor temples of Amarna itself depict male musicians. At Karnak the male musicians wear blindfolds while they play. Their heads are shaved and they wear both short kilts and the longer, calf-length kilt. These characteristics connect them with the priesthood in other time periods, though officially Akhenaten himself was the only priest of the Aten. Male musicians at Akhenaten’s Karnak temples played the harp, lute, and lyre. Usually these instruments were only played by women in other contexts. In fact the harp, lute, lyre, and oboe ensemble was the typical female band that played at earlier Eighteenth-dynasty banquets. This combination of instruments, lacking only the oboe, reflects a general Amarna Period tendency to break down barriers between the sexes. Queen Nefertiti, for example, took on typically male activities such as ceremonially smiting Egypt’s enemies at the temple in Karnak. The other male ensemble during this period is composed of a large group of men—up to seventeen—chanting and clapping to the rhythm of a barrel-shaped drum. This drum was primarily a military instrument in other time periods. These scenes also occur only at Karnak during Akhenaten’s reign.

Foreign Musicians During the Amarna Period

Male foreign musicians who played in Akhenaten’s temples in Karnak are identified by their unusual clothing and instruments. They wore conical hats and long kilts with three flounces. They also wore blindfolds. They played both the giant lyre and the hand-held lyre. Two musicians played the giant lyre at the same time. This lyre was taller than the musicians. They each stood on one side of it and seem from the relief sculptures to have played at the same time. There were more strings on a giant lyre than on the smaller, hand-held lyre. These additional strings suggest either that the giant lyre had a greater range of notes than a hand-held lyre or that the two musicians played strings tuned to the same note simultaneously. If both played the same note, this would increase the volume of the sound. These musicians and their instrument were unique to the Karnak temples of the Amarna period. Even the tombs of this period did not depict the giant lyre.

Music in the Cult of the Aten

The cult of the Aten, Akhenaten’s new religion, included music in the palace that honored the king as the earthly embodiment of the god. In the “Great Hymn to the Aten” the author made a specific connection between offering food to the Aten and music. Food offerings were the god’s meal. The god consumed the spirit of the food while priests or even the royal family acting as priests consumed the physical food. While everyone ate, music played. The relief sculptures from the temples at Karnak suggest that lyres and even lutes were included in these offering ceremonies in addition to the more traditional sistra played throughout Egyptian history during ritual chanting.

The Blind Solo Harpist and His Song

Musical Genre and Artistic Convention

As early as 1768 when James Bruce discovered the tomb of Ramesses III, Westerners have been aware of the idea of the blind harpist in Egyptian art. Bruce discovered two images of a blind harpist who sang about death in the tomb. Bruce had discovered what proved to be a very common theme in Egyptian art. At least 47 tombs in the Theban necropolis depict blind harp players. This motif decorated tombs of nobles and royalty. The blind harpist entertained at banquets but sang of death and life after death. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that M. Lichtheim conducted a full study of the blind harpists’ songs. The songs reveal the history of Egyptian attitudes toward death and the afterlife, although the convention of the blind or blindfolded harpist remains an intriguing mystery.

Earliest Blind Harpists’ Songs

The blind harpists’ songs were carved on tomb walls and on stelae in the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. Their lyrics discuss the nature of death and the afterlife but are not necessarily part of the funeral ritual. Because their purpose was contemplative rather than ritual words to effect the transformation from this world to the next, the authors of these lyrics contemplated death on a broader level. The earliest blind harpists’ songs reassure the deceased that the tomb is a joyful place and that the dead are happy. Such is the point made by the blind harpist Neferhotep, son of Henu, on the stele of Iki, now in the Leiden Museum. The blind harpist Tjeniaa gave an even more elaborate description of the joys of the tomb on a stela carved for Nebankh, now in the Cairo Museum. Tjeniaa assured Nebankh that his tomb itself was well-built and eternal, that it would always be filled with food for his spirit, and that his ka-soul would always be comfortable there. It is clear that this sort of song fits well with the other inscriptions associated with Egyptian tombs. The positive words uttered or sung about the deceased’s future after death were part of the ritual that assured the word’s truth.

The Song from the Tomb of King Intef

There are two copies of a blind harpist’s song that the scribe attributed to a certain King Intef. One copy is part of Papyrus Harris 500 in the British Museum. A scribe copied the song on this papyrus during the Ramesside Period (1292-1075 B.C.E.). The second copy was made slightly earlier. It is carved in the tomb of Paatenemheb, an official who died at the beginning of the Amarna Period (1352-1336 B.C.E.). The best-known kings named Intef lived at least 650 years before Paatenemheb was buried. They include Intef I (2075-2065 B.C.E.), Intef II (2065-2016 B.C.E.), and Intef III (2016-2008 B.C.E.) of the Eleventh Dynasty. A less-well known king, Intef V (after 1630 B.C.E.), might also have been the author. Nevertheless, aside from the Amarna text and Ramesside papyrus, there are no copies of the song from the period when a king named Intef ruled. Nevertheless, the language of the copies is classical Middle Egyptian, the dialect spoken during the earlier period. Thus M. Lichtheim believes that the true time of composition must have been in the Middle Kingdom. The song suggests that not all the assurances about the joys of the afterlife can be trusted. The author suggests that no one on earth knows for sure what will happen in the land of the dead, and thus it is important to enjoy life here. He urges everyone to dress well, wear soothing oils, and have fun. Death is inevitable, he says, but that is no reason not to enjoy life. The answer to this critical approach is found in a New Kingdom tomb of a priest named Neferhotep who was buried in Thebes. Nefterhotep claims that in spite of the “old songs” which urge that life on earth must be enjoyed to the hilt, the land of the dead holds even more joys. It is fascinating to know that among Egyptians there was room for disagreement and doubt about basic beliefs.

The Blind Solo Harpist

Representations of the blind solo harpist in the Ramesside Period perhaps developed from Eighteenth-dynasty tomb representations of musical ensembles at banquets. The characteristics of the male blind harpists found in these tombs resemble the blind solo harpists found in Ramesside tombs. Egyptian artists represented the blind solo harpist as wealthy. As a fat man he was interpreted as well fed and thus had access to greater resources than the average person. He was also well dressed in a linen garment with a shawl. The blind solo harpist was also bald, a characteristic that associated him with priests who shaved their heads to achieve ritual purity. He was often, though not always, represented with impaired vision, a fact that led to his usual designation by Egyptologists as blind. However, L. Manniche estimates that only one-quarter of the known representations of the blind solo harpist were shown with unusual eyes. These unusual eyes are generally interpreted as blindness or visual impairment. Blindness can be represented in one of four ways. First, a normal eye can be represented without an iris. Second, the eye could be shown as a slit with an iris. Third, the slit-shaped eye could have no iris. Fourth, only the upper curve of the eye can be shown, without any further representation of the eye. Manniche, however, observes that in cases where the iris appears to be omitted in the carving, it might have been painted in the original state. Moreover, even the slit eyes might only represent closed eyes. Thus it is not altogether certain that the blind solo harpist was represented as blind.

Symbolic Blindness

Because there is some doubt about whether so-called blind solo harpists were truly blind, L. Manniche has suggested that many harpists were represented with symbolic blindness. She observes that large numbers of musicians represented at the palace in Amarna were wearing blindfolds when they played. She describes this condition as temporary lack of sight. One of her strongest arguments concerns the tomb of Raia, a musician who lived in the Rames-side Period. When represented in his tomb playing the harp for the god, Raia’s visible eye was depicted as only a slit. In his other representations, his eye appears to be normal. Perhaps, Manniche argues, his blindness was symbolic, only present when he sat playing for the god.

Doubts and Puzzles

The tomb of Raia represents a puzzle about the harpist’s blindness. The harpist is represented with a slit eye while he plays, but a normal eye in other parts of the tomb. If he was truly blind in life, perhaps Raia’s representations with normal eyes represented a wish for total health in the next world. On the other hand, perhaps Raia was not blind at all nor even intended to be represented as blind while playing his harp before the god. Perhaps all of the so-called blind harpists are only closing their eyes with emotion while they sing. A look at the so-called blind harpist reveals both ancient Egyptian doubts about the next life and a puzzle about artistic representation. The songs the harpists sing both affirm that the next life is a happy one and offer doubts that there is any other happiness but life on earth. The eyes of the harpist, represented in a variety of ways, either show the harpist as blind or as an emotion-filled singer, closing his eyes in the grip of his feelings while chanting for the god.

Erotic Music

In artistic renderings of erotic scenes, the Egyptians placed musical instruments such as the lute, oboe, and lyre near to couples engaged in sexual intercourse. In some cases it appears that the female musician holds her instrument in one hand during intercourse. At the natural level, the connection between music and physical love may represent a more universal belief in the power of music to inspire love-making, but there is also a spiritual significance to the inclusion of instruments in erotic drawings. Egyptians incorporated physical love into the religion of rebirth into the next world, and to that end included numerous erotic symbols in their tomb decorations. Music’s role in aiding this sacred act, then, endows it with powerful meaning and importance. The most famous examples are found in the Turin Erotic Papyrus, a series of drawings representing couples in various sexual positions. Many scholars who have remarked on these scenes believe they represent a brothel. A famous example of the erotic power of harp music is found in the tomb of Mereruka, the prime minister of King Teti (2350-2338 B.C.E.). His large tomb at Saqqara contains a relief sculpture of him sitting on his bed with his wife Watetkhethor, who plays the harp while Mereruka reclines holding a fly whisk, the mark of a high official. Other, nearby scenes show the couple preparing for bed with special ointments and new hairstyles. The scene’s erotic force, the Egyptians believed, ensured fertility and rebirth into the next world, and the harp music functioned as a critical component of the ritual.