Article on Sumerian Music

The Journal of Near Eastern Studies has just published my article on Sumerian music (including singing and iconography). Here’s the citation and the first few hundred words:

Jack Cheng, “A Review of Early Dynastic III Music: Man’s Animal Call,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies July 2009, Vol. 68, No. 3: 163-178.

A review of the texts, images and actual musical instruments of the Early Dynastic III period leads to new insights into how Sumerians understood their world, and to the fine line they drew between civilization and nature.

Well over half the total number of known depictions of music-making from the third phase of the Early Dynastic (ED III) period of Mesopotamia, ca. 2600-2350 BC, come from artifacts excavated from the Royal Cemetery of Ur; these artifacts provide an extraordinarily rich assemblage of music related evidence. The assemblage includes actual musical instruments excavated by Leonard Woolley—in many cases the only ones of their type whose excavation has been documented—and a variety of images of musical scenes. The data comes from only one segment of the society, however. Only the wealthiest and most powerful Sumerians were buried in the so-called royal graves at Ur, only the wealthiest could afford to commission and keep carved stone plaques, cylinder seals or inlaid mosaics, and only the most powerful wrote or commissioned literary compositions. So the music represented is the music of the elite; furthermore, it is a version of their musical practice that they chose to commemorate in burials, on artwork, and in royal decrees. Although we have a lot of data from this slice of Sumerian society, it should be kept in mind that we do not have much information about Sumerian music as a whole.

Whereas most studies of Mesopotamian music are longitudinal, tracing the sporadic appearances of one type of instrument over millennia, the Royal Cemetery and related Early Dynastic III material provide a lateral platform to consider music as a historical, cultural phenomenon of a localized area. Given this opportunity, the information here is presented in an ethnomusicological model rather than an archaeological one. That is, rather than present individual stone plaques and discussing all the musical elements in their iconography, I have synthesized the information and present ED III musical practice as a coherent whole. In that light, the sections to follow include Musical Contexts (the audience), Musicians, Vocal Music, Musical Instruments, and Decorations on Instruments.

Each of these categories leads to connections between music and the natural world. The association of music with animals in Early Dynastic art was immediately noted by scholars who examined the decorative plaque on the Great Lyre of Ur (U.10556 on fig. 1). The “animal orchestra” is a tradition that continues on through the Neo-Hittite period and into the modern era with the Brothers Grimm’s story of the musicians of Bremen and the Brothers Wilson’s final notes on the album “Pet Sounds.” It is possible the Sumerians, like other cultures, simply analogized the unique timbres of musical instruments with the unique vocalizations of animals. This review of Early Dynastic musical practice will show that this cognitive association was not simple, but rather deeply ingrained in all aspects of that culture. The material suggests a coherent metaphor for music as man’s contribution to the cacophony of the animal world.

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