The Sistrum

The sistrum is a percussion instrument that functions much like a tambourine. Often made of metal, it consists of a handle and a U-shaped frame run through with thin, loosely set crossbars. The crossbars can have little metal rings or loops on them, and when the sistrum is shaken, the crossbars and loops jangle. The sistrum was used in ancient Sumer, Rome, and Egypt, and some Egyptian goddesses were depicted holding the instrument. What churches still use the sistrum in religious services? More… Discuss

 From New England comes Douglas Irvine, a composer, sound artist and instrument maker, the sounds that he creates are inspired on the musical traditions of ancient Middle Eastern cultures, like ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. This record have a great aura, with different sensations, its ritualistic, relaxed, deep, dark, ethereal and mystic. This are some of the old instruments that you could ear on this great record that e real advice: bass lyre, bells and miscellaneous percussions, shoulder harp, clappers, pan pipes, double Oboe etc. Ambient Egypt is a varied collection of musical soundscapes inspired by ancient Egyptian traditions.

Although music existed in prehistoric Egypt, the evidence for it becomes secure only in the historical (or “dynastic” or “pharaonic”) period–after 3100 BCE. Music formed an important part of Egyptian life, and musicians occupied a variety of positions in Egyptian society. Music found its way into many contexts in Egypt: temples, palaces, workshops, farms, battlefields and the tomb. Music was an integral part of religious worship in ancient Egypt, so it is not surprising that there were gods specifically associated with music, such as Hathor and Bes (both were also associated with dance, fertility and childbirth).

All the major categories of musical instruments (percussion, wind, stringed) were represented in pharaonic Egypt. Percussion instruments included hand-held drums, rattles, castanets, bells, and the sistrum–a highly important rattle used in religious worship. Hand clapping too was used as a rhythmic accompaniment. Wind instruments included flutes (double and single, with reeds and without) and trumpets. Stringed instruments included harps, lyres, and lutes–plucked rather than bowed. Instruments were frequently inscribed with the name of the owner and decorated with representations of the goddess (Hathor) or god (Bes) of music. Both male and female voices were also frequently used in Egyptian music.

Professional musicians existed on a number of social levels in ancient Egypt. Perhaps the highest status belonged to temple musicians; the office of “musician” (shemayet) to a particular god or goddess was a position of high status frequently held by women. Musicians connected with the royal household were held in high esteem, as were certain gifted singers and harp players. Somewhat lower on the social scale were musicians who acted as entertainers for parties and festivals, frequently accompanied by dancers. Informal singing is suggested by scenes of workers in action; captions to many of these pictures have been interpreted as words of songs. Otherwise there is little evidence for the amateur musician in pharaonic Egypt, and it is unlikely that musical achievement was seen as a desirable goal for individuals who were not professionals.

The ancient Egyptians did not notate their music before the Graeco-Roman period, so attempts to reconstruct pharaonic music remain speculative. Representational evidence can give a general idea of the sound of Egyptian music. Ritual temple music was largely a matter of the rattling of the sistrum, accompanied by voice, sometimes with harp and/or percussion. Party/festival scenes show ensembles of instruments (lyres, lutes, double and single reed flutes, clappers, drums) and the presence (or absence) of singers in a variety of situations.

 

4 responses to “

  1. In the Ancient Testament of the Bible (Psalms, for example) sistrum is used together with cembal for accompaigning the prayers to God. Well, the cembal (or psaltery) is nothing else than the gipsy “tzambal” used in eastern europe popular music. Sarcrum et prophanum….. or, if you prefere, also in popular music there are hidden rituals and reminiscences of a late past.

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    • The lure of the past…Why do we try so hard to keep the past part of our present, if we didn’t have primordial, fundamental, reasons? The passage of time has conveniently devoured so many links part of the many chains independent, or linked at their turn, and left us with so many unfitting ones: Is that because they are independent, or is there a common, ancestral beginning? Thanks for Commenting Pierluigi!

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