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Stringed Instruments in the Hebrew Scriptures

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, "[Jabal's] brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre (kinnor) and the pipe (`ugav)" (Genesis 4:21, RSV). Some recent commentators, with some support from such sources as Josephus and Philo (1st century A.D.), suggest that Jubal was not the inventor of the instruments themselves, but rather the teacher of whose who "played" (i.e., "handled" in a bad sense) these instruments. In other words, Jubal was the first before the Flood to misuse musical instruments, using their power to move men's minds toward ends that were displeasing to the Lord. (Truly, there is nothing new under the sun!)

By patriarchal times, Mesopotamia and especially Egypt had a rich and diverse instrumentarium. From the various stringed instruments available to them, the Hebrews apparently adopted just two for their own purposes: the
kinnor (a species of lyre) and the nevel (identity uncertain).

The following three illustrations are adapted from illustrations produced by Time-Life Books.

This drawing of the "Silver Lyre" found at Ur (ca. 2800 B.C.) illustrates the kind of lyre played in the royal courts of the city from whence Abraham and his family came. Originally it was covered with silver plating and had inlays of gems and ivory. Its eleven long strings and large sound box gave it a deep tone, apparently in imitation of a bull's voice. This drawing is based on an inlay found on the "Royal Standard" of Ur. Like the Silver Lyre on the left (which dates from the same period), the lyre portrayed here is a "bull lyre". It was played at royal banquets, such as the one illustrated on the standard. The lyrist apparently used a strap to help him support the instrument against his body. Two illustrations of Egyptian lyres are featured above. The larger lyre (which has a straight crossbar, like its Sumerian counterparts) has a very large, fixed bridge with holes through which the knotted ends of strings could be slipped. The lyre played by the woman (which lyre was much lighter and thinner than the other) is held in a typical posture.
Lilana Osses Adams has a Web site in Polish and in English detailing the magnificent detail used in constructing the extant Sumerian stringed instruments (a number of which unhappily were stolen or smashed when Saddam Hussein's regime fell). See also the Other Links page for these references and many others.

Following is an in-depth discussion of two of the most famous musical instruments in Hebrew Scripture...

The "Harp" and "Psaltery" of King David

No historical personage comes more readily to mind than the biblical King David when the word "harp" is mentioned. Yet the instrument translated "harp" in the King James Version (kinnor) was not a harp at all, but a lyre. The other stringed instrument David played, translated "psaltery" by the KJV (nevel), was likewise not a psaltery -- and it may not have been a true harp either (if by "harp" we mean a more-or-less triangular instrument with the strings perpendicular to the soundbox, according to the musicological definition).

According to Josephus (1st century A.D.), the
kinnor used by the Temple musicians had ten strings; the nevel, twelve. The Bible also mentions the nevel `asor or `asor, probably a ten-stringed nevel; the nevel `al - `alamot or `alamot, apparently an alto-pitched or "maidenly" nevel; and the kinnor `al - hashsheminit or hashsheminit, a "lyre upon the eighth". According to Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, this last instrument (like the Greek magadis) may have had ten pairs of strings tuned so that each pair of strings was an octave apart.

On the left, we present a modern "Davidic" lyre produced by the
House of Harrari and four silver trumpets produced by the Temple Institute (photo courtesy of the Temple Institute, Jerusalem). We will have more to say about the Harrari lyre as we go on...

There were other, non-standardized instruments of different sizes and with different numbers of strings, as ancient art demonstrates. The "Lachish lyre" on the left (for example) is based on a bas-relief in the palace of Assurbanipal (705-681 B.C.) at Nineveh, portraying the fall of the Judean city of Lachish. The lyre itself originally seems to have had seven strings attached. This illustration was taken from Music in the Ancient World, 2nd enlarged edition (Haifa Music Museum and AMLI Library, 1979), and is the same "logo" used by Haïk-Vantoura in her French book to mark the end of each chapter.

According to
Harper's Bible Dictionary ("Music", p. 669), the kinnor "was popular all throughout the ancient Middle East, and the word itself appears in the cuneiform vocabularies of ancient Ebla in Syria (ca. 2400 B.C.), and in Assyrian, Hurrian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Egyptian texts."

We know of imported instruments preserved and portrayed in Egypt (some of which one may find in museums such as the Museum of Cairo and the Louvre), and other portrayals such as the ivory carving on the left from Canaanite Megiddo (1350-1150 B.C.). Thanks to these we know that the Semitic kinnor (used by the Hebrews, Canaanites and Phoenicians alike) generally had a rectangular or trapezoidal soundbox and an asymmetrical yoke (i.e., two arms of unequal length joined by a crossbar). Its strings (made of gut, or possibly plant fibers or animal hair) were wrapped around the crossbar, then stretched over a bridge on the side of the soundbox and attached to the base. It was generally portable, and was held by one hand in the crook of the arm while being played with the other. It was also lightly built and often surprisingly thin. It could be played with the hand (as in 1 Samuel 16:23); or (according to Josephus) with a plectrum. This last was most likely made of wood or bone and tied to the instrument, as was the case with the Greek kithara.


The kinnor (or so we are informed by Professor Lise Manniche) was not a native Egyptian instrument. Some early kinnorot portrayed and found in Egypt nevertheless seem more characteristically Egyptian in type, with horizontal crossbars and often heavy construction. Others reflect the typically lighter construction and slanted crossbars of the characteristically Semitic type. These latter kinnorot appear later in Egyptian history, and were imported from Syria and the Levant. This change in style of instruments reflected a change in style of music, for the later instruments were capable of greater volume than the earlier ones.

Some of the preserved instruments had the bases of their soundboxes open, allowing more sound to escape; and other
kinnorot used soundholes, like the mockup portrayed at left (based on a six-stringed instrument from Deir el-Medineh, dating from ca. 1580 BC.). This kinnor, given its slanted crossbar and light construction, reflected the typical Semitic rather than the typical Egyptian model.

This woodcut portrays an Etruscan lyre dating from the First Temple period. It has what appears to be soundholes and a floating bridge like that of a violin (rather than a fixed bridge), both of which would have improved the sound quality. Again, in this respect this lyre is similar to some (but not all) lyres we find in ancient Egypt.

At least one lyre found in the Louvre's Egyptian collection is made of pieces of tamarisk wood glued together with bitumen. Were the
kinnorot and other lyres of the Hebrews and their neighbors constructed in this fashion? This seems quite likely. We know bitumen was available both at the Dead Sea (in the Levant) and in Mesopotamia; and there were various softwoods and hardwoods available in the area or through trade.

Much later, after the fall of the Second Temple (during the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135 A.D.), we see portrayals on coins of what may be kinnorot with symmetrical yokes and bodies shaped to fit comfortably into the crook of the arm. This particular form (in this author's opinion) may ironically reflect Hellenistic influence. Semitic lyres (as noted) tended to be asymmetrical; Greek lyres, symmetrical.

Davidic Harps, partly on my recommendation, used the above coin as the ultimate basis of its own modern "restoration" of the biblical kinnor (see left). It has modern tuning pegs (tuned with a tuning key), soundholes in the front, a floating bridge and nylon strings.

Certain other lyres of antiquity likewise had tuning pegs, soundholes and floating bridges. Most ancient lyres, though (such as the Ur lyre featured above and the Greek
kithara featured below) used tuning sticks to which the strings were attached. The strings were then wound around the cylindrical crossbar of the yoke, and tuned by pulling on the tuning sticks (which apparently were commonly inserted under the spooled strings for stability).

Leather or cloth bands sometimes filled the place of tuning sticks. First, the bands were wound around the crossbar, then the strings attached to the bands. The strings could then be tuned by tightening or loosening the spooling of the strings around the crossbar.

The nevel is more difficult to identify than the kinnor. Like the nabla or nablas that the Greeks borrowed from the Phoenicians, it had twelve strings. Its name seems to come from the Hebrew for "skin-bottle", perhaps in reference to its shape; and there are portrayals in Israelite and later Jewish art of lyres that have soundboxes shaped like wineskins. The famous "lyre of Ma`adanah" (left), portrayed on a brown jasper seal found in Jerusalem that dates to the seventh century B.C., is such a lyre; and it has twelve strings. (Lyres of this type have the strings entering the top of the soundbox rather than being stretched over a bridge -- making them "harp-lyres", in effect.)

Many scholars today believe that the nevel was a lyre or harp-lyre, not a "true" harp. This example from the period of the Bar Kokhba revolt seems to have arms made of rams' horns. (Notice the unusual sound chamber into which the strings enter -- something reputedly mentioned by certain Catholic Church Fathers as pertaining specifically to the nevel.)

Since this instrument is found on a Jewish coin (and one minted as part of a nationalistic revival at that), it would seem to be a native Jewish instrument. However, its architecture seems unsophisticated compared to other Semitic (let alone Greek) lyres, suggesting that the coin may portray a folk rather than a professional instrument.

Other suggestions, of course, have been proposed. Daniel Bingamon concludes (without stating most of his reasons directly) that the nevel was a membrane lyre, such as is still played in some parts of the Middle East and Africa relatively close to Israel. Such a lyre uses a skin soundboard rather than a wooden soundboard; this gives the instrument an exotic timbre and considerable volume. Bingamon thinks that the nevel was so-called because of its skin membrane (the word allegedly being related to nevelah, carcass).

The New BDBG Lexicon, however, gives a fuller (if perhaps more confusing) picture. It lists two Semitic verb roots (and three verbs) with the same spelling (n-b-l) but different derivations (pages 614-615). According to this source, nevel (the instrument) derives from nevel, "skin-bottle, skin; earthen jar, pitcher" (from a root of dubious meaning), while nevelah (carcass, corpse) derives from navel, "sink or drop down, languish". The musical instrument (or so the BDBG thinks) was "either a portable harp or a lute, guitar (with bulging resonance-body at lower end)." In such a case, nevel might even be an independent word -- e.g., an Egyptian loan-word transformed: n-f-r, lute (p. 614a).

Yet the connection with "skin" or "skin-bottle", of itself, hardly rules out the possibility that the nevel was a harp -- quite the contrary. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, harps frequently had soundboxes and even soundboards made of skin stretched over a wooden framework. This famous Sumerian example is typical of the genre: a harp without a forepillar, with the boat-shaped soundbox held above the cylindrical neck. Since the Hebrews came from Mesopotamia and sojourned in Egypt, they certainly would have been familiar with such harps.

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"; and there is tantalizing evidence that the Hebrews may have known of harps more like the folk harps we use today. Unfortunately, the evidence comes from ancient Canaan, well before Abraham sojourned there; from Ur of the Chaldees, from where Abraham himself came; or else from distant lands many centuries after Israel and Judah were exiled from the Promised Land...

This rather ambiguous drawing found at Megiddo (ca. 3000 B.C.) may be one of the earliest known portrayals of the triangular harp -- indeed, one of the earliest portrayals of the harp of any kind. Notice that (if it is indeed a harp) it has a forepillar (arched line(s) on the left), unlike the Sumerian harp above and its Egyptian counterparts. This harp (?) also has several strings (?) entering a wedge-shaped soundbox (?), and has a neck (?) which is curved, not straight. This would mean the maker of the original harp understood the concept of the harmonic curve, a concept not employed as such by Egyptian and Mesopotamian harpmakers (who made the necks of their portable harps straight). A harp with a forepillar is much more sturdy than a harp without one, allowing the string tension to be considerably higher -- and (all else being equal) the pitch and the volume to be higher as well.

The "harp of Tara", symbol of Ireland, is linked by Irish traditional history to the "harp of David". This last was said to have been brought to Ireland (among other artifacts) by "Ollamh Fodhla" (identified with the prophet Jeremiah), his scribe "Simon Brach" (identified with Baruch the scribe of Jeremiah), and "Tea Tephi" (identified with the daughter of King Zedekiah of Judah). Was this connection merely mythical, or could it have had a basis in truth?

David Michael Holmes-Smith alleges that the harp on the left is the oldest "true" harp (of medieval age) found to date in Ireland. It has twelve strings, though other harps of this general era and type had ten or eleven strings. Could the biblical nevel have been anything like this?

We do know of at least two portrayals of triangular harps with forepillars in the Eastern Mediterranean, dating to high antiquity. Sarajane Williams has this to say about them:

"Beyond the eastern tip of Crete lies a group of small islands known as the Cyclades. Two funerary statutettes from the second phase of the Early Cycladic civilization (2800-2300 B.C.) discovered on one of those islands, Keros, depitct a musician seated on a throne and holding a triangular-shaped harp on his lap" (
The Mythic Harp, p. 36; illustration by Marcia Graff).


Even more spectacular in its way is the triangular Sumerian harp discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. (The photograph to the right shows the plaster cast he made of this harp.) Notice its prominent harmonic curve on the neck (the uppermost part of the frame) and the equally prominent soundbox (left side of frame). Such a "frame harp" is archetypical of the more developed medieval and modern frame harps, including the "Celtic" harp. (For a larger photo of this harp and many other photos of Sumerian harps and lyres, go to this page.)

There is no way we can confirm or deny, of course, that the ancient Israelites used harps like these. But what of some of their overseas colonists, or of their descendents in exile?

"It is reasonable to assume," writes Leo Maguire, "that when the Celts first entered Europe from the Middle East [sic], they brought with them a fairly advanced type of harp" (Walton's Irish Airs for the Harp, Dublin, 1968, p. 5). Maguire notes that the harp had been played for millennia before the Celts "began the first of their many migrations over the European mainland or through the Mediterranean Sea" (ibid.) A small band of refugees from the Middle East would not have introduced the Irish to an instrument they had been using all along!

Yet when one examines (as Maguire does not)
where and when the various "Celtic" migrations began, one sees part of the evidence that these were Israelite (and in the case of the Irish, largely Danite and Judahite) migrations. Was the harp these wanderers brought with them the same as the biblical nevel? And could an actual relic from the "old country" have been brought to Israelite colonists or exiles in Ireland, after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians? We know that "the instruments of David" were preserved for centuries in Judah by the priests and Levites (1 Chronicles 23:5; 2 Chronicles 29:26).

Today the "harp of Tara", fully developed into the very symbol of Ireland itself, stands on the flag of the province of Lenister (see left).

However, from at least medieval times the Irish harp was wire-strung, not gut- or fiber-strung as the biblical stringed instruments were. This gave the Irish harp a completely different sonority than the biblical instruments had.

Both the harp on the Lenister flag and the harp portrayed at left are wire-strung harps. They are characterized by their metal strings, heavy construction, curved necks, high heads and ornamented pillars -- features lacking on ancient Semitic harps as we know them. Nevertheless, harps like these, Gothic and other medieval harps, and even psalteries of various kinds, were long connected (in ignorance) by European artists with the "harp of David". Obviously, these artists simply portrayed David and his royal retinue with the costumes and accroutrements with which the artists themselves were familiar.

The Australian organization
Origin of Nations once published an article by me (in Volume 1, Issue 4 of its magazine): "The Harp of David and the Harp of Ireland". This article (originally written and published elsewhere in 1995) explored the connection between these two great musical symbols in Irish traditional history. The Web site itself has publications and links (some with more accurate and complete information than others) dealing with the connections (historical and legendary) between the ancient Israelites and the later Northwest Europeans.

If we have digressed on this matter, it is because the House of David and the "harp of David" are so intimately connected, not just in the Bible, but in traditional history...and because that connection has influenced some who would reconstruct "Davidic harps" for modern and future use.

The Bible describes "loud music" being played on kinnorot and nevalim -- a remarkable comment, since rams' horns, trumpets and cymbals sometimes accompanied them (1 Chronicles 15:28). This means that their strings would have been high in tension, relative to their light frameworks. They seem to have been made mostly of softwoods like fir (2 Samuel 6:5), though Solomon used algum or almug (possibly teak) to create special versions (1 Kings 10:12; 1 Chronicles 9:11). They were played in religious contexts (1 Chronicles 25:1-6) as well as secular ones (Isaiah 5:11, etc.). They could accompany both song and dance, and they could play instrumental solos as well. In psalm-singing they accompanied soloists and choirs alike, depending on the requirements of the text being sung.

This artist's rendition (based on modern instruments built by the
House of Harrari in Jerusalem) portrays the Levitical psalmists singing and playing in the Second Temple service.

Caveat lector (et emptor): the Harrari harps' design is based closely on that of the modern Irish "Celtic" harp, thanks originally to its connection with "David's harp" as discussed above. (Only after the "Megiddo harp" shown above was discovered did the Harraris connect their harp design to it.) As we have stated, there is no direct proof that anything like such harps were made by the ancient Israelites. Modern Celtic harps (if they have nylon or gut rather than wire strings) are suitable tonally and in timbre for the music restored by Haïk-Vantoura (and indeed Haïk-Vantoura's recordings use them, along with lutes in choral Psalms); but they are not historical reconstructions of "biblical harps".

Meanwhile, the Harrari lyres (and the lyres made by
Jubilee Harps as well) are virtually identical in their design to a 16th-century woodcut of a "Jewish" lyre (see left). Even in the Renaissance, the true qualities of the ancient and biblical kinnor were largely unknown; and contemporary depictions of "David's harp" were more Hellenistic than Semitic in form. Moreover, the modern Harrari and Jubilee lyres are wire-strung and have solid bodies; this gives them (like the wire-strung Irish harp) a completely different tone color and acoustic quality from those which the biblical kinnorot would have possessed.

In Middle Eastern antiquity, both lyres and harps could be played in processions, whether religious or military. To the left we see Elamite harpers welcoming the Assyrian king Ashur-Idanni-Pal (the biblical Asshurbanipal) after his conquest of Susa, capital of Elam (ca.628-626 B.C.). As we will show later, these harpists are depicted as playing in harmony (on notes placed across a double octave and a fifth in a pentatonic scale).

What vocal melodies the kinnor and nevel would have accompanied in Israel's high liturgy have remained lost to us since the fall of the Second Temple. While oral (or rather aural) remnants of these melodies must have been preserved in the various synagogue communities (as well as in Christian chant), they would inevitably have been tainted by time and "local color". Yet thanks to recent discoveries, we may now say much about both the vocal melodies and their instrumental accompaniment.

In Egypt, Mesopotamia and elsewhere, harps, lyres and other instruments as well as singers were commonly conducted using gestures of the hand and fingers. As we have already noted, 1 Chronicles 25:1-6 apparently alludes to a similar practice: the use of "the hand(s) of" the section leaders (or of David himself) to conduct the ensemble. This practice (according to biblical and Talmudic allusions) was passed down among the priestly psalm-singers right until the first century A.D. and continued in corrupted forn in the various Rabbinic synagogues. The original musical gestures, meanwhile, were transcribed as the te`amim of the Masoretic Text.

All of Hebrew Scripture, not just the Psalms and songs, could in principle have been accompanied by kinnorot and nevalim, for "Thy statutes have been my zemirot (songs accompanied by plucked-string instruments) in the house of my pilgrimage" (Psalms 119:54, KJV). The vocal melodies preserved by the biblical gestures and notation, then, would naturally have been accompanied by the biblical stringed instruments, as tuned to compatible scales and modes.

Haïk-Vantoura's reconstructed melodies and their modality imply that David (like the Mesopotamians) would have tuned his kinnor or nevel using a cycle of fourths and fifths. His basic mode would have been the "mode of E" rather than the "major mode" or "mode of C" (again, as in Mesopotamia). Other modes could be derived simply by raising the pitch of one or more strings. Alterations of a mode within a melody could be handled by pinching a particular string (as in the famous 6th-century Gaza synagogue mosaic on the left, which portrays King David as Orpheus), pressing it against the soundboard, or by other virtuoso techniques.


The strongly "harmonic" character of the Psalms' melodies especially suggests the frequent use of "root position" chords in a I-IV-V-I sequence. In effect, the "bass line" of these chords likely tended to descend below and return to (E), while the melodic line tended to ascend above and return to (E). Prosodic melodies, while retaining the same general tendency to rise from and fall to the tonic degree (E), generally had a more complex harmonic structure than did psalmodic melodies.


Haïk-Vantoura believed that David and others used single notes, simple intervals and arpeggiated chords to accompany their singing. First, the melodic lines she reconstructed are very "transparent", with only one to three notes per syllable, and those placed in a way that underlines the subtle accentuation of the words. Not every syllable is given the same amount of stress, so not every syllable receives the same melodic note or the same kind of accompaniment. Second, when the restituted melodies are sung, notes, intervals and even pure triads return from the walls of the chamber or courtyard to the listener. Any accompaniment on a kinnor or nevel would have underlined this effect, not clashed with it - for the playing simply "sweetened the tone" of the singing (as the Talmudists put it).


Assuming a "tonic" of (E) and the most basic mode possible (we do not know the exact pitches used), here are the basic modes used in singing psalmodic and prosodic texts under Haïk-Vantoura's system:

In ascending order (as on the left):

C D (E) F G A B C

In ascending order (as on the left):

D# (E) #F G A B C

Here is one way the kinnor and nevel may have been tuned (assuming the basic mode of prosody):

A B C D (E) F G A B C D E

A B C D (E) F G A B C

I tuned the
kinnor I built in 1982 (left) to a different scale (and to a different basic mode, the "mode of G"):

C D E F (G) A B C D E

Special Types of Instruments in the Psalm Headings

The Bible indicates that special types of instruments used in at least some Psalms. 1 Chronicles 15:20-21 speaks of nevalim `al - `alamot ("harps upon Maidens") and kinnorot `al - hashsheminit ("lyres upon the Eighth"). The former are mentioned in the title of Psalm 46; the latter, in the titles of Psalms 6 and 12. Given the sonorities implied for these instruments by the Psalms written to be accompanied for them, Haïk-Vantoura inferred that the nevel `al - `alamot was an alto range instrument, while the kinnor `al - hashsheminit had paired strings an octave apart (as mentioned, like the Greek magadis, which had ten pairs of strings).

But let us review some history. In the Second Temple ensemble (according to both Josephus and Rabbi Akiba), there were a minimum of twelve players, nine on the kinnorot, two on the nevalim and one on the cymbals or tsiltsilim. From this many have inferred that the kinnor was softer in sound than the nevel. Yet in 2 Chronicles 15:19-21, we find six kinnor (`al - hashsheminit) players, eight nevel (`al - alamot) players and three cymbalists; whereas in 1 Chronicles 25:1-6, we apparently find (aside from the three section leaders and David himself) six kinnor players, fourteen nevel players and four cymbalists! (Only the kinnor players, the sons of Jeduthun, are implied as such; but as Asaph conducted his section with one hand and Heman with two, it seems reasonable to assign the instruments this way.) It is evident that the kinnor in these early ensembles was the louder instrument, even if the nevel of the Second Temple ensembles was evidently the louder of the two.

Haïk-Vantoura surmised that when the Davidic kinnorot `al - hashsheminit "led" the ensemble (1 Chronicles 15:21), they did so by virtue of the increased resonance given by the doubling of its strings. This fact would have justified their special citation by the Chronicler (Les 150 psaumes dans leurs melodies antiques, Volume 1, T-29, footnote 2). As noted, such an instrument would also generate the harmonics which Haïk-Vantoura sensed the melodies of Psalms 6 and 12 were meant to exploit. But it would also have been louder than the small, alto-pitched nevel. Whereas the Second Temple ensembles may have been comprised of "normal" kinnorot and nevalim (the latter being considerably louder than the former).

Of course, there is no way of knowing exactly what the pitch range of these instruments would have been. But for the sake of modern arrangements (such as my MIDI arrangement of Psalm 46 on the Index Page), I have set the ranges thus (here C' equals middle C):

























I have not included the "doubled" notes of the sheminit in the above chart, or (so far) in any MIDI arrangement I have attempted.
Haïk-Vantoura had this to say about the special instruments found in the Psalm headings, again as suggested by the character of the melodies of the Psalms themselves (op. cit., p. T-29, with slight corrections of my own as based on the French original):
Neginot These are "'strings', no doubt various kinds, cited in nine Psalms. Pss. 4, 6, 12, 54 ,55, 60, 61, 67, 76." [It is also cited in combination with the following term, in Pss. 6, 12.]
`Al - hashsheminit This is "indicated in Pss. 6, 12 and might mean in octaves (from the root 'eighth'. (In ancient Phoenicia and Greece there existed lyres producing simultaneously the octave when the main note was plucked....[In] 1 Chron. 15:21, lyres in octaves are mentioned 'in order to direct the choir'; the resonance of the instrument is thus amplified and justifies the unusual citation.) It is most likely that it is not a question of instruments playing [an octave higher than the others] since another designation, `al alamot, fits this."
`Al - `alamot "([The] root is 'young girls' [or 'maidens'] which we translate as 'sopranos'). Ps. 46 with its lively and fervent character could very well have used instruments much higher than others (the historical circumstances concern the transporting of the ark to Jerusalem, 1 Chron. 15:20)."
`Al - haggittit "([Regarding the meaning of gittit,] translators are undecided). Pss. 8, 81, 84 mention gittit. Their respective characters are: pastoral (Ps. 8), quite 'demonstative' (Ps. 81), and plaintive (Ps. 84), and we might deduce that gittit has an incisive, delicate sound."
`Al - shoshannim "([The word shoshannim is] translated as 'lily' [actually, 'lilies'; shushan in Ps. 60 is 'lily']). From the character of the psalms mentioning it -- full demeanor (Ps. 45), desperate supplication (Ps. 60), tragic (Ps. 80) -- one might think of a [plucked] string instrument like a 'cello, or [perhaps] a long-necked lute [such] as existed in Asia Minor and in Egypt?"
`Al - yedutun This "is most likely a stringed instrument known particularly to Jeduthun (1 Chron. 25:3), one of the three choir directors appointed by David. It is used in Ps. 39 (great sadness), Ps. 62 (despair), and Ps. 77 (fervent supplication). This instrument must have had a unique timbre like the modern viola, discrete but penetrating."
`Al - hannehilot This phrase merely means "upon the flutes" (Ps. 5), and Haïk-Vantoura refers to it only in passing on this page. To this author the "flutes" were most likely not reed pipes, but wooden or cane, vertical or transverse flutes such as were abundant in Egypt and other nations of the time. (Modern recorders would make an effective substitute, given the plaintive tone suggested by the melody of Ps. 5 itself.)
Haïk-Vantoura remarks that is it rather tempting to imagine the timbres of these instruments, though of course nothing precise may be known of them (ibid.). Even so, in comparing modern Celtic harps (by different makers or even by the same maker), it is remarkable how a given harp will sound considerably better with some Psalms than with others. I have found that Psalm 24 is at its best when supported by the dark timbre of a walnut or (better yet) a tropical hardwood harp. Psalm 8 ("upon the Gittith", a bright-toned instrument) is at its best when accompanied by a harp made of maple -- and so on. Who can say how the different woods (fir, "almug", etc.) used in ancient instruments might have been exploited for the purposes of musical expression?
There are other terms which could concern music, perhaps even instruments or instrumental technique, but their meaning remains obscure. It is easier to say what they do not mean: particular modes or popular tunes (as many have thought via comparison with the musical nomenclature of other ancient nations or the folk liturgies of the ancient synagogues). Perhaps the real parallel is with evocative instrumental names such as "oboe d'amore" in our own Western instrumentarium. Haïk-Vantoura thought so. "These expressions connote instruments, no doubt plucked instruments with a veiled, mysterious, plaintive and incisive timbre" (op. cit., p. T-31).
Ayyelet ha-Shahar The RSV elegantly translates this phrase as "The Hind of the Dawn". Other versions render the phrase "The Doe of the Dawn" or something similar. A most evocative title, befitting the provocative, plaintive timbre of Psalm 22.
Yonat elem rehoqim Again the RSV has a most elegant translation: "The Dove on Far-Off Terebinths." This is found in the heading of Psalm 56, one of a series of very striking Davidic Psalms.
Al tashhet This is found four times, in Pss. 57, 58, 59, 75. Just as we say "let vibrate" in modern plucked-string music, so this may indicate instrumental technique (the term literally means "Do Not Destroy"). But as Haïk-Vantoura notes, other Psalms of similar character are not given a similar term in their headings!
It is worth noting that from Psalm 88 onward, there is no further mention of special terms such as these in the Psalm headings.

The three instruments on the left show the variety of styles the Semitic lyre could take. The top instrument is the "Lachish lyre"; the middle one, a lyre from one of the bar Kokhba coins; the bottom one, a lyre from another of the bar Kokhba coins. (Many consider this last instrument a nevel and the first two kinnorot.)

"The [musical] bow was not used in the ancient world. Neither the Sumerians nor the Egyptians nor even the Greeks used it. The
Kinnor, with a resonance box and two arms connected by a yoke belongs to the lyre family. It is devoid of ornamentation and is held diagonally. The Kinnor's iconographic documentation, which derives partially from Mesopotamia and Egypt spans a period of 2,000 years. It shows consistence in its basic design and only certain changes in its form. A survey of the Kinnoroth will show:

Kinnor player in a Semitic nomad-caravan from a painting in Beni Hassan tomb, ca. 1900 B.C.;

Kinnor playing before the King from an ivory carving, Megiddo, 1350-1150 B.C.;

Kinnor player among beasts on a painting on a pottery jug, Megiddo, 1350-1150 B.C.;

Kinnor player pottery figurine, Ashdod, 8th cent. B.C.;

Kinnor player on Bar-Kokhba coin, 132-135 C.E.

Text and illustrations from "Ancient Israel",
Music in the Ancient World, 2nd enlarged edition (Haifa Music Museum and AMLI Library, Haifa, Israel, 1979).

Here are three more kinnorot, all of which are mentioned in the above list: the first from Beni Hassan, the second from a pottery jug found in Megiddo, and the third from an ivory carving found in Canaanite Megiddo.

"The problem of the
Nevel (Harp) seems to be much more complicated than that of the Kinnor. This is because of the complete lack of iconographic evidence, with the exception of some coins. [This has changed only slightly in the light of the discoveries listed on this Web page.] It is very difficult, therefore, to understand thoroughly the design and exclusiveness of this instrument. It is assumed, however, that the Nevel is the stringed instrument with a broad resonance body and arms made of horn, seen on Bar-Kokhba coins. There is something particular about its design, not found in any other musical instrument of the ancient world, an additional small resonance body above the basic one. It is left to the future to solve the problem.

"The rich treasure of Biblical songs stands in inverse proportion to the scarce knowledge we have of the Biblical instrumentarium. Biblical poetry,
always sung and accompanied by instruments [emphasis ours], found its richest and most colourful expression in the magnificent verses of the 'Song of Songs' and the Book of Psalms."

Text and illustrations from "Ancient Israel",
Music in the Ancient World, 2nd enlarged edition (Haifa Music Museum and AMLI Library, Haifa, Israel, 1979).

Haïk-Vantoura's version of Psalm 133 ("a Psalm of David") illustrates both how the biblical melodic system works and how the original melody may have been accompanied (Edition Choudens, 1978).

Starting from a tonic of D rather than E, this score's accompaniment remains within an ambitus (range) of ten degrees -- as it happens, in perfect concordance with my suggested relative tuning of the kinnor.

This MIDI file is a transcription of Psalm 133 as published by Editions Choudens, Paris (see above). It was produced using the FINALE 98d software package produced by Coda Music Software. It has its limitations, notably the lack of breath marks and other marks of expression. It does, however, have a ritardando corresponding in position to that of the recorded version of this Psalm (if not precisely to that of the score). NOTE: If you cannot play this file on your computer using the plug-in, you may download the file via this link.

Stringed Instruments in the New Testament

The ancient Greeks had a "range of instruments [which] was [allegedly] not remarkable for its variety," at least compared to that of ancient Egypt's extraordinarily rich instrumentarium ("Greece" and "Egypt", Music of the Ancient World). Yet the Greeks did have a surprising number of subtypes of their basic classes of instruments and a wide variety of names to describe them. Of these, two are of special interest for our purposes here.

The lyres played by the ancient Israelites fell into two basic categories: 1) the "folk" instruments used by the common people (shepherds, folk minstrels and others); and 2) the "professional" instruments specially made for the Temple service. In like manner, ancient Greece had "folk" and "professional" lyres, one of which (the
kithara) is mentioned in the Greek New Testament. Given the Hebraic as well as the Hellenistic roots of the New Testament, the theological interweaving of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and the fact that kithara is back-translated as kinnor in Hebrew New Testament versions, I believe it fitting that these two Greek instruments be given honorable mention here.

The following two illustrations are adapted from illustrations produced by Time-Life Books.

The lyra (despite its status as an "amateur" instrument) was the most important and widely known of all the instruments of ancient Greece. It (like the kithara) was associated with the cult of Apollo. Its soundbox was made of the carapace of a tortoise, over which a soundboard of hide was stretched. It also had two arms made of horn and a crossbar made of wood, and used gut or linen strings attached to an endpiece at the bottom of the soundbox. The strings passed over a bridge and were fixed to the crossbar by mobile cotton or leather rings (or else by pegs).

The primitive
lyra originally had three strings. (The one which the god Hermes played was said to have invented and played had four: the first, fourth, fifth and eighth degrees of an octave.) On vases it is normally portrayed with seven (though up to twelve are attributed to it). The drawing of a woman lyrist shows the typical playing posture. (As with so many portrayals of ancient lyres in ancient Greece and elsewhere, the bridge and stringing of this lyra are not shown.)

The kithara (which could take a number of forms) was a larger, more perfect and more elaborate instrument than the lyra. Its soundbox was made of wood; its tone was fuller and more sonorous than that of the lyra. Aristotle designated it as an organon technikon (i.e., a "professional instrument"). In its classic form, it had seven strings, though the larger example on the left has twelve. Like the Silver Lyre of Ur, this particular kithara used "tuning sticks" to help tighten the strings around the crossbar.

kithara was the instrument par excellence of the cult of Apollo, and was also used to support the singing of Homeric poetry (see left). But this instrument is also the "harp" that is mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and that is played by angels and saints alike to accompany sacred song (Revelation 5:8; 14:1-5; 15:2-4).

Apparently the
kithara was also known in ancient Babylon as the qatros (in the KJV, "psaltery": Daniel 3:5, 7, 15). It is found with the sabkha' or "sackbut" (KJV) in these verses: apparently the inspiration for the Greek sambuke, a triangular instrument with four strings. Evidently trade in musical instruments was thriving between Greece and the Middle East since ancient times.

The two instruments on the left are examples of the Greek lyra. One uses animal horns to form its yoke; the other uses carved wood. The longer of the two is a barbiton, a longer subtype of the lyra: a wooden lyre with a resonator imitating the usual turtle carapace. (The barbiton is taken from a painting on an Attic vase, ca. 490 B.C; the lyra, apparently from a painting an Attic vase ca. 475 B.C. Both were originally portrayed with seven strings.) From Music in the Ancient World, 2nd enlarged edition (Haifa Music Museum and AMLI Library, Haifa, Israel, 1979).

Here are two examples of the kithara (the second considerably more elaborate than the first), and yet another example of the lyra. From Music in the Ancient World, 2nd enlarged edition (Haifa Music Museum and AMLI Library, Haifa, Israel, 1979).

Wind Instruments in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, "[Jabal's] brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre (kinnor) and the pipe (`ugav)" (Genesis 4:21, RSV). This is the earliest mention of a wind instrument in the Bible (in terms of the order of books and of human history).

Before the creation of man, however, God created various kinds of angels (
Psalm 148:2, 5). The highest kind of all are the covering cherubim, so-called because the wings of two of these beings "cover" the "mercy seat" of the Ark of the Covenant, which represents God's throne (Exodus 25:10-22). Actually, the wings overshadow the mercy seat, and form a platform, not a canopy, for God; the Eternal sits upon, not just between, the cherubim (Psalm 99:1, RSV and other translations).

One of these "covering cherubim", identified later as the "king of Tyre" (that is, the superhuman power behind the human "prince of Tyre") is described thus: "the workmanship of thy
tabrets (tuppim) and of thy pipes (neqavim) was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created" (Ezekiel 28:13, KJV). Neqavim refers to things that have been bored through -- and in combination with tuppim (timbrels or frame drums: Exodus 15:20), most likely refers to a genre of flute. This "king of Tyre", then, had great musical ability -- and of a sort capable of stirring great passion in the listener, as flutes and drums were and remain ideally suited for this (especially in dance).

Besides the already-mentioned
`ugav (Genesis 4:21 and Psalm 150:4, where it is mentioned with other instruments), there was the halil (cf. Isaiah 30:29), the equivalent of the Greek aulos (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:7). It could be used for joyous occasions (cf. 1 Kings 1:40; Matthew 11:17) as well as for mourning (cf. Jeremiah 48:36; Matthew 9:23). According to Harper's Bible Dictionary ("Music", p. 670), the halil "consisted of two separate pieces of reed, metal or ivory, each with its own mouthpiece containing either a single (clarinet-type) or double (oboe-type) reed. The pipes were played together, one probably acting as a drone accompaniment." The halil was "generally a secular instrument" (op. cit.), not surprising since the cantillation of the Hebrew Scriptures was not suited to a drone accompaniment or the "tone color" of reed instruments.

We find a singular reference to
nehilot ("flutes") in the heading of Psalm 5 (Psalm 5:1, Hebrew versification). The "tone color" of the melody Haïk-Vantoura has reconstructed for Psalm 5 suggests the instrument could produce sounds that were either doleful or cheerful; yet it seems not to have been a clarinet- or oboe-type instrument. (As noted above, perhaps it was a wooden flute, not unlike the modern recorder.) Other instruments mentioned in the Psalm titles might also be specialized types of wind instruments (see "Sing To The Lord A New Song..." for more information).

The most famous wind instruments of the Bible are the trumpet and the horn or (falsely so-called) "cornet" (
Psalm 98:6, KJV). The Hebrew Scriptures mention the hatsotsrot (trumpets made of silver) and the shofarot (horns made of rams' or antelopes' horns). (Both are sometimes called "trumpet" in the KJV, to the confusion of the reader.) There are also the wind instruments mentioned in a number of Psalms and Psalm titles (which will be discussed below).

In the Aramaic portions of Scripture, we read of the wind instruments found in the famous ensemble of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (
Daniel 3:5, 7, 15): the qarna' (horn), mashroqita' (flute or pipe), and sumfonyah (bagpipe, reed-pipe or Pan's pipe, if not simply the whole ensemble playing together). The sabkha', translated "sackbut" in the KJV, apparently is not a wind instrument, but a stringed instrument (see above).

In the New Testament, we find the Greek
salpinx mentioned as the trumpet used by the angels to announce the "seven trumpet plagues" (Revelation 8:2). It is back-translated as shofar rather than hatsotserah in Hebrew New Testament versions, presumably because of verses such as Isaiah 27:13 and Joel 2:1. In ancient Greece, it was chiefly used by the army (the animal horn having but limited use among the Greeks).

The first three illustrations are adapted from the out-of-print Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, Lesson 28 (Worldwide Church of God, Pasadena, CA., 1986). The fourth is taken from the 2001 Catalog of Galilee of the Nations.The fifth is taken from Music in the Ancient World, 2nd enlarged edition (Haifa Music Museum and AMLI Library, Haifa, Israel, 1979).

The Eternal God commanded Moses (in the Torah) to make two silver trumpets or hatsotsrot "for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps" (Leviticus 10:2). They were blown singly or together, and with different kinds of calls: teqi`a (a simple blowing) and teru`ah (a sounding of an alarm). Different synagogue communities today use these terms to differentiate calls on the shofar (see below), but each community uses different calls with different rhythms and pitches.

The melodies rediscovered in the Psalms by Haïk-Vantoura (especially -- and interestingly -- in Psalm titles such as that of
Psalm 47) suggest what these different calls may have been like in biblical times. One or both calls likely would have used a rise from the tonic to the fifth degree and back again, just as does the melody of the Psalm title. This interval is certainly possible on a well-made valveless trumpet.

This interval is also easily possible on a well-made shofar like this one, which is made from antelope horn. Spectacular fanfares of penetrating tonal beauty are possible on such an instrument -- belying the reputation of the shofar as a mere noisemaker. This author has heard no less than seven distinct tones (in the harmonic series) played on such a shofar! Some very skilled players can even produce the notes of the chromatic series on such an instrument, or play jazz...

shofar (like the hatsotsrah) is often mentioned in Hebrew Scripture as a warning of war and judgment. Yet it is mentioned besides the hatsotsrah (and for that matter the kinnor and nevel) as an instrument worthy to be used in the praise of God (Psalm 98:5-6). It was blown on feast days (Psalm 81:3). Both instruments were used when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 15:28).

When the Hebrew Scriptures explicitly describe what type of horns the shofarot are made from (as in Joshua 6:4), they always mention ram's horns, never antelope horns. However, the fact that such a distinction is made ("shofarot of ram's horns") suggests that other animal horns (such as antelope horns) may also have been used even in the biblical period.

"Among no other people did the
Shofar occupy as hallowed a place as among the Israelites," we are told. "Together with the 'Menorah' [seven-branched lampstand] it became a traditional symbol, as may be seen in ancient mosaics. The Shofar was a meaningful instrument and had manifold uses. It was used in times of peace and war, in the presence of royalty, as well as during the execution of priestly rites. It was the sound of the Shofar that assembled the sons of Israel at Mt. Sinai and it was the sound of the Shofar, too, that brought down the walls of Jericho. On New Year's Day [Rosh ha-Shanah, also called the Day or Feast of Trumpets] it was a practice to blow the horn of a goat with a gold-plated mouthpiece and on the Day of Atonement a ram's horn with a silver-plated mouthpiece was used" ("Ancient Israel", Music in Ancient Israel). The illustration on the above left is of the latter kind of shofar.

Shofar [at least the smaller kind!] is capable of producing only a few sounds of indefined pitch. Three tyopes of Shofar blasts are known [from Judaic practice]: a) 'Tekiah' -- a long sound with a broken ending. b) 'Shevarim' -- alternations between basic and overtones. c) 'Teruah' -- three sounds on rising fifths" (ibid.).

Daniel Bingamon gives the following instructions on how to play the various calls on the shofar (as traditional in Rabbinic Judaism):

Teqi`a - a single medium length blast. Low-to-high pitch transition. Hard short push on low pitch, slight sustain on high pitch sometimes ended with a short pushing higher pitch burst.

Shevarim - Three blasts each low-to-high pitch sounded like triplets; think of Shevarim as being three short Teqi`a's without the short burst on the ends.

Teru`ah - Teru`ah consists of rapid single second pitch bursts in a staccato fashion. There should be nine or more bursts for make a Teru`ah.

Teqi`a Gedolah - Similar to Teki`a, only the high note is sustained for the longest possible breath. Also ended with a violent short pushed out breath of an even higher pitched note.

These shofarot are carved from the horms of rams and possibly other animals, are of different shapes and sizes, and are either plain or decorated with Hebrew lettering, carvings and others artwork. Even such limited instruments as these may have compelling tone colors -- if they are properly carved and fit to the player's mouth (and to the style of calls that are to be performed on them).

Even so, ram's and goat's horns, even when well-made, typically can play only a few harmonics and have a rougher timbre (tone color) than do well-made antelope horns. It is no surprise that ram's horns were typically used to sound alarms of war. The
shofarot used in worship, being musical by implication (Psalm 98:6), were reasonably antelope rather than ram's horns, although we are not told so specifically.

There are very few professional
shofar-makers in the world today. One of the best is Trumpets of God, a Messianic Jewish ministry based in the Houston, Texas (USA) area. Apparently just two in Israel (one in Haifa, one in Tel Aviv) supply the needs of Rabbinic Judaism.

The shofar in particular has come to symbolize a call to repentance on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Rabbinic Judaism (and, in terms of work forbidden on that day, of the biblical festivals). The shofar also welcomes in the Jewish New Year, on the festival biblically called the Day of Alarm (Yom Teru`ah) or the Memorial of Alarm (Zikhron Teru`ah). In English this day is often called the Feast of Trumpets.

Since the fall of the Second Temple, silver trumpets have not been used in Judaism. Both instruments, though, were used on the Feast of Trumpets, as both instruments served to warn of war, to welcome the reign of a new king and to praise God. All these themes are interwoven with the Feast in type.

The following photo comes from The Jerusalem Temple Store in Israel, and illustrates a reconstruction of the priestly silver trumpet which is sold by that entity (from U.S. $595.00 up).

Courtesy of The Jerusalem Temple Store.

Here is what the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about the silver trumpets used by the priests (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 12, Whiston translation):

"6. (291) Moreover, Moses was the inventor of the form of their trumpet, which was made of silver. Its description is this: In length it was little less than a cubit. It was composed of a narrow tube, somewhat thicker than a flute, but with so much breadth as was sufficient for admission of the breath of a man's mouth: it ended in the form of a bell, like common trumpets. Its sound was called in the Hebrew tongue
Asosra. (292) Two of these being made, one of them was sounded when they required the multitude to come together to congregations. When the first of them gave a signal, the heads of the tribes were to assemble, and consult about the affairs to them properly belonging; but when they gave the signal by both of them, they called the multitude together. (293) Whenever the tabernacle was removed, it was done in this solemn order: At the first alarm of the trumpet, those whose tents were on the east quarter prepared to remove; when the second signal was given, those that were on the south quarter did the like; in the next place, the tabernacle was taken to pieces, and was carried in the midst of six tribes that went before, and of six that followed, all the Levites assisting about the tabernacle; (294) when the third signal was given, that part which had their tents towards the west put themselves in motion; and at the fourth signal those on the north did so likewise. They also made use of these trumpets in their sacred ministrations, when they were bringing their sacrifices to the altar, as well on the Sabbaths as on the rest of the [festival] days; and now it was that Moses offered that sacrifice which was called the Passover in the Wilderness, as the first he had offered after the departure out of Egypt."

If the cubit used was the cubit of the sanctuary (which some think was about 25.2 inches) and the trumpet was just that length (again, Josephus says it was a little shorter), its uncorrected fundamental pitch at 74 degrees Fahrenheit would have been about 539 Hz: between our C and C sharp, just over an octave above our middle C . ("Correction" would have depended on what kind of mouthpiece and aperture the instrument possessed.)

Just as the Chinese used gongs and bells as pitch standards and the Greeks used the sonometer, so the Hebrews could have used the silver trumpets as pitch standards for tuning their stringed instruments.

Percussion Instruments in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

We have already mentioned the "king of Tyre" (that is, the superhuman power behind the human "prince of Tyre"), who is described thus: "the workmanship of thy tabrets (tuppim) and of thy pipes (neqavim) was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created" (Ezekiel 28:13, KJV). Tuppim refers to timbrels or frame drums (Exodus 15:20), the singular being tof. This instrument was mainly a popular one, commonly used to accompany song and dance (with or without other instrumental accompaniment). Most of the figurines found at archaeological sites in the Land of Israel and its immediate neighbors portray women with timbrels. Large drums such as the Egyptians and others used are not directly mentioned by the Bible.

The only percussion instruments allowed to accompany psalm-singing were the cymbals (cf.
1 Chronicles 25:1), which were always used in pairs. In the accounts relating to the transport of the Ark of the Covenant, the cymbals are called either metsiltayim (1 Chronicles 15:9) or tsiltsilim (1 Samuel 6:5). The former are explicitly said to have been made of bronze. In Psalm 150:5 the latter are called tsiltselê shamah and tsiltselê teru`ah, respectively -- apparently referring to two types of cymbals with different tone or resonance qualities (and therefore different sizes or shapes). Harper's Bible Dictionary ("Music", p. 670) informs us of "small bronze cymbals 4 to 6 inches in diameter, which may have been played with an up-and-down motion..." Whereas Music in the Ancient World (section "Ancient Israel") tells us that the cymbals "are a pair of concave metal saucers clashed together either vertically or horizontally. In the excavations at Hazor, Megiddo, Akhziv and others, various types of cymbals have been found with diameters ranging from three to ten centimeters."

We also learn ("Music",
op. cit., p. 670) of "a kind of noisemaker (2 Sam. 6:15), variously translated as 'castanets', 'rattles', 'sistrums', or 'clappers'." (All these, of course, were known in Middle Eastern antiquity, especially from Egypt.) The relevant Hebrew word in 2 Samuel 6:15 is mena`an`im, which suggests the rattling sound that the instruments may have made. (Oddly enough, this word is translated "cornets" by the King James Version.) Pottery rattles have been found in great abundance in the Land of Israel, and date from the second millennium B.C. to the ninth century B.C.

shalishim ("instruments of musick", KJV) mentioned in 1 Samuel 18:6 are often considered to be sistrums, which were native to Egypt but also used in ancient Greece (see the illustration of Greek instruments in Sacred Music in Antiquity). Finally, the "bells" or pa`amim "attached to the high priest's robe (Exodus 28:33-34; 39:25-26) are better translated as 'metal jingles', since true bells with clappers were unknown in Israel before the ninth century B.C. They served a protective rather than a musical function" ("Music", op. cit., p. 670).

Two percussion instruments are mentioned in the New Testament: the "noisy gong" and the "clanging cymbal" (
1 Corinthians 13:1, RSV). (The "gong" and the "cymbal" are the chalkos and the kumbalon, respectively.) "The 'noisy gong' mentioned by Paul...probably refers to the large brass vases that were placed at the rear of Greek theaters to help amplify the actors' voices" ("Music", op. cit., p. 671).

On the left are but a few of the many pottery rattles that have been discovered in the Land of Israel (dates unknown, but probably from the Canaanite period; see below).

"The rattle" (we are told in a sometimes awkward English translation of a Hebrew original) "belongs to the most ancient of sound-producing instruments. It was found in considerable quantities inside temples and houses dating back to the Canaanite period, during archaeological excavations carried out at various sites in Israel. The most typical rattles are: a) in the form of a spool; b) with a loop for suspension; c) with a handle; d) with animal ornamentation.

"The quantity of rattles diminishes in the Iron Age and a new instrument makes its appearance -- the bell. The bell was used on both secular and ritual occasions up to the Byzantine period, and as mentioned in the Bible, served as a ritual accessory as an imporant part of the High Priest's garments: '...a golden bell and a pomegranate...upon the hem of the robe round about...and his sound shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the Lord, and when he cometh out, that he die not.' (
Exodus 28:34-35) The allusion here is to the apotrophic meaning of the bell. [In the early Tabernacle period the "bell" would have been a metal plate, not a bell with a clapper, as mentioned above.] It is found also to be worn round the necks of cows and sheep and inside houses for the purpose of driving away evil spirits."

Text and illustrations from "Ancient Israel",
Music in the Ancient World, 2nd enlarged edition (Haifa Music Museum and AMLI Library, Haifa, Israel, 1979).

The first two illustrations are taken from Sounds from Silence: Recent Discoveries in Ancient Near Eastern Music, LP recording and booklet by Anne D. Kilmer et al. (Bit Enki Publications, Berkeley, CA., 1976). They were themselves adapted from A Coloring Book of the Ancient Near East (Bellerophon Books, 1971). The third illustration originally appeared in Dor le Dor, Vol. 6 (1978), p. 167; it is taken from the cover of Bible and Spade, Vol. II, No. 2-3-4 (Spring-Summer-Autumn 1982).

This ensemble of Assyrian musicians is taken from the famous mural of the siege of Lachish in Judah. The mural itself is found on the wall of the palace of Asshurbanipal at Nineveh, and dates from the 7th century B.C.

These four musicians are playing two lyres (
kinnorot), a frame drum (tof), and a pair of cymbals (metsiltayim) -- to call the instruments by their Hebrew names. We find these very instruments (plus the mena`an`im) being used by the Israelites when David first attempted to bring the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem.

These three Phoenician women are playing what Anne Kilmer calls the "psaltery" (the washboard-like stringed instrument on the left), the frame drum (tof), and the double pipes (halil). This scene is found on an ivory pyxis (box with a circular lid) imported from Phoenicia and discovered in the Assyrian capitol of Nimrud (8th century B.C.). It is presently in the British Museum.

halil and tof (as well as the kinnor and nevel) were likewise found at the "drinking parties" of Israel and Judah (Isaiah 5:11-12).

This famous portrait of three Jewish kinnor players (being taken captive by an Assyrian, far left) is excerpted from a bas-relief in the palace of Assurbanipal (705-681 B.C.) at Nineveh, portraying the fall of the Judean city of Lachish. While the strings of these lyres are not well-drawn (at least in this rendition), the middle one does seem to have seven strings. The lyres themselves are the inspiration for the drawing of the "Lachish lyre" shown above.



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Updated October 07, 2014