Most of the images here are included in the article. The captions are often longer than in the published version. If you click on the image itself a larger version will appear (often with a shortened or simplified caption). Under Fig. 9 I have added a number of illustrations that could not be included in the published text, due to a strict word limit, but that augment some of the arguments made in the text.

Fig. 1: The French musicologist Jules Combarieu (1859-1916) proposes that by retracing the historical trajectories of a number of musical phenomena—whether through notation, textual references or pictorial representations—beyond the point where their documentation began, we can eventually arrive at an undocumented communal origin, located in the hypothetical point of convergence of these different trajectories. From Combarieu, La musique et la magie (1909), p. 24. (Collection of the author.)

Example 1

Fig. 2: Detail from the frontispiece of Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650), vol. 1, depicting Pythagoras’ fabled visit to the smithy. (Image of full frontispiece here.) There Pythagoras observed, it is said, that the sounds of hammers of different sizes striking the anvils produced different pitches, and realized that the fundamental musical intervals are based on simple proportions: the octave corresponds to 1:2, the fifth to 2:3, and the fourth to 3:4. This foundation myth of music theory, though shaky in its acoustical details, was first recorded by the Greek mathematician Nicomachus in the first century C.E. In this depiction, Pythagoras also points at his trigonometric theorem, as if to underline the intimate connection between music and mathematics. (Eda Kuhn Loeb Library of the Harvard College Library.)

Example 2

Fig. 3: Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the author of the entry on “Musique” in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751-1772), included examples of ancient and non-western music. From Rousseau, “Musique,” Planches V and XVI. (f *63-491. Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Example 3a

(a) The Ancient Greek “Greater Perfect System” consists of multiple tetrachords, denoted by curly brackets.

Example 3b

(b) Chinese music uses a pentatonic scale (based on the twelve lu, a set of bamboo pitch pipes).

Fig. 4: Jean Philippe Rameau’s illustration of the triple progression shows what he considers the most fundamental harmonic relations. The roots of the harmonies in triple progression are in the proportion of 3 : 9 : 27 (or 3 : 3×3 : 3x3x3), corresponding to the modern concepts of subdominant, tonic, and dominant, the three essential harmonies in tonal music. The three chords on which the triple progression built contained all the pitches of the diatonic scale and could be used, broadly speaking, to supply harmony and bass line to any melodic progression. Rameau prided himself on the mathematical and modern scientific principles on which the triple progression was founded. From Rameau, Démonstration du principe de l’harmonie (1750), p. 32. (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library of the Harvard College Library.)  

Example 4

Fig. 5: Pierre-Joseph Roussier’s evolutionary table of the musical systems of the ancient world. From humble beginnings of a mere our-note formation (the “Lyre de Mercure,” spanning E–A–B–E) emerged the double octave of the full Greek system, the “Greater Perfect System” (which Roussier called “Grand système de Pythagore”). Roussier’s belief in the generating force of the universal fifth-relation, where scales evolve as ever-longer chains of fifths, allowed him to see connections between Greek and Chinese scale formations. From Roussier, Mémoire sur la musique des anciens (1770), p. 24. (Collection of the author.)

Example 5

Fig. 6: Roussier’s depiction of the Egyptian scale. Roussier imagined Egyptian music as a fully formed chromatic scale, based on a twelve-fold triple progression, just as is found in modern western music, incorporating elements of both Greek and Chinese musical systems. From Roussier, Mémoire sur la musique des anciens (1770), p.64. (Collection of the author.)

Example 6

Fig. 7: The English traveler and musical writer Charles Burney included an illustration in his General History of Music showing the outline of a two-string Egyptian lute. This image was reproduced from the relief of a richly ornamented obelisk in Rome, originally deployed in the Campus Martius and now reconstructed in the Piazza Montecitorio. From Burney, A General History of Music (1776-1789), vol. 1, p. 390. (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library of the Harvard College Library.)

Example 7

Fig. 8: The sistrum (rattle) was closely associated with the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, which spread from Egypt throughout the Roman Empire. Plutarch (Is. Os., 376C) explained that shaking the sistrum is symbolic of the constant motion of all living beings.

Example 8a

(a) A medallion of Isis, in Greek or Roman design, reproduced in Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée ii/1: Pl. 108. (F1721.19F v. 2 p. 1. Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Example 8b

(b) A woodprint of the goddess with full attributes, from Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-1654), vol. 1, p. 189. This image of Isis carries all the attributes that Apuleius ascribes to her in his Metamorphoses. In specifying that the rhythm associated with Isis worship was a “triple” repeated pattern (Met., 11.4), Apuleius provided the only instance of a technical description of ancient Egyptian music found in the literature. (GC6.K5232.6520. Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Fig. 9: The most widely discussed Egyptian instruments, two richly ornamented harps dating from the 20th dynasty, were found in a tomb painting in Thebes. First described and sketched by the English traveler James Bruce in 1774, these extraordinary instruments were subsequently depicted in all the major publications on Egypt. Musical researchers during that time attached great significance to the number of strings of the harps and erected grand hypotheses on their findings. The reproductions, however, from which they worked were often inaccurate. The number of strings of these harps varies greatly in all the reproductions.

Example 9cExample 9d

(a) Reproduction from James Bruce (1790), p. 128. Left harp shows 12 strings, right harp 18 strings. (Digital reproduction found here.) Bruce’s engravings were widely criticized for taking great liberties with the original images.

Example 9aExample 9b

(b) The same harps depicted in the authoritative Description de l’Egypte, vol. 2, pl. 91. The harp on the left has 12 strings, the harp on the right has 21 strings.  (Typ 815.09.3210. v. 11. Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Example 9f

(c) Jean-François Champollion, Monuments de l’Egypte et de la Nubie (1835), vol. 3, Pl. 161. The left harp has 11 strings, the right harp has 13 strings. (XCage Arc 545.2 PF, Fine Arts Library in Harvard College Library.)

Example 9g

(d) Ippolito Rosellini, Monumenti dell’Egitto (1844), pl. 97. The left harp as 11 strings, the right harp has 12 strings. (Digital reproduction found here.)

Example 9e

(e) John Gardner Wilkinson, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1834), Pl. 11. The harp on the left has 10 strings, the harp on the right has 11 strings. (Digital reproduction found here.)

Example 10: Depiction of a musical scene from the Tomb of Nencheftka in the Necropolis of Saqqara, 5th dynasty. It is notable that each instrumentalist is accompanied by one or two figures without an instrument facing the individual musicians. The musicologist Hans Hickmann interpreted these figures as cheironomists whose gestures indicate the pitches played by the instruments. Photo from Hickmann, Ägypten—Musikgeschichte in Bildern (1961), p. 25. The original is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music
Library of the Harvard College Library.)

Example 10

Fig. 11: A relief from the tomb of Ptahhotep (5th dynasty) shows an unusual cheironomic figure on the left. Whereas most other cheironomists only use one hand, holding the other one up to their ear, this one gestures with both hands. According to Hickmann’s hypothesis of gestures as pitch designations, this two-hand gesture indicates that root and fifth should be sounded simultaneously. He regards this depiction as compelling proof of the hypothesis that Egyptian music was multi-voiced. Photo from Hickmann, Ägypten—Musikgeschichte in Bildern (1961), p. 89. (Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library of the Harvard College Library.)

Example 11