Music and Musical Instruments in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel/Palestine

Archaeomusicology explores the role of music 
in ancient Israel/Palestine cultures.

By Theodore W. Burgh, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame, 
Departments of Anthropology and Theology  

    Music is a vital part of all cultures past and present. This unique form of communication conveys instruction and facilitates rituals and religious ceremonies as well as entertains. Artifacts and ancient texts reveal that the people of ancient Israel/Palestine and the surrounding Near East wove music into nearly every aspect of society. Sacrifices, the celebration of victorious battles, and prophetic activity are just a few of the ways in which the ancients incorporated music. 

    Archaeomusicology, also known as music archaeology, is a discipline that specifically explores past music cultures through archaeological artifacts and texts. This field of study provides a unique lens through which to research and comprehend previous societies and lifeways. Although archaeomusicology is a burgeoning discipline, scholars have been researching musical instruments of the Ancient Near East and Israel/Palestine for some time. Early studies of music and instruments focused on textual analyses, but they were nonetheless the embryos of archaeomusicology. Written explorations of musical instruments mentioned and described in the Hebrew Bible date to as early as the 17th century. Some of the first recorded works include Abraham ben David PortaleoneÆs Shilte ha Gibborim (1612), Michael PraetoriusÆ Syntagma Musicum (1650), and Athanasius KircherÆs Musurgia Universalis (1650). Each concentrated on musical descriptions of the Hebrew text, the primary resource of the period. Archaeological data were not a major part of their studies; yet, these pioneering scholars established a solid foundation for the field.  

    The 18th and 19th centuries brought sources that developed from the earlier predecessors. Charles BurnayÆs A General History of Music (1789) and Carl EngelsÆ Music of the Hebrews (1864) are classic studies that combined literary, ethnological, and some archaeological research methodologies. This new direction involving interdisciplinary studies set the stage for increased growth and development in theory and method.  

    The 20th century witnessed a continuation of developing interdisciplinary methodologies into the field, as well as more diverse questions and deeper theoretical exploration. Contributions from Sachs (1940), Bayer (1963), and Sendrey (1969) propelled the discipline to another level. 

    Archaeomusicology in the 21st century continues its interdisciplinarity. In addition to sound archaeological description and analysis, the field is moving toward strong theoretical approaches and the employment of anthropological models in an attempt to address inquiries more thoroughly. Scholars researching various regions are developing cross-cultural strategies regarding archaeomusicological theory and method in research. 

Divisions and Types of Instruments 
of Ancient Israel/Palestine  

    Materials used in the construction of instruments, wood, animal viscera (strings) and skins (drum heads), and string, do not survive well in the archaeological record; thus, physical data for instruments derive primarily from iconographic depictions, partial instrument remains, and textual data. These sources provide information for classification and typology. Categorizing instrument types by characteristics such as shape, design, and construction allow observation and comparative analysis. This taxonomy also assists in understanding possible regional and ethnic attributes among instruments. Note the following instrumental grouping systems:  

Chordophones are instruments in which strings constructed from various materials are stretched across the surface. When struck, the strings vibrate to produce sound and may be amplified by a sound box or resonator. Chordophone examples from the Hebrew text and archaeology are lyres and harps (kinnor, nevel). These instrument types often appear in religious ceremonies (e.g., I Chron. 16: 4﷓7).  

Aerophones are wind-blown instruments. The player blows air across an opening in one end of the instrument through a reed (single or double) or employs a mouthpiece (e.g., trumpet) to produce sound. Aerophones from Israel/Palestine culture include the flute (shofar) and the double-pipe (chalil) (e.g., Lev. 23:24; I Kings 1:40).  

Membranophones are instruments that consist of a membrane stretched across an opening and the surface is struck. The most common membranophone is the drum. In Israel/Palestine and most of the Ancient Near East, the frame drum (tof) was extremely popular. This particular membranophone played a major role in the instruments used in religious performance and victorious battle celebrations (e.g., Exod. 15:20; I Sam. 18:6-7). 

Idiophones are self-sounding instruments, or instruments that produce sound from the instrumentÆs material of construction. Examples include rattles and bull-roarers. Rattles possibly served in religious celebrations as well as functioned as childrenÆs toys. 

Typically made of clay, these idiophones involve simple construction (shape examples include anthropomorphic figures, juglets, and spools) and have been found through most chronological periods in Israel/Palestine. It must be noted that translation of the Hebrew term is still debated. The word derives from the root nua, to shake. Some understand the term as rattle, while others have employed castanet (e.g., 2 Sam. 6:5). 

Types of Musical Artifacts 
from Israel/Palestine and the Surrounding Near East 

Plaques/Mold-Made Figurines. Depictions of musicians often appear in plaque or mold-made figurines. These artifact types are made from molds. The figures (ca. 4-6 inches in height) can stand alone or may lean against another object. Plaques found in Israel/Palestine depict persons who appear to be women with frame drums. Excavations at Megiddo, Beth-Shean, and Tel æIra have produced plaque figurines of this type. Most of the figurines date to the Iron Age (1200-586 BCE).

Iconographic Depictions. Line drawings found on ivory pieces (Megiddo), platters (Idalion, Cyprus), etched in stone (Megiddo) and potsherds (Kuntillet æAjrud) show persons with instruments and musical scenes. The artisansÆ iconographic representations include lyre players, flutists, and dancers. The exact context of each depiction is uncertain, but scenes display what appear to be persons of royalty as well as musicians and dancers involved in actual performance. Some scholars have suggested that the figures may be representations of deities (e.g., Kuntillet æAjrud, possible representation of Asherah) or pictorial representations of traditional myths (e.g., Orpheus Jug).  

Figurines in the Round. There are several figurines in the round of women with frame drums. Excavations in Cyprus and several of the coastal cities of Israel/Palestine (e.g. Shikmona and Achzib) have produced excellent representations of women with frame drums. Textual and archaeological data have demonstrated that women often played the frame drum in Israel/Palestine and surrounding Near Eastern cultures.  

Seals. Stamp and cylinder seals throughout the Near East possess images of musical scenes. Instrumentation includes chordophones, aerophones, and membranophones. Seals from Ashdod, Nebo, and Tel Keisan display scenes of lyre and double-pipe players.

Musical Performers in Ancient Israel/Palestine 

    The earliest textual reference in the Hebrew text explains that Jubal was the ancestor of inventing instruments, but the text mentions only two instruments: kinnor (lyre) and ugav (pipe) (Gen. 4:21). Interestingly, this particular passage does not discuss other instruments or musical performers. Nevertheless, data have shown that the Israel/Palestine culture incorporated several instrument types as well as men and women as performers. It appears that both groups played instruments in various cultural contexts (e.g., transportation of the Ark), and they also performed to gather in specific instances (celebrations involving ôall of Israel,ö I Kings 1:40). The Hebrew text describes instances of groups of women with frame drums and singing to commemorate acts of God and triumph in battle (Exod. 15:20; Judg. 11:1-40; I Sam. 18:6-7). 

Surrounding Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Music

    Numerous cultures existed during the period of the Hebrew Bible, and we have musical data that display distinguishing characteristics of them, but the cultures also shared instrument types and musical performance styles, i.e., the remains of an Edomite rattle found at the site Qitmit. The rattle is a head wearing a three﷓horned hat of some kind. The rattle reveals an aspect of instrument typology in Edomite culture (Braun 1999: III/5-13).  

    Mesopotamian artifacts show several iconographic scenes. One in particular is an alabaster relief from the south wall of SennacheribÆs temple (704﷓681 BCE). The scene possibly depicts three captured Judahites performing on lyres (Rashid 1984: 122, Ill. 142).  

    Egypt developed a highly elaborate musical system and, therefore, possesses the most musical examples. In addition to many unique chordophones, membranophones, and aerophones, the sistra, an idiophone or rattle﷓like instrument, appears in several Near Eastern contexts, including Israel/Palestine. This instrument served in a religious capacity as the Egyptian goddess Bastet is depicted holding the idiophone (Braun 1999: III/3-5; III/5-13).


    We understand that people of the past made music an essential fabric in nearly every way of life. Its discussion by ancient writers and its appearance in the archaeological record demonstrate the importance of music. Music can demand the center of attention, casting sheets of sound at listeners, and work surreptitiously, hardly noticeable, while tying together the components of an event. Music reveals much information about the past if we take the time to listen.

Suggested Readings 

Amiet, P. 
1980 Art of the Ancient Near East. Translated by J. Sheply and C. Chopuet, from French. (New York: Harry N. Adams, 1977). 
Bayer, B
1982 ôThe Finds That Could Not Be.ö Biblical Archaeology Review. VIII: 1, January/February 20. 
Braun, J. 
1999 Die Musikkultur Altisraels/Palastinas: Studien zu archaeologischen, schriftlichen und vergleichenden Quellen. Universitatsverlag Freiburg Schweiz Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht Gottingen. (This source will soon be available in English) 
Lawergren, B. 
1998 ôDistinctions among Canaanite, Philistine, and Israelite Lyres, and their Global Contexts.ö BASOR 309:41-68. 
Montagu, J. 
1997 Musical Instruments of the Bible. Oxford: The Montagu Collection of Musical Instruments
Rashid, S. A. 
1984 Mesopotamien. Musikgeschichte in Bildern 2:2. Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag fur Musik. 
Rimmer, J. 
1969 Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia in the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities. London: British Museum. 
Sachs, C. 
1940 The History of Musical Instruments. New York: Norton.

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