Oldest known music notation in history – Raoul Vitale’s interpretation

In the ancient city of Ugarit near the modern city of Latakia – Syria, were found pieces of 36 clay tablets sharing common format. That was in the early fifties of the twentieth century.

These tablets contain words in Akkadian and Hurrian ancient languages, the Akkadian words are actually names of musical distances were mentioned in several more ancient clay tablets found in Mesopotamia (Iraq), which gave the conclusion that these tablets contain hymns associated with the notations of their melodies.

The letter H (from Hurrian) was given as a name to this collection of tablets, only one of them (Tablet H-6) was completely reconstructed (from two pieces).

Several attempts were made to extract the melody from tablet H-6 in modern notation. Here we will focus on the interpretation given by the Syrian researcher Raoul Gregory Vitale.

Description of the tablet H-6

Similar to tablets belong to its era, Tablet H-6 is made of roasted clay, contains cuneiform writing, and like other tablets in the H collection, its text divided into two sections, upper section in Hurrian language in four lines on the tablet’s face and wrap on its side and continue on its back, then two thin parallel lines separate the upper section from the lower section which contains mostly Akkadian words in six lines on tablet’s face only. At the beginning of each of the second, third and fourth Hurrian text lines there are words repeated from the end of the each corresponded previous line (seven syllables),.

On the back bottom there are the words “This is singing on na-ad-qáb-li a hymn for the Gods written by Amorabi” where na-ad-qáb-li is both a musical distance and a musical scale as studies on Mesopotamian clay tablets suggests.

وجه الرقيم H-6
Tablet H-6 face
ظهر الرقيم H-6
Tablet H-6 back

All researchers who studied this tablet are very much sure that what is on it, as all the clay tablets in the collection H, is a hymn, its Hurrian lyrics are on the upper section and its music notation is on the lower section. The Hurrian text is not been translated completely yet because the Hurrian language is not well understood yet, although it appears that these tablets contain special Ugaritic dialect of this language. Any way what is translated is enough to conclude that this hymn is dedicated to Nikkal; the moon Goddess.

Raoul Vitale’s interpretation of the musical notation of the tablet H-6

Vitale studied the Babylonian musical scales have been discovered from clay tablets found in Iraq, and by analyzing the meanings of the notes names (strings names) he concluded that their order is opposite of what was widely accepted. His conclusion was then accepted widely by researchers in the field of archaeomusicology of Mesopotamia and near east.

The musical notation in tablet H-6 consists of a musical distance followed by a number, then another musical distance followed by a number and so on. Each of the musical distances is known to be between two specific notes, for example qáb-li-te is between notes La and Re (if we use modern western notes names).

Music notation of tablet H-6:

  1. qáb-li-te 3 ir-bu-te 1 qáb-li-te 3 ša-ah-ri 1i-šar-te 10 uš-ta-ma ari
  2. ti-ti-mi-šar-te 2 zi-ir-te 1 ša-[a]h-ri 2 ša-aš-ša-te 2 ir-bu-te 2
  3. um-bu-be 1 ša-aš-ša-te 2 ir-bu-te 1[+X] na-ad-qáb-li 1 ti-tar-qáb-li 1 ti-ti-mi-šar-te 4
  4. zi-ir-te 1 ša-ah-ri 2 ša-aš-ša-te 4 ir-bu-te 1 na-ad-qáb-li 1 ša-ah-ri 1
  5. ša-aš-ša-te 4 ša-ah-ri 1 ša-aš-ša-te 2 ša-ah-ri 1 ša-aš-ša-te 2 ir-bu-te 2
  6. ki-it-me 2 qáb-li-te 3 ki-it-m[e] 1 qáb-li-te 4 ki-it-me 1 qáb-li-te 2

Distances mentioned in musical notation

distance

in modern western notation

qáb-li-te

La – Re upward

ir-bu-te

Re – Fa downward

ša-ah-ri 

Fa – La upward

i-šar-te 

Re -Sol downward

ti-ti-mi-šar-te

Do – La downward

zi-ir-te 

Si – Sol downward

ša-aš-ša-te 

Mi – Sol downward

um-bu-be

Do – Fa downward

na-ad-qáb-li 

Si – Mi upward

ti-tar-qáb-li

Re – Ci downward

ki-it-me 

Sol – Do upward

So what does this order mean?

Some interpretation attempts suggested that the musical distance La – Re followed by number 3 for example means playing La and Re simultaneously (polyphony) repeated three times, while others suggested that La – Re means playing the notes La – Si – Do – Re in sequence, but then it is very hard to tell what does the following number mean.

After studying previous interpretation attempts and relaying on his discoveries regarding Mesopotamian musical scales, Vitale introduce his own interpretation based on following assumptions:

  1. He refused the theory which say that the distance La – Re means the playing of two notes simultaneously, the oldness of the notation is one reason, another reason he mentioned is this theory means that some musical distances used in polyphony are dissonance. So he accepted the theory which say that the distance La – Re means playing notes La – Si – Do – Re in sequence.
  2. He made a comparison between notation numbers totals and syllables counts in hymn lyric lines, which are counted previously by other researchers, and he noticed that the syllables count in each line of hymn text equals three times the total of related notation line numbers. This leads to the conclusion that notation numbers in fact represent some aspects of rhythm, so if every syllable takes one beat time, then each of the notation numbers reflect the number of measures with three beats each (triple meter).
  3. At the end of the first notation line after the last distance and number, there are two words in Hurrian “Oshtma Ari” which are translated as “Don’t hear – give” and it is interpreted by Vitale as “Don’t hear the lyric – start singing” meaning the half of the last series of notes (and all series before it) is instrumental playing without vocal singing; an opening, also because there are only six notation lines but only four lyric lines, then the last line of the music notation is also non-vocal; an instrumental ending.
  4. The repetition of seven syllables from the end of each of the lyrics lines in the beginning of the next line is a way to let the singer move smoothly from the end of the line on the tablet’s back to the beginning of the next line on tablet’s front face without interruption, noting that this method is still practiced even today in some Christian and Islamic liturgical and holy books. The subtracting of the seven syllables count from line syllables count fits perfectly in the equation of three to one comparing syllables count to notation numbers totals.

Comparison between notation numbers and lyrics syllables counts

Musical notation

Lyrics

Ratio of notation numbers to syllables counts

Line number

Numbers totals

Line number

syllables count ( ignoring repeated syllables )

1

13 ( subtracting 5 from the last number )

2

14 ( adding 5 from the last number from the first line )

1

42

1/3

3

10

2

30

1/3

4

10

3

30

1/3

5

12

4

36

1/3

6

13

 –
  1. There are no clue can tell us what is the rhythm of the instrumental opening and ending, so Vitale noting that each series in the ending consists of four notes, he suggested that the ending rhythm is of duple meter, and since there are some common patterns among the opening and the ending, he suggested that the opening rhythm is also of duple meter.
  2. So now we know the notes sequence in each series and the time that each series must take, but we don’t know how to distribute the series time on series notes times, sometimes it is easy because the series time is multiple of notes count while sometimes it is not, so Vitale distributed the series time on notes time according to common sense with a help from his friend; the well known musicologist in Latakia; Mahmood Ajjan.
  3. Now we have all what we need to give a complete interpretation of the tablet H-6’s musical notation in modern western musical notation format and the result is very satisfying:

Musical notation from tablet H-6

Some researchers didn’t trust this result claiming that the so-called Ugaritic notation method suggested by Vitale is not capable of notating but specific forms of melodies. That is true, but on the other hand we don’t know by sure that there were not some limitations on melodies in that era. Nevertheless the interpretation given by Raoul Vitale is the only complete interpretation was able to translate all aspects of the ancient notation found on the Ugaritic tablet H-6.

Click here to listen and watch a video playing the music of the Hurrian song 6

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  1. John Arthur Smith أضاف بتاريخ

    I wish to include the photograph images of h.6, which appear on the web page http://www.ramivitale.com/?p=450, in a publication. Can you please supply information about the copyright holder so that I can get in touch with him or her. Thank you.

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