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Han Dynasty Music: A Han-Dy Guide

Han Dynasty Music: A Han-Dy Guide

When Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang decided to destroy all ‘evidence’ of scholarship and culture in ancient China during the Qin Dynasty, with books of everything burnt to crisps, leaving nothing behind, traditional Chinese music was in danger of being lost forever. However, when the Han Dynasty came around, this fate was reversed…

Swa-hee-lee Culture

Jambo dear readers! For post 3, I have created a Pinterest board to showcase the Swahili culture in the East African region. The Pinterest board is aimed to demonstrate how foreign traders had an influence on Swahili culture. Images are used to illustrate the various elements and history of Swahili culture.

Swahili (swah-hee-lee) culture is the culture representing the people of East Africa from Kenya to southern Somalia to Mozambique and Tanzania. Swahili could also be referred to as the language is largely spoken and used by people of this region. Many see Swahili culture that has been immensely shaped by their fellow traders on the Swahili Coast from the Arabian Peninsula, India, and even Portugal. Foreign traders have great influence over architecture, clothing, music and religious beliefs.

Fun fact! Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan explorer, whom I talked about in post 2 had actually visited the town of Kilwa before exploring Sofala. These are the trading cities along the Swahili coast.

You can view the images and descriptions by clicking the link below:


Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies African Studies Center, The Indian Ocean Trade: A classroom simulation, 1993,

Esha Faki1, E. M. Kasiera and O. M. J. Nandi, The belief and practice of divination among the Swahili Muslims in Mombasa district, Kenya, November 2010,

Henry Louis Gates Jr,

Jacqueline M. Kiraithea and Nancy T. Badenb, Portugues influences in East African Languages,  19 January 2007,

James De Vere Allen, Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture and the Shungwaya Phenomenon, 1993,

Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madison, African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance, 29 August 2013,

Liam Matthew Brockey, Portuguese Colonial Cities in the Early Modern World, 2008,

Maina Kiarie, Swahili and Arab Peoples,

Mariah Nene, Taarab music: a coastal music with flair, 3 July 2015,

Mwenda Ntarangwi, A Socio-Historical and Contextual Analysis of Popular Musical Performance Among the Swahili of Mombasa, Kenya, 2001

Phyllis Ressler, The Kanga, A Cloth That Reveals- Co-production of Culture in Africa and the Indian Ocean Region, 9 January 2012,

Sangai Mohochi and Yusuf Hamad,

Taarab Music, 11 January 2012,

University of Iowa,

Proquest,”This is Traditional, this is Not Islamic": Perceiving Some Swahili Childbirth and Child-rearing Beliefs and Practices in Light of Mila (custom) and Dini (religion)., 2007, 

Ancient Music

Although the earliest form of music in the world can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic era, also known as the late stone ages (c. 50,000 – 10,000 BCE), historical records of musical practices were only done much after the development of writing at c.3000 BCE. In this post, I will be sharing with the class about the earliest recorded music of literate civilization in history. This era of music is also known as Ancient music, and I will mainly be covering the Ancient music of the two civilizations we had come across since the start of the semester: Mesopotamia and Greece.

Ancient music was characterized by the development of music notation systems, instruments, and music theories – such as scales and modes – across various ancient civilizations namely the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Indian, Chinese, Greece, Rome, etc. These music systems appeared separately and were unique to each of these ancient empires. Here is a brief timeline suggesting the development of music theories, instruments, and systems for those who are interested.

Ancient Music of The Mesopotamian Empires

Most of what we know about Mesopotamian Empires came through excavated cuneiform tablets. These tablets gave us "evidence for the uses of music in ancient Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, and among their neighbors in Anatolia, Iran, and Syria-Palestine". One of the most notable findings of Ancient music in Mesopotamia is the Lyres (and harp) of Ur. The earlier lyres were recovered by British Archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavations of Ur's Royal Cemetery. Each of the lyres have their own unique features; however, they do share some similar features such as the ornament of a bovine's (bull or ox) head and the use of jewels and precious metals (Lapis Lazuli, mother of pearl, gold, silver, and copper) to decorate the lyre. Here are images of two prominent lyres found in the tombs of the King and Queen; The Great Lyre on the left (above), and The Queen's Lyre on the right (below):

In addition to the Lyres of Ur, information about the Ancient Mesopotamian musical scales have been identified by cuneiformists in the late 1950s. So far, they have identified ten cuneiform tablets which gave evidence that "standardized tun­ing procedures that operated within a heptatonic, dia­tonic system consisting of seven different and interrelated scales" existed during the Old Babylonian period of ancient Mesopotamia (c.1800 BCE). What is surprising is that these seven scales can be associated to the seven musical scales of Ancient Greek even though the development of the Greek scales were only created after about 1400 years later! Furthermore, one of the Mesopotamian scale is similar to what we know as a modern Major scale today. This shows the influence Ancient music might have in the shaping of civilizations throughout history.

Ancient music of The Greek

In general, the Greek music system of scales generally consist of tetrachords - a four note descending adjacent intervals - which is referred to as a "genera". Based on the different ways intervals within the tetrachord were divided, three different genera - the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic genera - were classified. Seven-tone scales were then created by putting these genera together using two methods: conjunct and disjunct.

Apart from having the system of scales and the seven different modes of music [previously mentioned in the section of Mesopotamia music], the music systems of ancient Greece was largely influenced by the philosophies of notable philosophers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. As we have discussed in class, due the Greek's belief in the nine muses and art, they held music in high regard. Therefore, the functions of music include playing "in homes, in theatres [sic], during religious ceremonies, to accompany athletics, provided rhythm during military training, accompanied agricultural activities such as harvesting, and was an important element in the education of children".

In addition to being the "Father" of mathematics and geometry, Pythagoras was also deemed as the "Father of Music" due to his studies and discovery of musical intervals, harmonics, and the medicinal properties of music. At c.500 BCE, Pythagoras devised the Pythagorean Scale based on the relationship between frequencies and the vibrations of different lengths of strings. Here is an interactive site introducing his system of harmony in terms of Music and Space.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle discusses music as a power that can influence the spirituality, behavior, and soul due to its potential to affect the emotional states of an individual. Plato emphasized on the relationship of music and the society, stating in The Republic Book IV that "When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them". Similarly, Aristotle observed that music can shape human behavior as it connects deeply with human emotions. In chapter V of his Politics Book VIII, Aristotle describes how "anger and mildness, courage and modesty, and their contraries, as well as all other dispositions of the mind, are most naturally imitated by music and poetry; which is plain by experience, for when we hear these our very soul is altered". With this potential to affect emotional states, he emphasized that music should be considered as an influence that can improve, and also decline human's morality.


(Click on image for source)

Thank you for reading

Here marks the end of my blog post regarding the Ancient music of Mesopotamia and Greece. By now, we would have realized how the information provided in this post is just the tip of an iceberg as compared to the vast history and complexity of Ancient music and its various music systems. However, I hope you have enjoyed reading and learning more about what I have shared. One last thing, how could a topic introducing Ancient music end without any audio references?


To offer an idea of ancient music, the video embedded above is an interpretation of the Hurrian Hymn no. 6 from ancient Mesopotamia (c.1400 BCE); one of the oldest written music discovered thus far!

Once again, thank you for reading.

* There's Music in the Cosmos *


:) Just for fun, you can play this music piece while reading.


In Greece, mathematics played a crucial role in terms of it being a discipline of great knowledge which diverged into realms of philosophy and divinity, giving way to the formation of celestial music. ‘Musica Universalis’, or ‘Music of the Spheres’, is an ancient Greek philosophical and mathematical theory accounting for proportions in movement of celestial bodies (sun, moon, planets) producing imaginative music.At the time, the sun, moon, and planets were thought to revolve around Earth in their proper spheres. The spheres were thought to be related by the whole-number ratios of pure musical intervals, creating musical harmony”. The Greeks believed goodness is comprised of harmonious combinations and is a form of high intelligence, because external goodness in the world was in harmonic balance with the goodness within one’s soul.



Pythagoras is credited with the discovery of celestial music by incorporating mathematics and philosophy. He discovered that a “complete system of mathematics could be constructed, where geometric elements corresponded with numbers, and where integers and their ratios were all that was necessary to establish an entire system of logic and truth”. This was considered as a phenomenon of ‘sacred geometry’, involving “sacred universal patterns used in the design of everything in our reality”. Number ratios made way to his discovery of intervals between harmonious musical notes, he noticed the common presence of whole number ratios.

He applied his concept of harmonic mathematics to the movement of the universe, and saw a link between science and music. On the notion of celestial bodies, he believed that they moved in terms of mathematical equations which created music, and hence a kind of symphony. It is said that Pythagoras claimed himself to be the only one to hear these ‘cosmic chants’ from the 'Music of the Spheres'.   



This idea was even influential to other philosophers we discussed about; Plato was one of them, in his ‘Republic’ he explains the following about the cosmos; ". . . Upon each of its circles stood a siren who was carried round with its movements, uttering the concords of a single scale". A more modern example of this ancient philosophical concept comes into perspective when we look at the relationship between the progression of the elements and harmonic ratios. “While making a list of the elements in the ascending order of their atomic weights, John A. Newlands discovered at every eighth element a distinct repetition of properties. This discovery is known as the ‘law of octaves’ in modern chemistry”.

Because of the way Pythagoreans (Pythagoras and his disciples) used mathematics to reason harmony, a Harmonic School was formed where students, the ‘Canonics’, believed they were working with the true principles of harmony. Recognizing the effect of music on emotions and senses, Pythagoras soon went into the notion of musical medicine; results are said to have shown therapeutic treatment for the spirit, soul and body.

Pythagoras believed the universe to be an enormous monochord, “with its single string connected at its upper end to absolute spirit and at its lower end to absolute matter--in other words, a cord stretched between heaven and earth”.



It is worth mentioning that Pythagoras is known to have had a preference for string instruments; he warned his fellow Pythagoreans not to be exposed to the impure sounds of flutes or cymbals and claimed singing solemn songs while playing the lyre  had the ability to cleanse the soul.




The Pythagoreans also identified a significant relationship between the Greek heavens  (which they referred to as the spheres of the seven planets) and their seven sacred vowels, each heaven was thought to sound its distinct vowel:

  • 1st heaven = Α (Alpha), also the 1st Greek letter;
  • 2nd heaven = Ε (Epsilon);
  • 3rd heaven = Η (Eta);
  • 4th heaven = Ι (Iota);
  • 5th heaven = Ο (Omicron);
  • 6th heaven = Υ (Upsilon);
  • 7th heaven = Ω (Omega), the last Greek letter.

They believed the perfect harmony was created when all heavens sing, and ascended as an everlasting praise to the throne of the Creator. It is not explicitly mentioned from any source but it is quite possible that these “planetary heavens are to be considered as ascending in the Pythagorean order, beginning with the sphere of the moon, which would be the first heaven”.

The Pythagoreans believed all that exists has its own voice and “all creatures were eternally singing the praise of the Creator”. Humans cannot sense these divine melodies because their souls are far too enshrined with the ‘illusion of material existence’, it will only be heard if and when the soul frees itself of this lowly thinking. “Harmony recognizes harmony, and when the human soul regains its true estate it will not only hear the celestial choir but also join with it in an everlasting anthem of praise to that Eternal Good controlling the infinite number of parts and conditions of Being”.


Watch the video below, SERIOUSLY...totally worth it (and short too :D)! To view the full NOVA documentary, click here - > 'The Great Math Mystery'.



NOTE: Direct quotes have been hyperlinked to their respective online source. Images have been hyperlinked with their respective image URL, and their captions are hyperlinked to the actual website source. Four YouTube videos have also been hyperlinked; one at the very beginning, two image captions (the instrumentals), and one at the end (full documentary for which the video at the end is from). The video at the end is directly linked to YouTube.