With an account of the Development of Modern Musical Instruments from Ancient Types by John Stainer, M.A., MUS. DOC., MAGD, COLL., OXON. Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. 1882.This edition prepared for katapi by P Ingram, 2005.
HOME | Preface | contents | introduction | top


No apology is needed, I hope, for issuing in this form the substance of the series of articles which I contributed to the Bible Educator. Some of the statements which I brought forward in that work have received further confirmation by wider reading; but some others I have ventured to qualify or alter. Much new matter will be found here which I trust may be of interest to the general reader, if not of use to the professional.

I fully anticipate a criticism to the effect that such a subject as the development of musical instruments should rather have been allowed to stand alone than have been associated with Bible music. But I think all will admit that the study of the history of ancient nations, whether with reference to their arts, religion, conquests, or language, seems to gather and be concentrated round the Book of Books, and when once I began to treat of the comparative history of musical instruments, I felt that a few more words, tracing their growth up to our own times, would make this little work more complete and useful than if I should deal only with the sparse records of Hebrew music.

I have received, in all the philological portions of the book, much valuable help from my friend, E. A. Budge, B.A. (M.R.A.S.), of Christ's College, Cambridge; to whom also I am indebted for Appendices II. and IV.

J.S. top


INTRODUCTION. Ch. Origin of Singing and Musical Instruments. Probable Sources of Ancient Hebrew Music. Modern Hebrew Music.
PART I.   String Instruments.
Kinnor I The Kinnor formerly thought to have been a Trigon. Illustrations of Trigons. Now believed to have been a Lyre or Guitar. Ancient Lyres. Difference between Lyre and Guitar.
NEBEL II The Nebel probably a moderate-sized Harp. Position of Harp when held by Player. Long-necked Instruments of the Egyptians. Their importance. Frets. Ancient Harps. Link between Harp and Guitar. Nebelazor.
SEBECA III Sabeca, probably a large Harp. Psanterin. Antiquity of Dulcimers. The History of the word Psanterin. Illustration of Dulcimers of various Nations The development of the Dulcimer into the modern Pianoforte.
PSALMS IV Kithros, the Greek Lyre. Illustrations. Explanation of several Words used in the headings and elsewhere in the Psalms. Plate showing intimate relation between all String Instruments.
PART II.   Wind instruments.
 KHALIL V. Khalil, probably an Oboe. Distinction between various Reed Pipes. Derivation of various names given to Flutes. Flutes a bee. Flauto traverse. Ancient Flutes. Modem Egyptian Reed Instruments. Double Flutes. Machol. Mahalath.
 GHUGAB VI Ghugab. Ancient Syrinx. Magrepha. Probable method of growth of the Organ. First principles of its construction. Chinese Organ. Hydraulic Organ. Mashrokitha.
SUMPONYAH VII Sumponyah. Account of the Name. Ancient Bagpipes.
SHOPHAR VIII Keren, Shophar, Khatsotsrah. Difference between them. Ancient Horns. Ancient Trumpets.
PART III.   Instruments of Percussion.
 TSELTSIM IX Tseltslim. Ancient Cymbals. Arabian Cymbals. Little Cymbals. Connection between Cymbals and Bells.
 MANGHANGHIM X Manghanghim. Ancient Sistra or Rattles. Toph, a Tambour. Ancient Tambours.
PART IV.   Vocal Music.
 THE MUSIC XI Signs directing ascent or descent of the Voice in reciting Poetry or Sacred Books. Accents, Greek Church Musical Notation.  Hebrew Accents. Neumes. Ancient Scales. Ancient Melodies. Chants.
Appendix 1 I Classification of Musical Instruments generally.
II Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Names of Bible Instruments.
  III List of Passages in the Bible in which Musical Instruments are mentioned.
  IV List of Accents.



No art is exercising such a strong influence over the human race at the present time as the art of Music. It has become so thoroughly a part of our existence that we rarely pause to consider to what an extent we are, as it were, enveloped in its sweet sounds, or how irremediable its loss would be to us. As a natural result of this, much interest has of late years been shown in every research which might tend to throw some light on its early history. The various musical instruments depicted in sculpture, or on coins, or sometimes luckily found in ancient tombs, have been carefully examined, with excellent results. Also, the broad basis on which the study of History now stands, has allowed opportunities of comparing the music and musical instruments of ancient nations, and of classifying them into different families. It will be at once seen what important results must arise from this, for in company with customs, words, and even modes of thought, musical instruments may pass from one nation to another, whether their intercourse has been that of peaceful neighbours or of tyrannic foes.

But notwithstanding all that has been done towards elucidating the mysteries of the birth of Music, no precise data can be obtained on this point. The stories common among the ancient Greeks about the discovery of the lyre by Mercury, formed of strings stretched across a tortoise-shell (testudo); of Orpheus, and his transmitting his knowledge of music to Thamyris and Linus; of Terpander, and his improvements in the art— are all very pretty, and sometimes also not a little amusing, when it is found that learned men find in them ample grounds for serious discussion; but as a matter of fact, nothing is known as to the origin of music. [According to the Hymn to Hermes (at one time attributed to Homer), the god, " soon after his birth, found a mountain tortoise grazing near his grotto, on Mount Kyllene. He disembowelled it, took its shell, and, out of the back of the shell he formed the lyre. He cut two stalks of reed of equal length, and, boring the shell, he employed them as arms or sides (πήχεις) to the lyre. He stretched the skin of an ox over the shell. It was, perhaps, the inner skin, to cover the open part, and thus to give it a sort of leather or parchment front. Then he tied cross-bars of reed to the arms, and attached seven strings of sheep-gut to the cross-bars. After that, he tried the strings with a plectrum."—Chappell' s "History of Music," p. 29.] Nor is it a subject for regret that so lovely, so ethereal an art should hide its head in obscurity; it has come down to our time in rich profusion, like some noble stream, and all that we can discover, if we attempt to retrace its course, is that on all sides, and at all times, welling springs have found their way into its bosom, each of which has its claim to our gratitude as administering to our plenty, but of no one of which can we say, this is the fountain-head of our art. The origin of music is inseparable from the origin of language, and whatever views are held with regard to the one, will hold good of the other; but, without entering into any digression on this subject, it may be said that singing is really little else than a highly beautiful speaking.  A recent writer [Eugene Veron on esthetics.  Translated by Armstrong. (Chapman and Hall.)] says—"A very important characteristic of ancient languages was rhythm. The more or less regular recurrence of intonations and of similar cadences constitutes for children and savages the most agreeable form of music. The more the rhythm is accentuated, the better they are pleased; they love not only its sound, but its movement also. ... The most civilised nations cannot escape from this tyranny of rhythm. ... Rhythm seems, indeed, to contain some general law, posses­sing power over almost all living things. One might say that rhythm is the dance of sound, as dancing is the rhythm of movement. The farther we go back into the past, the more marked and dominant is it found in language.  It is certain that at one period of the development of humanity, rhythm constituted the only music known, and that it was even intertwined with language itself. " It is true that the voice is modulated and regulated in singing by rules, the practice of which has now become a complicated art; but, on the other hand, is there not music, and that of the most touching kind, on many a speaker's lips— on those of the earnest preacher, the anxious mother, the loving friend? And this is not the less music because it has not been successfully analysed, or because its laws are not published cheaply in a tabulated form. May we not say, then, that vocal music would naturally grow out of sweet talk, and may we not give to vocal music priority of existence over instrumental? But, alas! the early history of the human race discloses more of mutual strife and bloodshed than of peace, and from the natural and indissoluble link between music and rhythm we soon find music, especially as practised on instruments of percussion, an ingredient of war. It would answer two purposes: instruments of brilliant tone, such as trumpets and horns, would excite and rouse the feelings, while drums and rattles would enforce the rhythmical stepping and close movement of large bodies of men. And, again, the known effect of music upon the emotions would soon enlist it to the cause of religion; and music, therefore, seems amongst all nations to have been as much a part of worship as of war.

The division of the Music of the Bible into three kinds — namely, as used in worship, war, and social intercourse— naturally suggests itself; and it would be an exceedingly good division, if only there existed sufficient materials for its story.  But, unfortunately direct information on the subject is most scanty; for often that which seems at first sight a plain statement of facts, will on examination turn out far otherwise. For instance, we are told that Jubal was "the father of such as handle the harp and the organ." This reads thus in the Lutheran version: "Und sein Bruder hiesz Jubal, von dem sind hergekommen die Geiger und Pfeifer" ("And his brother was named Jubal, from whom descended fiddlers and pipers"). On turning to the Septuagint version, we shall find that no less than three totally distinct words are used in different parts of the Bible to translate the word we render "organ." [Ψαλτήριον, Gen.iv.21; ψαλμός, Job.xxi.12 and xxx.31; αργανον,] We must, therefore, look to the nations with which the Jews came into contact as the best source of information. We shall soon in this manner find valuable matter. For instance, Laban is said to have regretted the suddenness of Jacob's departure, because it deprived him of the opportunity of sending him away with music. 

Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret and with harp? (Gen.xxxi.27).

Kinnor, or cinnor, is the word here used for "harp," and it is the only stringed instrument mentioned in the Pentateuch. Laban being a Syrian, we shall be justified in believing this to be a Syrian instrument, and not, as sometimes stated, of Phoenician origin. This text also shows that music was used for home festivals. But it must not be expected that, as an art, music could reach a very high standard amongst nomadic tribes, whose roof was never more substantial than a tent, whose temple of worship was the canopy of heaven.

The intercourse between Abraham and the Canaanites in all probability influenced future Hebrew music. Then follows Jacob's residence with Laban, alluded to above, which probably caused his posterity to carry a certain amount of Syriac music, or musical instruments, into Egypt. But, again, a stay of four centuries in so civilised a country as Egypt must have largely added to their knowledge of the art, and it seems not unfair to suppose that whatever system of notation the Hebrews adopted was learnt from the Egyptians. The strong love of poetry amongst the Jews is shown by frequent allusions in Holy Scripture even as early as the Pentateuch; but where did they learn to set their inspired songs to tunes? In all probability in Egypt; and, unpleasant as it may sound to say so, the glorious song of Moses was most probably sung to some simple Egyptian chant, well known and popular. It may be said, " Why ascribe all the invention of the art to the neighbours of the Jews, and deny to the Jews the power of forming their own melodies and their own instruments?" The reply is simple — pastoral duties and a pastoral mode of life, as a matter of fact, do not tend to foster constructive art in such a manner as the concentration of highly-educated men in large cities; and whereas the Jews, during their stay in Egypt, could have but small opportunities of inventing or elaborating a system of music, the Egyptians themselves had, not only then, but for centuries previous to the immigration of the Hebrews, the most favourable opportunities. Their learning was notorious, and it is an accepted fact that music was a recognised branch of their learning. But, to continue: the wandering in the wilderness could not conduce to artistic progress, nor did more favourable opportunities present themselves after the establishment of the Jews in the promised land under Joshua, for they then passed through some five centuries of almost constant warfare with neighbouring nations.  And it must not be forgotten that Solomon had to employ foreign workmen for all delicate work, and probably, therefore, for the construction of musical instruments. We read,

And the king made of the almug trees pillars for the house of the Lord, and for the king's house, harps also and psalteries for singers: there came no such almug trees, nor were seen unto this day. (I Kings x.12).

Then, again, after the time of Solomon the troubled state of divided Israel was most unsuited to the cultivation of native art; while, on the other hand, the constant intercourse of the Jews with the Assyrians, and their forced residence among them while in captivity, must have modified existing music, or have given it some fresh ingredients.

It may be said, therefore, on the whole, that the internal condition of the Jews offered at any time but a poor nursery for art, but that their external relations rendered an incorporation of the arts of their neighbours inevitable; and these neighbours were that Semitic race which after the deluge had spread itself on the borders of the Tigris and Euphrates, and had peopled Syria, Phoenicia, Arabia, Egypt, Chaldea, and Mesopotamia. It is, of course, possible to push this argument too far, and to deny that the Jews possessed any national music.  This would be wrong, because it is more than probable that whatever they adopted from their neighbours would be moulded by them into a shape most pleasing to them, and in time would assume peculiarities of style which would distinguish it from its parent stock.

It might be supposed that much assistance in treating of the music of the Bible might be obtained from an examination of the music now in use in the synagogues of the Jews; but the most that could be discovered from such a source would be partial traditions of the music of the second Temple; and undoubtedly the music of the second Temple not only fell far short of that of the first in point of efficiency and number of executants, but was also tinctured with the foreign associations of the returning Jews. Such instruments as had been lately adopted would most likely be used on the restoration of their worship, and it is not im­probable that the vocal music would be also modified. Some of those instruments might have been introduced, the Chaldean names of which appear in the book of Daniel. But this is not all: a comparison of the music used in modem synagogues shows that even since the dispersion of the nation their art has been influenced by that of the people amongst whom they have settled. An important fact bearing on this is noticed by Carl Engel (in his valuable work on National Music), namely, that "in the synagogal hymns of the Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from the Spanish Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, distinct traces of the characteristics of Moorish music are still preserved." The following important passage bearing on this subject is from the pen of the Rev. D. J. Sola [See p. 13 of this author's learned preface to the Ancient Melodies of the Liturgy of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. (London, 1857.)]: "When the Sephardic ritual became fixed and generally established in Spain, and was enriched by the solemn hymns of Gabirol, Judah Ha-Levi, and other celebrated Hebrew poets, chants or melodies were composed or adapted to them, and were soon generally adopted.  It would, indeed, have been most desirable that the sublime lays of our pious poets should have ever been found combined with equally sublime and sweet strains by devotionally inspired musical composers of our own nation. But this was not always practicable, and at a very early period it became necessary to sing many of these hymns to the popular melodies of the day; and in most printed editions we find directions prefixed to hymns replete with piety and devotion, that they are to be sung to the tune of "Permetid, bella Amaryllis" (" Permit, fair Amaryllis"), "Tres colores in una" ("Three colours in one"), "Temprano naces, Almendro" ("Thou buddest soon, O Almond"), and similar ancient Spanish or Moorish songs— a practice no doubt very objectionable, for obvious reasons, and from which the better taste of the present age would shrink. It is, however, but fair to say that these adaptations, though in some degree unavoidable, did not pass without severe censure from pious and learned rabbis."  Similarly, it will be found that in every case the modern music of the Jews varies remarkably according to the music of nations in which they have formed colonies, whether those colonies be in Germany, Holland, France, or Portugal. But it will be found that in many of the most carefully preserved melodies there is a decided cast of Asiatic tonality. If the traditions of the second Temple existed anywhere in a tolerably pure state, they might have been found amongst the descendants of those Jews who migrated to Egypt about 200 years before Christ, to avoid the tyranny of the Seleucides, and who built a temple near Heliopolis.

That there should be a sad lack of national monuments relating to the Jews is not surprising, when it is remembered that Jerusalem stood about seventeen sieges, each of which was accompanied by more or less destruction, and that, too, at the hands of victors who seemed to take a malicious delight in effacing the national characteristics of those they conquered.  So successful have they been, that there remains not one Jewish bas-relief to tell the shape of their musical instruments, and only on a few coins of late date drawings of instruments, of a not very intelligible character, are known to exist. This being the case, the reader will sometimes have to content himself with the opinions, often contradictory, of learned men.

But we ought, nevertheless, not to undervalue the study of what may perhaps be appropriately termed the comparative anatomy of musical instruments. For it is easy to discern in the records of history that such instruments have been undesignedly moulded into very clearly defined groups or classes, according to the uses for which they were intended, these uses varying, of course, with the national tastes and occupations of the races by whom they were adopted. Strong probability, sometimes almost approaching to certainty, may therefore be thus established as to the nature of a musical instrument, the actual description of which may be of the most scanty kind, the arguments pursued being on much the same method as that familiar to naturalists, who are not uncommonly able to give a fairly trustworthy account of the form and physiological construction of some bird or beast, of which only a few bones remain, dug out of some early stratum of the earth's surface. And, as even the habits of such extinct animals can often be gathered from a careful study of their natural environment, so, too, may the character and capabilities of a musical instrument be discovered by considering the occasions on which it is recorded to have been used.

We propose now to give a short account of every instrument mentioned in Holy Scripture, stating what is known as to its construction, origin, and uses. For this purpose we will divide them, as a modem orchestra would be divided, into string instruments, wind instruments, and instruments of percussion; pointing out the relation they bear to kindred instruments of our own time. If this account of Hebrew instruments be followed by a notice of Hebrew vocal music, it is hoped that the reader will have gained some useful knowledge of the music of the Bible. top