What is the oldest-known song?

For as long as they’ve been speaking, human beings have been singing and making music…

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of History Revealed

The Epitaph of Seikilos (Photo by Nationalmuseets fotograf)

The words and musical notation on the Epitaph of Seikilos (Photo by Nationalmuseets fotograf)

Yet, despite claims that songs from ancient civilisations have been recovered – found carved into walls or impressed into clay tablets – it is nearly impossible to reconstruct ancient lyrics and melodies.

Arguably the earliest-known song, with both melody and lyrics recorded intact, from antiquity is the ‘Epitaph of Seikilos’, a funerary piece intended for voice and the string instrument, the lyre.

The Ancient Greek composition, thought to have been written in the first century AD, exists on a marble stele, which was discovered in 1883 in modern-day Turkey.

To go along with its melancholic melody (which can be heard here), are these sobering lyrics:

While you live, shine
Do not suffer anything at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands its toll.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Miles Russell. For more fascinating question by Miles, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.

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