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There are an enormous number of musicians and dancers depicted in temples and tombs from all periods of Egypt’s dynastic history. Miraculously hundreds of these instruments have survived and were recovered from their ancient tombs.

These priceless ancient instruments have found homes in museums and private collections around the world. Many of these instruments have survived because they were individually wrapped in cloths and preserved in the same tradition as the mummification of their deceased.

There is evidence of orchestral ensembles and bands in ancient Egypt. These ancient musicians played instruments made of ivory, bones, gold and other fine metals and stones. Four basic types of musical instruments dominated all Egyptian vocal and instrumental compositions.

All Egyptian instruments can be classified into one or more of the following categories: idiophones, membranaphones, aerophones and chordophones. Many of the ancient musical instruments have evolved into many modern day instruments used in orchestras today.

An idiophone is any musical instrument able to produce sounds by rigorous self-vibration. These unique instruments can produce sound not using membranes or strings. Idiophones are percussive instruments that when struck or hit with a hand or a stick vibrate. The idiophones used in ancient Egyptian music were: clappers (two pieces of curved shaped wood with hands carved on the end of each clapper struck or clapped together), sistrum (a metal rod with a hoop supporting small metal disks that produce a tinkling sound when shaken) and cymbals to name a few.

These instruments were played by temple priestesses who led Pharaohs, funerals and temple priests in ritual ceremonies. Additional idiophones used that are more familiar today are: a triangle, bells, claves, African thumb piano, maracas, musical saw, gong, woodblocks, vibraphone and a Jew’s harp.

Instruments classified as membranaphones require the use of animal skin stretched over resonators to produce sound. Ancient Egyptian membranaphones include tambourines and drums of various shapes and sizes. Many of the drums in antiquity included small hand-held drums that were easy for the temple priestess and dancers to play and still move freely. These ancient membranaphones were also played at banquets, temple rituals, as well as religious and military functions.

In the Old and Middle Kingdom tombs are representations of soldiers going to war and marching to the beat of drums. Some membranaphones are capable of producing pitch while others are for rhythmic accompaniments only. Additional membranaphones used in orchestras today are snare and bass drums, bongos, jingles, castanets and timpani.

Aerophones are instruments that require a body of air to produce their sound absent of strings and membranes. Egyptian aerophones are the flute, trumpet, pipes and double reed pipes. Aerophones utilized today day in classical music are the piccolo, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, coronet, French horn, euphonium, tuba, oboe, and bassoon. Other aerophones that are popular to specific cultures are the whistle, recorder, jug, panpipes, single and double reed bagpipes, conch shell, shofar, harmonica and the bugle.

Chordophones in ancient Egypt consisted of three types: the harp, (which were geographically indigenous to Egypt), the lute and the lyre. Chordophones are string instruments whose sound is produced by the vibration of the strings. Resonators pick up the original vibrations of the strings and vibrate them rigorously amplifying the original sound. Chordophones can be plucked, stroked or bowed.

The harp is believed to be the oldest chordophone. Extremely ornate and simple harps are pictured one the wall paintings in ancient Egypt and Samaria. Additional chordophones are the violin, viola, cello, contrabass, guitar, banjo, harpsichord, hammered dulcimer and the piano. 

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