Music & Dance

The Musical Instruments of Ancient Egypt

A wide variety of musical instruments were played. Some of these instruments included ivory and bone clappers, harps and lutes, and percussion instruments such as drums, sistra, cymbals and the like.

There are four basic types of musical instruments in Ancient Egypt. These are: idiophones, this includes clappers, sistra, cymbals and bells. These instruments were particularly associated with religious worship and the music used in these rites and ceremonies.

Membranaphones, these instruments included tambourines, which were usually played at banquets, social gatherings and the like, as well as drums which were used in both military processions and in religious functions.

Aerophones include the flute, double clarinets, double oboes, trumpets and bugles. The latter were mostly used in connection with the army and military processionals. The earliest example of aerophones is the reed flute.

Detail of a flute player and listener from the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, 5th Dynasty.

Chordophones consisted of three types: the harp, which was an indigenous Egyptian instrument, the lute and the lyre, which were imported from the Asiatic invaders.

This wooden model represents a girl playing a harp. Note how she holds it against her body. In real life she probably would have rested it on a stand whiles she played it.

Professional dancers and musicians entertained at social events, and traveling troupes gave performances in public squares of great cities such as Waset (Thebes) and Alexandria.

References Used:                                   

David, A. Rosalie "The Egyptian Kingdoms"
Hart, George "Ancient Egypt"
Manniche, Lise"Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt"

Manniche, Lise"Ancient Egyptian Musical Instruments"
Steedman, Scott "Pocket Ancient Egypt"

The first great culture to infuse its entire society with the magic of music and dance was that of Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians enjoyed life to its fullest and no celebration in Ancient Egypt would have been complete without music and dancing. At parties, singers and dancers performed to the music of harps, lutes, drums, flutes, cymbals, clappers and tambourines. During festivals, crowds chanted and clapped, carried along by the vibrant rhythm of Egyptian orchestras, while dancers performed amazing feats, leaping twirling and bending their bodies in time with the music.

Most of Egyptian secular and religious life was marked by the performance of music and dance. This important aspect of daily life of the Egyptians is depicted as early as the Pre-Dynastic periods. Ceremonial palettes and stone vessels indicate the importance that music had even in the earliest of periods. The importance of music in daily life in Ancient Egypt is underscored by the large number of musical instruments found in museum collections around the world.

In many banqueting scenes found within the tombs of the Ancient Egyptians, the banquets appear to be more secular. Shown in these scenes are an idealized rather than any actual event. The basic components of these scenes changed very little throughout Egypt's history, until the New Kingdom. Around the 18th Dynasty, there is a marked change of character, in the song, dance and the overall "feel" of these scenes. At this time we see a marked sense of erotic significance. Lotus flowers, mandrakes, wigs and unguent cones, as well as men and women clothed in semi-transparent garments and the gestures of the banquet participants. Music, love and sensuality go hand in hand in most civilizations, ancient as well as modern, and in different spheres. Overall music is a major component of life, an important piece of both secular and religious life.

Probably the best indication of the Ancient Egyptian's enjoyment and value of music and dance is a satirical papyrus wherein an ass is playing a large harp, a lion with a lyre, a crocodile with a lute, and a monkey with a double oboe.


Dance in Ancient Egypt

Dance was far more than just an enjoyable pastime in Ancient Egypt.During the Pre-Dynastic period were found depictions of female figures, perhaps of Goddesses or Priestesses, dancing with their arms raised above their heads. The act of dancing was undoubtedly an important component of ritual and celebration in Ancient Egypt.

People from every social class were exposed to music and dancing. Manual laborers worked in rhythmic motion to the sounds of songs and percussion, and street dancers entertained passers by. In normal, daily life musicians and dancers were an important and integral part of banquets and celebrations. Dance troupes were available for hire to perform at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. Some women the harems of the wealthy were trained in music and dance. However, no well-born Egyptian would consider dancing in public. The Nobility would employ servants or slaves to entertain at their banquets to a offer pleasant diversion to themselves and their guests.

Elizabeth 'Artemis' Mourat, professional dancer and dance-scholar categorized the dances of Ancient Egypt into six types: religious dances, non-religious festival dances, banquet dances, harem dances, combat dances, and street dances. There were certain ritual dances that were crucial to the successful outcome of religious and funerary rites. This is particularly true of the Muu-Dancers. These dancers wore kilts and reed crowns and performed alongside funeral processions.

With the emergence of the cult of Wasir (Osiris in Greek) dance was a crucial element in the festivals held for both He and Aset (Isis in Greek) His sister-wife. These festivals occurred throughout the year. Dance was also important in the festivals dedicated to Apis.

The act of dancing was inseparable from music, and so the depictions of dance in Pharaonic tombs and temples invariably show the dancers either being accompanied by groups of musicians or themselves playing castanets or clappers to keep the rhythm. Little distinction seems to have been made between dancing and what would be considered today as acrobatics. Many dancers depicted in the temple and tomb paintings and reliefs show dancers in athletic poses such as cartwheels, handstands and backbends.


Detailed study of the depiction of dancers has revealed that the artists were often depicting a series of different steps in particular dances, some of which have been reconstructed. Movements of Egyptian dances were named after the motion they imitated. For instance, there were "the leading along of an animal," "the taking of gold," and "the successful capture of the boat."

Men and women are never shown dancing together, and the most common scenes depict groups of female dancers often performing in pairs.