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Thread: Ancient lute question

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    I recently read a book called "Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt," and the author, Lise Manniche mentions the existence of lutes discovered in tombs dating back to the 5th Dynasty. However, my searches have all come up empty-handed.

    I'd like to know if any of you string gurus know of these instruments, and if so, are they fretted, and could someone (or has someone) discerned the size of intervals between the frets?

    In the book, the author gives an example of intervals that a certain musicologist extrapolated from the distance between frets on a lute in a fresco, but given the highly stylized nature of ancient Egyptian art, I find that a dubious method at best.

    Would an artist painting half-human half-jackal characters have actually bothered to measure the distance between frets on a lute and depict them accurately?

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    Registered User Bruce Clausen's Avatar
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    Good to be suspicious here. Much more recently, the lithograph of the nineteenth-century guitarist Dionisio Aguado that was published in his own guitar method shows him playing a guitar that looks to be about four feet long, with pretty much equally spaced frets all the way up. So much for artists.

    BC

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    I don't know how long they have been around but there is an egyptian lute-esque instrument called an oud. It has 11 strings 10 in courses of two (like a mandolin) and the lowest one a single. Now a days they don't have frets but they originally had tie-on ones (made of sheep gut I think, not sure, someone else will know). Don't know much more than that.

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    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Have a look at this webpage for a pic of Egptian lutes with what look like frets

    cheers

    graham

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    You'll have to forgive me; I'm in the day-job office, away from appropriate reference, and will be in the field on the day job all weekend. We know there were lute-like thingies in Egypt, but fret intervals and tuning is anybody's guess. We don't even have anything reliable about relative tuning until the renaissance, let alone ancient Egypt. Ancient lutes can be separated into short-necked things (like oud) and long-necked things (like saz). I'm not aware of any oud-like iconography from ancient Egypt. "Nefer" is usually batted about as the ancient Egyptian term for long-necked lute-like thingies, but I like this quote from the page to which Graham linked:
    Quote Originally Posted by
    The jury is still out on the issue of what these lutes were actually called. For sometime, it was thought that the Egyptian term for lute was nefer (literally, "beauty") because the hieroglyph for that word looks like the instrument. New findings have proved this interpretation wrong. Danish Egyptologist Dr. Lise Manniche in her book, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (British Museum Press, 1991), states, "Its Egyptian name is not established beyond doubt, although there are two possible candidates. The word gngnti is suggested by its similarity with the name of a modern African instrument, but also appears only at a late date in Egyptian history. The word nth might also be considered; it occurs in a New Kingdom text describing frivolous music-making, a context in which the lute would fit perfectly."
    Galpin wrote a bit in his classic text on the early development of lute relatives by adding a resonator to a musical bow that was capable of variable pitch by stopping a string along its length. However, Galpin's account is hugely speculative in offering too many specifics and not supporting his assertions with period documentation. Galpin goes so far as to name the originator of lute-like things! Lingal. Galpin also wrote an essay on ancient harps, in which he gives better citation of a specific Ghond epic and states Lingal's instrument is credited with the ability to generate 11 tones.

    Most ancient frets, where used, likely were tied gut. In the case of some very early, long-necked incarnations, this might have been a single strand spiraled around the neck along its length. It's not likely such a set up could have survived the ages for modern study. It's also good to be a little skeptical of the fine detail of functionality gleaned from iconography. Even some very detailed images of the high renaissance show frets (in the time that their intervals were beginning to be described in texts) finer towards the nut and broader at the soundbox!

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    First of all, Graham: thank you for that link, but it doesn't provide me with any new information. In fact, at the end of her book, Lise Manniche strongly suggests the connection between ancient Egyptian music and modern Mauritanian folk music. I've begun investigating that folk music as a matter of curiousity, if for no other reason than to expand my knowledge of ethnic traditions.

    And Eugene, I was hoping you would chime in on this. Perhaps I should have named the thread "calling Eugene?"

    You wrote: "Most ancient frets, where used, likely were tied gut. In the case of some very early, long-necked incarnations, this might have been a single strand spiraled around the neck along its length. It's not likely such a set up could have survived the ages for modern study."

    My question is "why not?" Many delicate items from the ancient tombs have survived even the most brutal of archeological excavations.

    Then you wrote: "It's also good to be a little skeptical of the fine detail of functionality gleaned from iconography."

    Granted, and that's why I wonder why a musicologist would go to the trouble of measuring the distance between frets on a fresco!!!

    In the final analysis, I guess I would like to know the specs on some of these ancient instruments, as there seem to be a number of people making reproductions of them. Where and how are they getting their measurements?

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    Quote Originally Posted by (Zman @ Sep. 07 2007, 19:37)
    You wrote: "Most ancient frets, where used, likely were tied gut. #In the case of some very early, long-necked incarnations, this might have been a single strand spiraled around the neck along its length. #It's not likely such a set up could have survived the ages for modern study."

    My question is "why not?" Many delicate items from the ancient tombs have survived even the most brutal of archeological excavations.
    I suppose they just haven't. #The following is nothing but speculative riffing; take it with a grain of salt. #Stringed instruments do tend to be really delicate. #Even if the tension of the strings is relieved to not tax the neck and soundbox, frets are not. #It's hard to imagine a taught fret not succombing to varying temperature and humidity, extreme dessication, etc. after 1,000+ years. #If the tension of tied frets are relieved, it's hard to imagine them maintaining position. #I suppose one could consider fret "scars", but you'd first need an instrument with a neck to consider.

    Regarding lutes of the European tradition, e.g., none have survived from the medieval era and only few have from the renaissance. #Those that have survived often did because they were maintained and played and modified to be kept contemporary. #Once modified, what they reveal about music making contemporary to their initial construction can be compromised. #We're talking about instruments around 500 years old; it requires a lot more time to reach ancient Egypt.

    Those who reproduce early instruments do have to depend a fair amount on educated speculation and the more reliable-looking iconography in the absence of extant instruments.




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    Couple of quick points. #Obviously all fretted instruments pre 1581 (at the very earliest) would use an untempered scale which bears only passing relationship to the modern frets. #A gut fret also allows retuning ie repositioning as music or local custom allows. In the west there is some evidence of this among early viol players. #In Indian music I believe that the frets on the Sitar are adjustable to accomadate different scales.

    Preservation of Egyptian artifacts from tombs depends on a nunmber of things not least of which is that the object has to be important enough to be placed there in the first place. #This article Instrumensts in Egypt suggests that lutes were the sole preserve of women which might explain their non appearance in grave goods.

    All the best

    Steve

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    Quote Originally Posted by (oggiesnr @ Sep. 10 2007, 11:17)
    Couple of quick points. #Obviously all fretted instruments pre 1581 (at the very earliest) would use an untempered scale which bears only passing relationship to the modern frets. #A gut fret also allows retuning ie repositioning as music or local custom allows. In the west there is some evidence of this among early viol players.
    I believe amongst vihuelists too. Regarding fretted temperament, it may be hard to say exactly what was done until people started specifically writing about it. I suspect it was as much eyeballing and playing it by ear as anything.

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    This site has some info on that region

    http://www.shlomomusic.com/banjoancestors_egypt.htm

    He says
    Unlike the teharden and the tidinit, which are fretless, some ancient Egyptian lutes were depicted as having non-fixed frets made of leather strips. That said, my thinking is that when the Amazigh picked up the Egyptian lute, they probably dropped the frets straight off. Another major physiological difference between the ancient Egyptian lutes and those of the Kel Tamashek and the Moors is the bridge assembly. The ancient Egyptian lutes apparently had a raised tail piece which served the function of a bridge, whereas the Kel Tamashek teharden and the Moorish tidinit both have fan-shaped bridges akin to those of the griot lutes.
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    Remember, too, that the word "lute" is used generically in organology, the science and history of musical isntruments. Any stringed instrument with a neck and a soundbox is a "lute" in the most general sense, including the violin family. It's also used a little more sloppily, for any plucked instrument that isn't all that guitar-shaped.



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