Music Origins: Mesopotamia, American Gospel and the Neurology of Faith, Part I

Mesopotamia instrumentsThrough the centuries many forms of music have arisen out of mystical or spiritual ardor:  Indian ragas, Japanese Shinto music, Madih nabawi or Arabic hymns, the classic liturgical anthems of Europe and American gospel.  Whether by the pounding of drums or the sonorous stones of Stonehenge or the arpeggios echoing against ancient cathedral walls, worship through music has defined civilizations from early times.  What is this power in music that moves humans to seek their deities in notes, rhythms and sounds? Let’s look at two very different cultures with surprisingly similar perspectives.


For the Mesopotamians, music was an intrinsic part of the world around them.  It was not merely a form of entertainment.  Rather, music enabled the Mesopotamians to have a direct and intimate relationship with their pantheon of gods whose own celestial essence was believed to be musical.

The origin of Mesopotamia is a story of many civilizations in the region in southwestern Asia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Called the cradle of civilization, the region’s earliest inhabitants were the Sumerians who created the world’s first cities such as Ur, founded around 6,000 years ago.  Among the many contributions of the Sumerians were the wheel and the earliest known system of writing, the cuneiform.  Later came the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Chaldeans, who all acquired aspects of the Sumerian culture and absorbed its beliefs and world view.


A drawing of one side of the tablet on which the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal is inscribed.

A drawing of one side of the tablet on which the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal is inscribed.

The fact that musical writing of a rather sophisticated nature was found in manuscripts from the region is a testament to the importance of music at the time. The oldest surviving written piece is the 3400 year old melody Hurrian Hymn Text H6, found in Ugarit, Northern Canaan (what is now southern Syria). You can hear a version of the piece here.

Going back to ancient Sumer, music defined the metaphysical boundaries for ancient people of a world they could neither see nor, at times, understand.  “To understand the role of musical theory in modeling the cosmos, one must realize that it involves: ‘the definition of intervals, the distance between pitches, by ratios of integers or counting numbers.’ For the ancient Sumerians music was a tool that helped them describe the cosmos.”[1]

Early Mesopotamian beliefs emanated from an acceptance of the prehistoric links between music and the voices of spirit-animals. Much of the art reflects this in pictures showing animals playing musical instruments and priests and nobility wearing animal parts, mimicking through dress and voice the spirit-animals.  Eventually, the spirit-animals’ voices became associated with those of the gods who were worshipped, served and obeyed in requisite devotion by humans.

The gods, in fact, were differentiated in terms of their voices. Ea (or Enki), the god of the deep sea, was associated with the drum, the sound of which personified his essence. Ramman, who commanded the thunder and the winds, was the “spirit of sonorous voice.” The goddess Ishtar was known as “the soft reed-pipe.”

It was such associations, “in which sound, as the anima of all phenomena, was used to adjure and conjure benevolent and malevolent nature, that were the foundation upon which the later elaborate temple services of Mesopotamia were built.”[2]

An ancient ziggurat at Ali Air Base Iraq near the ancient city of Ur.

An ancient ziggurat at Ali Air Base Iraq near the ancient city of Ur.

Mesopotamian temple rituals derived from the Neolithic ceremonies that were held at megaliths associated with celestial movements.  “The monumental temples of the Sumerians were images of the cosmos….Inner connections between divine house and divine service, and hence between temple and music, were here expressed”[3]

Every city had a temple with its most important citizen as the precentor who knew the intricacies of communicating with the gods.  Each chant had a special quality that “fitted it for communion with a chosen deity or caused it to have a definite magical effect.”[4]

With these spiritual prescriptions Mesopotamia offered the world its first mythology and recorded religion.  Active trading by Mesopotamia spread its influence widely.  In fact, its mythology was seminal in producing the wellspring of stories embraced by other cultures through the millennia, including the story of creation, the fall of man, the Great Flood, the tree of life and the god figure who dies and is resurrected.

Interestingly, many of these stories have been interpreted in music by other cultures.  One of the most fervent and prolific of styles is that of American gospel music.


American gospel music is based upon Christian teachings with roots in the African diaspora and the institution of slavery.  It is marked by much repetition, which was useful where literacy was an issue, and call and response, which harkened back to African antecedents.  Early gospel (17th century CE) was accompanied by drums and clapping.  Similar to the Mesopotamians, the music of American gospels was used to invoke the divine.  In the Christian belief, the Trinity comprises God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the latter sent by Jesus to offer succor to humans on earth after his crucifixion and resurrection.  These rhythmic intonations of singing were designed to promote an altered consciousness or trance where the Holy Spirit could enter the worshipper’s body.  In its transcendence the music also nurtured and strengthened a sense of community.  For centuries Africans in bondage in the United States found solace and hope in this music.  In the aftermath of slavery, through the tumultuous years of the 1960s and the fight for civil rights, these hymns defined much of the struggle for equality.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson

One of the most legendary of gospel singers was Mahalia Jackson whose powerful and evocative voice brought gospel to new heights of popular appeal.  Disavowing the singing of secular songs, she had an illustrious international career as a performer.  She also was involved in America’s civil rights movement. She famously prompted Reverend Martin Luther King to depart from his prepared notes for his I Have a Dream speech in Washington, DC in 1963 by urging him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” His unscripted words still live today as one of the most galvanizing speeches of modern times. (Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963).Her performance of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at Reverend King’s funeral in April 1968 was a heartbreaking and inspirational musical eulogy. (Click here to hear a concert performance of the song.) Jackson’s rendition of Elijah Rock is an example of the repetitions and rhythms of gospel music, although it is her energy that shows us the spirit of the music.  Listeners can’t help but be swept up in the power and majesty of this performance.  A song frequently performed by Jackson was Amazing Grace, penned by John Henry Newton, an 18th century English slave ship captain, Anglican cleric and later staunch supporter of the abolition movement.  The iconic song of the civil rights movement in the United States, We Shall Overcome, which Jackson performed frequently, was another anthem that moved the spirit, here to advocate for equal rights for African-Americans marginalized by repressive voting laws and limited educational and economic opportunities.

As with the Mesopotamians and the metaphysics of their music, African-Americans have found the same connection to the divine through their gospels and songs of faith. Two cultures, separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, who have created music to commune with the almighty powers of the universe.  What is it about being human that seeks an infinite spirit?

Next time:  Music Origins: Mesopotamia, American Gospel and the Neurology of Faith, Part II

[1] McClain, Ernest G.; “Musical Theory and Ancient Cosmology,” The World and I, p. 371,February 1994. Cr. L. Ellenberger

[2] Farmer, Henry George. “The Music of Ancient Mesopotamia.” Ancient and Oriental Music, ed. Egon Wellesz. New Oxford History of Music, vol. 1. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1957

[3] Wiora, Walter. The Four Ages of Music. Trans. M. D. Herter Norton. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965

[4] Crossley-Holland, Peter. “Non-Western Music.” Ancient Forms to Polyphony, ed. Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Pelican History of Music, vol. 1. 1960. Reprint, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962, 14

3 responses to “Music Origins: Mesopotamia, American Gospel and the Neurology of Faith, Part I

  1. Thanks for imaprting precious knowledge about music culuture. I am from India we have many type of music and songs which connect a person from god. There are beautiful chants for each deity at relegious occasion we all siblings sing themm with our granny at home temple. She was a devotee of paramhansa yoga nanda he gave lot of beautiful chants to the devotees

  2. Pingback: Music Origins: Mesopotamia, American Gospel and the Neurology of Faith, Part II | AntiquityNOW

  3. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

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