What is the oldest musical composition that exists both as verifiable historical notation (or some other primary source) and as available recording on CD (or better e.g. on YouTube)?

For instance, Gregorian chants (e.g. as performed by Schola Gregoriana Pragensis) are very old -- from the first millennium AD. China's Imperial Music Bureau as an institution is even much older.

  • Are you alright with reproductions @Drux? – Rohit May 6 '15 at 10:04
  • @Rohit If it's a faithful reproduction then yes. I'd like to get a sense e.g. what kind of music was experienced by ancient Romans. I have some impressions from movies and the like, but there is presumably little faithfulness in such sources. Back to the say 16th century I generally find European music the older the more beautiful and I am also interested in whether this may (in parts) extent even further back into (global) history. – Drux May 6 '15 at 19:01
  • faithful it is. U may also find interest in folk music, than looking into classical only. – Rohit May 7 '15 at 8:52
  • @Rohit Thanks. (When applied to music that old, IMO a formal distinction between folk and classical music makes little practical sense.) – Drux May 7 '15 at 10:51

The Book of Rites, in a chapter on Touhu, records an apparently complete composition for drums. Known as the Lu Drums (魯鼓) or the Xue Drums (薛鼓), it seems to be intended for a match of the semi-ritualistic game of pitch-pot. This is considered the oldest extant musical score in Chinese history.

enter image description here

As the image shows, it uses very simple notations consisting of only two symbols: a square and a circle. The accompanying text explains that a circle means beat the drum, while a square means beat the smaller war drum.

This composition is difficult to date. The Book of Rites, in its modern form, was compiled during the Western Han dynasty, 206 BC – AD 9. However, that was a reproduction of much more ancient contents, purportedly produced during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, 770 BC - 256 BC. Much of it were destroyed during the Qin dynasty and recreated from memory by the old masters.

However, the chapter on Touhu is known to be part of a large collection supposedly found hidden in the walls of Confucius' old home. These were turned over to the Han dynasty government to assist in the reconstruction of the Book of Rites. Assuming this is correct, the drum score contained within Touhu must have been created before 221 BC or so.

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    But do we know the timing, and can we reproduce these drums to any even vague accuracy? Otherwise we can't say we can really "listen to that composition, as it was intended". – o0'. May 6 '15 at 9:09

Seikilos epitaph is a Greek song which is the oldest complete musical composition. It's dated to be from 200 BC - 100 AD, with first century AD being the more plausible guess. You can Google it to listen to many different versions.

Also refer to the older musical compositions section of the same article which states that there might be a few other older compositions, but they are not complete or not proven to be older than Seikilos epitaph. Most notable of them are the Hurrian songs which are a collection of incomplete songs from around 1400 BC.

(Or of course there is a remote possibility that the few inscriptions and writings that we have not yet deciphered actually turn out to be musical compositions, of all things)

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The Sāmā Veda , one of the four Vedas, is the Veda of music. All its verses can be performed, and were intended to be performed during ritual sacrifice. The sanskrit word sāmān translates to melody , and Veda is derived from the root vid -knowledge.

While its earliest parts are believed to date from as early as 1700 BCE (the Rigvedic period), the existing compilation dates from the post-Rigvedic Mantra period of Vedic Sanskrit, c. 1200 or 1000 BCE, in the early Kuru Kingdom, roughly contemporary with the Atharvaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Rigvedic Khilani.

Here is a performance on YouTube.
And man! It is moving in a strange way.

This is Griffith's work and translation of the Sama Veda. And yes, it is a "verifiable historical notation" :)

EDIT: A user did raise concerns of it being '"warped up in oral traditions" . Well, to the intactness of the narrative, it is mentionable, that the Vedas, were not in written form for greater part of the BCE. Writing came into practice in India only around Ashoka's time, circa 350 BCE. Since their advent to around this period it was oral traditions solely that upkept them for more than 1500 years. And even after being written down reciting and keeping the oral tradition was quite stressed on. Every brahmin boy being bred to priestly life would be trained almost like a digital cassette recorder, being stressed not only on accuracy of the verse and the tone, but also of correctly pressing on eccentricities of early Vedic sanskrit. Well, this does not add substantially to the answer, I know. But well, for discourse's sake, we have a lot of coffee to consume off.

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  • ? I only see lyrics there, he was asking about music, not lyrics… – o0'. May 6 '15 at 12:55
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    @Lohoris did you by any chance not notice the 2nd link about Youtube Sir? – Rohit May 6 '15 at 12:57
  • That is a contemporary recording, hence not relevant. What the OP is trying to ask is about provably old musical compositions. I.e., since there were no recorders back then, he's asking for a decifred partiture, which would result in us being able to play it as it was played back than. – o0'. May 6 '15 at 13:00
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    I'm sorry, but this is about history, do you expect us to take for granted your word? Yes I wasn't there thousands of years ago, but believe me this is real? This is not how history works, sorry… – o0'. May 6 '15 at 13:09
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    @Lohoris my word? Haha. You don't have to apologise. As I said, you are entitled. – Rohit May 6 '15 at 13:10

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