Music has existed for at least 55,000 years and is found in every culture in the world. It is not a surprise, as music is one of the fundamental expressions that are unique to humanity. Although there may have been songs that existed far back in human history, the earliest songs only date back to over 3,000 years ago. Most of the earliest recorded songs hark back through first to fourth century C.E., and they are typically religious hymns. Some of these Christian hymns are still even sung and recorded up to now.
Here we rank the list of the earliest known songs, starting from the oldest:
1) Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal (c. 1400 BCE)
The Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal is a collection of songs inscribed in cuneiform (an ancient system of writing) on clay tablets, which were excavated from Ugarit, the ancient port city in Northern Syria. It is generally regarded as the oldest extant complete work of notated music. The song is part of the 36 hymns in the Hurrian language. The author (or authors) of this piece of music is unknown.
Tablet h.6 is the most complete in this collection, and the song’s lyrics pay their ode to Nikkal, the goddess of the orchards.
2) Delphic Hymns (c. 128 BCE)
The Delphic Hymns are two musical compositions from ancient Greece, both of which were dedicated to Apollo. They are generally considered as written in c. 138 BCE and c. 128 BCE, respectively. The Delphic Hymns were first discovered in 1893. Although the composer of the First Hymn was long thought to be a mere “Athenian,” a more careful reading of the inscription reveals that the author is Athenaios Athenaiou, an Athenian composer and musician.
The First Hymn uses vocal notation, and the Second Hymn uses instrumental notation. Unfortunately, the hymns come in fragments. However, musicologists have put their best efforts to piece the fragments together.
3) Seikilos Epitaph
Although there are musical compositions that are older than Seikilos Epitaph, it is the oldest surviving complete musical composition from anywhere in the world. It is an ancient Greek musical notation engraved on a stele (a tombstone) from the ancient Greek town of Tralles (now Turkey). It is a Hellenistic Ionic song written by Seikilos. He probably dedicated this song to Euterpe, who was likely his wife.
4) Oxyrhynchus Hymn
The Oxyrhynchus Hymn is considered to be the oldest surviving Christian Greek hymn. It was written around the end of the 3rd century A.D. and consists of both lyrics and melody. It is found on Papyrus 1786 of Oxyrhynchus papyri. In 1918, the manuscript was discovered, in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and it is now under the care of the Slacker Library, Oxford. The author of this hymn is unknown.
5) Phos Hilaron
Phos Hilaron is often referred to as “Lumen Hilare” in Latin and has been translated in English as “O Gladsome Light.” It is one of the earliest surviving complete Christian hymns that is still widely used in several churches today. The hymn was first documented in the Apostolic Constitutions, which was written either in the late 3rd century or early 4th century A.D. It is also one of the oldest surviving hymns that is outside of the Bible.
The authorship of the hymns is still open to debate. St. Basil the Great said that the Phos Hilaron had already been considered as old in his day, although some attribute the song to St. Basil himself.
6) Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is another one of the earliest Christian Greek hymns that are still used up to this day. The original was written in Greek and is a Cherubikon (cherubic hymn) for the Offertory of the Divine Liturgy of St. James (which is the oldest existing complete form of the Divine Liturgy).
English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872 – 1958) did the modern arrangement of this hymn. He used the translation of the original Greek words by Gerard Moultrie to tune of the French medieval folk melody called “Picardy.” Vaughan Williams’ arrangement became popular among other Christian congregations.
7) Te Deum
Te Deum is a Latin Christian hymn whose authorship is traditionally attributed to St. Ambrose (that is why it is sometimes called “Ambrosian hymnal”) or St. Augustine. Or it could be St. Hilary or St. Nicetas. It was written during the Roman Empire in 387 A.D.
Te Deum is still sung regularly in the Anglican Church, Methodist Church, and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as some Lutheran Churches. The term “Te Deum” can also mean a brief religious service based on the hymn and designed to give blessings or thanks.
8) Sumer Is Icumen In
Sumer Is Icumen In is an incipit (opening text) of a Medieval English canon (called “round” or “rota”), which dates back in the mid-13th century. The authorship of this composition is unknown, although it is attributed to W. de Wycombe, an English Medieval-era composer, and copyist.
“Sumer Is Icumen” means “summer has come in” or “summer has arrived.” It is also known as “Summer Canon” and “Cuckoo Song.” Sometimes, it is referred to as the “Reading Rota” because it was found at Reading Abbey, a ruined abbey in the town of Reading, England (although the composition was not probably drafted there).
Sumer Is Icumen In is an important part of English history, and several versions of it have been sung and recorded. Interesting side note: the song also has the first recorded use of the word… ahem, “fart.”