Music in the Papyri

One of the most significant changes in music in Egypt in the Graeco-Roman period was the introduction of Greek-style musical notation. Separate systems of notation indicated instrumental and vocal pitches, while various markings and implicit signals showed rhythm in both systems. It is from Greek papyri from Egypt that most examples of Greek musical notation are known-these papyri preserve passages from Greek literary texts with vocal notation (such as the famous Michigan musical papyrus), as well as instrumental passages, possibly also from theatrical performances. The music thus notated follows Greek tradition; there are, as far as we know, no pieces of indigenous music notated in the Greek style.


Papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt also provide a wealth of information about music beyond notation. Theoretical treatises on music, rules for musical contests, contracts for hiring musicians and incidental references to music and musicians in documents all add to our knowledge of what ancient music was like and how music fit into the life of Graeco-Roman Egypt. The Papyrus Collection at the University of Michigan Library contains a number of papyri relating to music; for further information about the collection visit its website. To see information about Michigan papyri relating to music, go to the homepage of the University of Michigan Advanced Papyrological Information System and search the database for "music".