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Mesopotamian tonal systems: a reply

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2014


In the course of a wordy article which offers no new solution to any problem, R. L. Crocker makes a series of criticisms of articles by us on the subject of Babylonian music. It is gratifying that he, the musicologist who has been most concerned, acknowledges that Gurney's corrections to the system, published in Volume 56 of this journal, are “almost right”. However, he accuses us of suffering from and perpetuating methodological and terminological confusions, and of being insufficiently emancipated from modern European musical concepts. It seems to us that there is more confusion in Dr Crocker's paper than in ours, and that in places he is more guilty than either of us of preconception based on modern musical theory.

A real step forward in the understanding of the Babylonian tonal systems was made a few years ago when T. J. H. Krispijn produced an improved reading in 1. 12 of the crucial “re-tuning text”, UET VII 74. Line 12 rounds off the preceding list of tuning adjustments. In what had previously been read as NU.SU.U[D] “no more” (i.e. “end of sequence”), Krispijn recognized nu-sú-ḫ[u-um], “tightening”; the damaged sign on the edge is compatible with ḫu, and the reading seems secure. This has consequences for readings in all that precedes and follows. Previously, te-[x x] in 1. 15 and te-n[i]-m[a] in 1. 19 had been taken to be from enûm, thus “you alter”, and the same verb had been restored in both sections of the document. It was then open to the modern interpreter to decide whether “alter” meant “tighten” in § 1 and “slacken”in §2, or vice versa. With the new reading it became clear that § 1 was about tightenings, and that the verb in § 2 was to be read as te-n[é]-e!-[ma], “you slacken”, from nê um, while a different verb was to be restored in § 1, namely [tu-na-sà-ah]. These are the technical terms for re-tuning a string, known from the lexical texts cited by Gurney in his n. 5, and they are both present on UET VII 74. A further consequence of the new reading was that it confirmed the view for which R. Vitale had argued on other grounds,3 that the “front”strings of the instrument played the highest notes, not the lowest as others had supposed.

Research Article
IRAQ , Volume 60 , 1998 , pp. 223 - 227
Copyright © The British Institute for the Study of Iraq 1968

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1 West, , “The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Human Melodic Texts”, Music and Letters 75 (1993/1994), 161–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gurney, , “Babylonian Music Again”, Iraq 56 (1994), 101–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crocker, , “Mesopotamian Tonal Systems”, Iraq 59 (1997), 189202CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Akkadica 70 (11–Dec. 1990), 15Google Scholar.

3 UF 14 (1982), 243–55Google Scholar.

4 Comparable are the catchwords at the end of parts of hymns, likeú, šà.ba.du12, etc. (Wilcke, C., “Formale Gesichtspunkte in der sumerischen Literatur”, Fs. Jacobsen (Chicago 1975), 205316Google Scholar; Krispijn, , Akkadica 70, 6Google Scholar), and in colophons (Hunger, H., “Kolophon”, RlA vi. 186–7Google Scholar).

5 Iraq 30 (1968), 220Google Scholar.

6 RM 52 (1966), 160Google Scholar; followed by Kilmer, A. D., PAPS 115 (1971), 136Google Scholar.

7 Kilmer, , Iraq 46 (1984), 69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.