10 Traditional Musical Egyptian Instruments: From the Ancient to the Now

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From the times of the Ancient Egyptians up until today, music has been an integral part of everyday life. It’s always there for us, filling our lives with joy, grief, or reverence, Anytime we celebrate life, death, and everything in between, it’s always better with a little bit of music.

Thanks to ancient art, we have a pretty good idea of the most popular Egyptian instruments used back then. Not surprisingly, many of the ones we use today could trace their origins from ancient times.

To give you an idea of how they’ve shaped today’s music scene, we rounded up 10 of the most popular Egyptian instruments.

1. Darbouka (Goblet Drum)

A Darbouka or Goblet Drum is a single-head hand-beaten drum. It goes by other names as well, including dumbeg, or tabla depending on which region you’re in.

These percussion instruments have been used since ancient times. Many drawings show ancient Egyptians playing goblet drums in temples and festivities. Nowadays, goblet drums are the National symbol of Egyptian folklore music.

The drum’s basic shape has remained the same since ancient times. The main difference is the drum’s rounded edges. They help produce sounds typical of traditional Egyptian music.

2. Sistrum

Sistrum

Sistra, the plural of the Sistrum, is a hand-held percussion tool that looks like a rattle.

As you can see from the image above, ancient Egyptian wall art shows that they were considered holy and sacred (that’s Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II in the image).

A sistrum consists of a U-shaped frame with a handle. Unlike many other ancient instruments, sistra were made of metal or another durable material. The design is similar to the Egyptian symbol of life, the ankh.

These hand-held percussions were usually used to honor various goddesses. Many drawings show deities like Isis, Bastet, and Hathor, holding a sistrum in their hand during ceremonies.

In fact, only women of high rank owned sistra, mainly because they were expensive to make. 

3. Benet (Egyptian Harp)

It’s believed that the Egyptian Harp, or Benet as it was previously called, dates as far back as 2030 BC and was one of the most common instruments during pharaonic times.

From looking at the paintings on the walls in tombs, you can see how harps developed over time starting out as instruments similar to an archer’s bow. Over the years, they developed into much larger instruments that look more like a harp does today.

Most, however, consisted of a long wooden neck with a curved soundbox that resonated when the musician plucked the strings. The soundbox was then covered with animal skin.

4. Cymbals

Egyptian Cymbal from the Met Museum

Another important instrument in ancient Egpyt was the Cymbal which hasn’t changed much over the years. They still come in pairs of round flat metal plates that vibrate when struck on one another.

They were used to accompany the goblet drums and sistra and were often used in a religious or military context.

5. Castanets

Egyptian Castanets from the Met Museum

Castanets, or Clappers, were another popular instrument in pharaonic times.

Ancient castanets were designed as a pair of curved arms that started at the elbows and ended with a pair of open palms.

When you hit them together, they produce a clapping sound. To the ancient Egyptians, this sound was believed to be the depiction of the goddess Hathor.

In addition to being the goddess of music, Egyptians believed Hathor’s powers could ward off evil. It’s why many clappers had Hathor’s face carved on them. 

Nowadays, clappers are pear-shaped and hollowed-out. They’re made of hardwood, such as ebony or rosewood, and are held together with a cord or string.

6. Trumpets

You may be surprised to know that a couple of Trumpets were discovered in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. That goes to show you that trumpets are one of the oldest instruments known to man.

Although, back then, they were made of a basic, long pipe with a bell as valves and slides had not yet been invented.

Ancient trumpets were made of wood, as opposed to the sturdy metal instruments of today. Plus, metal creates smoother, richer tones.

In earlier times, trumpets were used as offerings to various deities. They were also played at ceremonies, celebrations, and during times of war.

7. Lute

The Lute is a string instrument that dates back to the times of ancient Egyptians. It consisted of a pear-shaped or round body made of tortoise shells or wood.

Some had short necks, but long-necked lutes were the more popular choice. They featured two or three strings that were plucked using a pick or your fingers.

As the strings vibrated over the hole, called the rose, they created a deep, resonant sound.

8. Pipes

One of the oldest pipes, or Egyptian flutes, is the Ney. It’s an end-blown flute with seven finger holes to change the pitch.

Over the centuries, the ney has been used to create sweet and somber melodies as you can hear from the haunting sound in the video above.

Another example of an Egyptian pipe is the Zummara which is sort of an ancient clarinet made of a reed with five holes.

9. Bells

Egyptian Bell from the Met Museum

Ancient Egyptians used Bells for religious ceremonies and worship rituals for their God Osiris. They were also used as amulets worn around the neck to protect against certain dangers.

They were typically made out of metal, mainly bronze but sometimes even gold or silver.

10. Lyre

And finally, we have Lyres which are commonly mistaken for harps. Even though they’re members of the same family, there are several key differences between the two.

First of all, a lyre is much lighter. Players hold their lyres in their laps while playing. That’s nothing compared to the substantial weight of a harp, which has to rest on the ground.

Numerous ancient Egyptian drawings show that lyres were typically played on their own.

They were often used to accompany poetry readings, ceremonies, and banquets.

A Summary of Egyptian Instruments

So, what do you think of our rundown of the 10 most popular Egyptian instruments?

They certainly have a rich history with incredible narratives that give them a life of their own.

Yet, these instruments weren’t content with only being stories of the past.

They’ve all contributed to the makings of many of the modern versions we use today.

Nevertheless, they’re all used in many music styles and genres, both in Egypt and in other countries as well.

That goes to show you how diverse and influential Egyptian instruments and music can be.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.