Chapter 2

How Advanced Was Biblical Music?

From the booklet How God Values Music
By Ryan Malone

In college, I had a music history professor who consistently challenged any student who wrote or said that music “advanced” throughout modern history—in the sense that Beethoven was more advanced than Handel or that Richard Strauss was more advanced than Mozart. Change and development did not necessarily mean better or more sophisticated. After all, who could argue that a Bach cantata is somehow more primitive than a Mahler symphony?

A similar argument can be made regarding ancient music. Yes, music has advanced since the medieval church’s monopoly on documented music. For centuries, Rome’s religion had thrust music into a dark age, where range, dynamism and the tapestry of the musical landscape were suffocated. But traveling back before this musical dark age—even before the apostasy of the Jewish religion after the Prophet Malachi—music history shows how advanced melody and harmony were in biblical times.

Perhaps some of the music of the ancient world was primitive. But remember that God separated Israel from a world otherwise cut off from Him (Genesis 3:22-24), and gave the Israelites His law and statutes. He gave them His calendar and His ways of marking time. As for music, the Hebrew Bible repeatedly refers to the musical instruments “of God” and the “songs of the Lord.” Would their music have been the same as that of the surrounding nomadic peoples?

In fact, everything the Bible and honest history tells us is that Israel’s music was much more advanced, based on sounder principles. It had tremendous appeal to, and impact on, surrounding cultures. This in itself testifies of how advanced their music was.

Melody and Scale Degrees

The Hebrew word zimrah—translated “psalm” or “melody” (Psalm 98:5; Isaiah 51:3; Amos 5:23) in the King James Version—acknowledges the presence of a singular melodic line. Though the Bible gives little technical detail concerning music, it sheds some light on the scale system of the Hebrews.

The titles of Psalm 6 and 12 (in the original Hebrew manuscript) dictate that these were to be performed “upon Sheminith,” or “in eighths.” Some say sheminith was an eight-stringed instrument, but an instrument of this kind is noticeably absent from other passages of the Bible that list instruments of the Hebrew orchestra. Many scholars agree that this is a reference to the octave.

The octave is the interval of an eighth; it refers to the distance between two pitches. On a modern piano, find a C and call that “one,” then note “eight” (either higher or lower) is also a C—and played together, they sound a lot alike. The reason is that the frequency of the higher note’s vibration is exactly twice as fast as the lower one.

The use of this interval in music is common. If a father and his young son sing the same melody in unison, the father is probably singing the same notes in a lower register whether they call it an octave or not.

What is interesting about the word sheminith is that the Hebrews called this musical interval an eighth. That shows something about their scale system: The fact that the first note and the eighth note were that perfect and common interval indicates that there were seven notes leading from the lower to the upper frequency. The Hebrews were using a seven-tone scale.

1 Chronicles 15:21 uses this word to describe men who played “with harps on the Sheminith to excel.” They played their harps in this manner “to excel,” meaning to oversee or lead. The Hebrew likely implies that these men played their harps or sang the melody an octave higher or lower to make their pitches stand out among the other instruments in the ensemble. Their eighth would be the “lead” part of the aural texture.

The Orderly Seven-Tone Scale

Was the heptatonic scale the basis of Hebrew music? Evolutionists would have us believe that man started as savages with a more primitive scale system—perhaps the pentatonic scale (a series of five pitches). But many credible musicological sources contradict this idea. One of them, the New Oxford History of Music, states that the pentatonic scale cannot be considered older than the six- or seven-degree diatonic scale commonly used in Western music.

In his 1893 book Primitive Music, Richard Wallaschek wrote: “[A] succession of tones exactly corresponding to our diatonic scale (or part of it) occurs in instruments in the Stone Age, and … we have no reason to conclude that a period of pentatonic scales necessarily preceded the period of heptatonic ones.”

In her argument that the Hebrews used a heptatonic scale, Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura established first how in 1968, Babylonian cuneiform was discovered that “unequivocally” attested to the “total similarity between the Babylonian scale … and our own C-major scale.” The facts “witness to a system (graphically confirmed) based upon diatonic modes of seven degrees ….” (The Music of the Bible Revealed; emphasis added throughout).

James L. Mursell, in his remarkable 1946 article on “Psychology and the Problem of the Scale,” observed that the relationship between the pitches in the seven-note scale are simple, whole-number ratios. He said the “complex” ratios of all other scale systems were analogous to “cloud shapes or ink blots” as opposed to the “triangles, or rectangles, or circles, to which our intervals may be compared.”

God gave man the power of intellect (by putting in him what the Bible terms the “spirit in man”—Job 32:8; Zechariah 12:1; 1 Corinthians 2:11). Music would be worthless to us unless we had the ability to order, organize and build this structured world of sound within our minds. That is, in essence, the purpose of the scale. It may be why God would give man the scale outright. Mursell described how the logic of this scale—the “best that can ever be devised”—enables us “to build an ordered cosmos out of the mass of incoming impressions.”

François Auguste Gevaert saw in the scale “the manifestation of a general law, a consequence of the physiological organization of man.”

In his book This Is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin discusses experiments that have “shown that young children, as well as adults, are better able to learn and memorize melodies that are drawn from scales that contain unequal distances such as this” (i.e., the seven-tone scale based on its system of whole steps and half steps).

So where did this scale originate? No evidence suggests that it evolved from more primitive scales, for even some of the most savage societies possessed it. If God gave Adam instruments and psalms in Eden, surely He explained the vocabulary of music, gave man the capability to discover it early on, or provided some innate ability and intellectual capacity to operate in the musical realm. Man’s mind was already able to organize sounds in an orderly way. Remember, music did not originate with man—and neither did this beautiful scale system. God is the author of music—including pitch, scale organization, and its built-in expressive qualities!

Harmony and Progression

“[E]ntirely without our conscious awareness,” Dr. Levitin notes, “our brains are keeping track of how many times particular notes are sounded, where they appear in terms of strong versus weak beats, and how long they last. A computational process in the brain makes an inference about the key we’re in based on these properties. … [I]n spite of our lack of formal musical education, we know what the composer intended to establish as the tonal center, or key, of the piece, and we recognize when he brings us back home to the tonic, or when he fails to do so” (op cit).

On top of that, the mathematics underpinning our seven-tone scale has built-in tendencies leading to a strong note—like a gravitational pull toward a “final” pitch. We call this the tonal center, or “tonic.”

Haïk-Vantoura, who set out to decipher the accents found above and below the original Hebrew text of the Bible, found—among the lower signs—essentially seven unique symbols. In the “prosodic” books, there are eight symbols, but the first and eighth are almost identical. She even asserted that the vertical straight line, |, is a symbol that indicates the tonic of the piece. This musical system therefore contained the progression of pitches toward a cadence—i.e., harmonic tension, relaxation, progression and tonality.

So, although the Bible makes no specific mention of “harmony,” we know that it had to exist in the Hebrew musical culture. Looking at ancient Israel, we see groups of people—men and women (different vocal ranges)—singing together. The Bible discusses assorted musical instruments playing together at the same time. That these musicians would play or sing together and never consider doing something different-yet-complementary to the melodic line is absurd. That a culture so exceptional in stringed instruments would never think to pluck more than one string at a time (a different, complementary string) is ludicrous.

2 Chronicles 5:12-14 describe the scene at the dedication of the first temple under King Solomon: “Also the Levites which were the singers … having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets:) It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the Lord; So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God.”

Are we to believe that all those instrumentalists were playing the same notes at the same time? That everything was in unison? Some may argue that “as one, to make one sound” implies monophony, but a study shows that this is not a comment on the texture of the composition but high praise of the musical performance. The orchestra and choir were truly together. Their performance was rhythmically precise and in tune. We would say the same about a fine symphony orchestra today: They were as onedespite all the different notes and parts, they played perfectly together and in tune!

For an in-depth look at the various instruments described in the Bible, see the November-December 2015 issue of our free Christian-living magazine, Royal Vision. We will send you a free copy upon request.

The Third

One of the most pleasing harmonies to the human ear, and one upon which the majority of standard repertoire is based, is the third. On the piano, if you play a white note and call that “one,” then count up or down to three, and you play note “one” along with note “three,” that is an interval of a third.

Carl Engel wrote in 1864: “Harmony is not so artificial an invention as has often been asserted. The susceptibility for it is innate in man, and soon becomes manifest wherever music has been developed to any extent. Children of the tenderest age have been known to evince delight in hearing thirds and other consonant intervals struck on the pianoforte; and it is a well-ascertained fact that with several savage nations the occasional employment of similar intervals combined did not originate … with European music, but was entirely their own invention” (The Music of the Most Ancient Nations, Particularly of the Assyrians).

If primitive cultures were using the third, then certainly the Hebrews would have been too. Curt Sachs believed that secular music was using thirds and harmony throughout history, and that is why West European music flourished so rapidly after the yoke of plainchant (also known as “Gregorian chant”) was broken.

In Music in Western Civilization, Paul Henry Lang documented how Giraldus Cambrensis (1147–1220) discussed the harmonic practices of the British Isles. Harmony, he said, was so common that “even the children sang in the same fashion and it was quite unusual to hear a single melody sung by one voice. … The Anglo-Saxon Bishop Aldhelm, at the end of the seventh century, and Johannes Scotus Erigena (ninth century), seem to allude to ‘harmony’ as the simultaneous sounding of tones. Finally, the first records of actual music for more than one voice also come from England.”

It can be proved that the peoples of the British Isles are descended from the tribes of ancient Israel! (Request a free copy of Herbert W. Armstrong’s book The United States and Britain in Prophecy for proof of this truth from both biblical and secular history.) This does not mean that harmony only existed in the Israelitish nations, but it would have at least been present in these nations.

Add to this evidence the fact that the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet (and the numeral three) is gimel, or gymel. This word was later the term used in England to describe singing in parts, probably indicating singing multiple notes together based harmonically on thirds.

Haïk-Vantoura masterfully summed up the richness of Hebrew music by saying that it was “just as solid,” if not more so, than “that of the great and powerful neighboring peoples who were Israel’s contemporaries, its musical resources effectively served the authentic and eminently human faith which made use of them.” She wrote, “All this persuades us that there is no reason to imagine an ultra-primitive kind of music. … The texts of the Psalms of David and the inspired singers have always been unanimously admired. Why then would the music to which they were sung not have been stirring and beautiful, and accessible, just as the text of the Psalms have remained?”

In the next chapter, we will undertake a sweeping overview of the Bible’s references to music—to understand how God values it, what is important about it, and what benefits it offers physically and spiritually.

Continue Reading: Chapter 3: Music Prior to the Temple