Ancient Technology (sort of): Musical Scales

Sibiu Cathedral (King David)

Someone recommended a really cool book at my writer’s conference last month.  The Music of the Bible Revealed (by Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura) is a technical tome [thick book] about how she figured out the musical meanings of the little dots, dashes and squiggles alongside the words of the Hebrew Bible.

I might eventually write about what all that means (for example, she is convinced the Bible music was written at the time each book claims to be written, by the people who claimed to have written them!), but today I’m going much wider.

We have enough facts to be able to recognize the kind of music Noah and his family would have played on the ark.

Whoa, that’s a big statement!  How can this be?

Ok, we’ll start with the basics.  Ever taken a music lesson?  Learned to play the recorder or something, even just a little?  Then you’ll be able to understand what I’m about to tell you.

List of Chinese musical instruments

Have you ever messed around on a piano making “Chinese” music with just black keys?  You can even play the melody “Jesus Loves Me” doing this (the tune’s name is sometimes called “China”).  This is a kind of scale known as “pentatonic” which means 5 tones.

The pentatonic scale is a very ancient form of music that is still popular in the Far East and has been used in every corner of the world.  You can never make a mistake with those tones because nothing is pitched close enough to “fight” and grate your ears.  But it is limited in power.  It can’t really make you sad, happy, or angry.  The guitar, altos, or piano give “Jesus Loves Me”  non-pentatonic harmonies to help you feel the happiness.

The modern keyboard is based on the intervalli...

The modern keyboard is based on the diatonic scale

Along with that musical system, all the most ancient societies also used the same basic music system we use in the West.  You know the notes, CDEFGABC?  Those are the ones I’m talking about.  This is called the “diatonic scale” and it is built based on mathematical principles (that’s the first point where “technology” comes in).

The easiest way to see how this music is set up is to use a piano.  A base note, C (on the far left), followed by whole step, whole step, half step (no black key between), 3 whole steps, and a half step back to C.  Pythagoras, Bach and others have fiddled with the fine tuning for Westerners, but the idea is far older.

Any music that uses tones like a piano’s white keys gets the name diatonic scale.  When a melody ends on a different note, it is called a “mode,” but I’m not going to cross your eyes explaining them to you!

English: Harper playing before Shu Atum.

We know that the people of ancient Sumer (Babylonians) tuned their instruments to a type of diatonic scale.  The ancient Vedic Indians used it.  Ancient Egypt used this tuning system, but were most fond of all white keys from D to D.    Even the Chinese are known to have used this scale for some of their music.

So, did Pythagoras invent the diatonic scale in c550 BC? Was this tuning not used until Guido of Arezzo during the Middle Ages of Europe?  They were helpful , but no person outside the Bible can be credited with being the very first ever.

Jubal was the father of people who play the harp and flute.  Genesis 4:21b

If you really want to get into the math of music, you can check out Thinkzone’s 12-tone page and Uni. of South Carolina Music’s Pythagorean tuning.


I Sing the Mighty Power of God

Words: Isaac Watts, Di­vine and Mor­al Songs for Child­ren, 1715


I sing the almighty power of God,

That made the mountains rise,

That spread the flowing seas abroad,

And built the lofty skies.


I sing the wisdom that ordained

The sun to rule the day;

The moon shines full at His command,

And all the stars obey.


I sing the goodness of the Lord,

That filled the earth with food;

He formed the creatures with His Word,

And then pronounced them good.


Lord! how Thy wonders are displayed

Where’er I turn mine eye!

If I survey the ground I tread,

Or gaze upon the sky!


There’s not a plant or flower below

But makes Thy glories known;

And clouds arise and tempests blow,

By order from Thy throne.


Creatures that borrow life from Thee

Are subject to Thy care;

There’s not a place where we can flee,

But God is present there.

From Scripture and

Although he never married, Isaac Watts always loved children and wrote much for them. In 1715 he wrote a book of songs especially for young people titled Divine Songs for Children. This hymnal, the first ever written exclusively for children, includes the text for “I Sing Mighty Power of God.”