Music in the Mediterranean : A Musical Cruise

“Music gives soul to the universe and wings to the mind”

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything”


Music is considered to be a powerful social glue, a universal language that brings people together, no matter where they are from or what their background is. Most people hear music right after they’re born, usually via lullabies, as well as throughout most of the momentous occasions in our lives. Pretty much every moment we celebrate in our lives is tied to music. The first dance at our wedding, blowing out our birthday candles, scoring a goal. We even get down to music in our heads when we do a happy dance. Holidays around the world have distinct music that accompanies them, and different countries have whole festivals and events centered around parades of music and celebration. A party without music just isn’t a party at all, and music and happiness go hand in hand all over the world. Music brings people closer together and helps us all to pull together as a community. It doesn’t matter who you are. From big cities to remote villages, from dry deserts to soggy rainforests, to the peak of the Himalayas, music has always been a crucial part of daily life for people all over the world. But every culture on the planet has its unique type of music, which people of all ages on every continent throughout the world enjoy. Every country has its own national anthem for a reason, they are a unique declaration of values, history and culture. Music also allows us to establish a unique cultural identity, using the sounds of unique instruments, genres and rhythms that make the unofficial anthems that we all know and love. We can’t imagine the world without genres like calypso, k-pop and zydeco, or without instruments like the didgeridoo or the ukulele. It’s amazing that without any words or point of reference we can hear music and instantly be transported to somewhere else, and that we can appreciate and begin to learn about other cultures just by pressing play.

And in this article we want to take you on a musical cruise around the Mediterranean basin to explore the rich musical culture of the Mediterranean Sea as we talk about songs and learn about diverse instruments from this fascinating area.

In the Mediterranean region, the diversity of styles stems from a long history of cultural exchange between Asia, Africa and Europe. As Henry Cowell wrote, “has divulged more of the secrets of ancient music than any other region in the world” . It all started in Egypt and spread to Greece, Rome, Byzantium and finally Western Europe. Singing styles vary from region to region, but the musical instruments are remarkably similar up to ancient instruments.For example, whistles from France and Italy are nearly identical to those found in Asia Minor more than 7,000 years ago.

The oldest music to date are types of flutes such as the aulos or tibia.There is evidence regarding the use of these instruments in ancient art and pottery across the Mediterranean. We can notice how the basic shape and design of the flutes are still the same .We are also familiar with images of ancient gods holding a lyre . Now the lyre is quite similar to the harp but it is not a direct descendant of the lyre their history is rather interwoven.

Harp illustrations found in rock etching in Megiddo dating from c.3300 BCE-3000 BCE have led us to believe that the lyre could be an evolution of an even more ancient harp.

What makes it more ambiguous is that the first lyre discovered was harp sized . They date back to c.2600 BCE meaning they predate the building of the pyramids in Egypt.

One of the world’s main specialists as regards to Mesopotamian archamusicology, Richard Dumbrill , truly believes that each the lyre and harp probably developed from Mesolithic Music Bow.

Music has an ancient history in the Mediterranean that not only vastly stretches across lands but also across time. With the rich history of music originating from the many Mediterranean lands known as Egypt, Turkey and Greece in the modern era, and the melodies of the ancient music were created by similar yet at the same time distinctly different instruments of the ancient times. The instruments from different corners of the Mediterranean have shared some common features like having strings or a piece of leather stretched across the instrument to create sound. 

Let’s examine a few stringed instruments from the Mediterranean. For example, think of the Arabic musical instrument Qanun from the Middle East and the Greek Lyra. It is true that they both have strings as their common denominator, in addition to having a rich and long history. However, when you listen to the melodies that radiate from these two instruments, you wouldn’t need to listen twice to tell them apart! 

When it comes to another stringed Greek instrument Sandouri, if you happen to be a Middle Easterner, you can recognise its melodies with all its familiarity to Qanun. Not only do Sandouri and Qanun look similar in shape and sound similar, but also they share a common history that extends back to a single country. Although the modern versions of the two instruments are popular in different geographies of Greece and Middle East & North Africa, they happen to originate from the same country: Iraq. This may be the explanation to why the alluring melodies of these two stringed instruments are similar sounding. 

If we were to shift our focus a little to the West, we would see that Italy has a few instruments in common with Egypt. One of them is named Tamborello which can be described as a hand drum that has leather stretched across the rim of the instrument and accompanied by “Zill”s embedded in the rim. Tamborello can be therefore thought as an exemplary amalgamation of the East and the West in the scope of the Mediterranean. There are of course other instruments that share the characteristics of both East and the West. In fact, too many to mention all of them in this article!

The Mediterranean is a region that consistently evolves its precious gift to the world. Serving as the hub for ancient travel routes, the inhabitants of the region have adopted a unique melange of eastern and western philosophies, creating a culture around the common sentiments of joyful optimism, exuberance and high spirit.

Music and culture are linked because music has been a part of society since the beginning of time, it varies by society but it remains central to its progress, not only as entertainment but also as a means of articulating ideas on philosophical topics such as love, friendship, and personal and moral values. Music is an ever-evolving part of a culture that changes with each generation, setting trends and breaking them all at once. It has definitely shaped the current culture but will also be formed by future generations. 

And before we wrap up we invite you to live la dolce vita for a moment through our Spotify Mediterranean playlists and enjoy the sounds and cultures of the Mediterranean region! Enjoy the melody, get up close and personal with some instruments from this region, and give your ears a taste of the Mediterranean through the songs. We hope that every song in this playlist could cross the barriers of language and culture, and that it would find its way to you in the universal language of music.

Written by : Sarp Oktay, Eslem Dridi, Sirine Elloumi

Edited by : Melis Leyal Gürel

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