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I’m haunted by missing music.

For years I taught college music classes, and whenever I’d play a plainchant and hear myself saying, “This is what medieval music sounded like,” or play some Carnatic microtonal singing and say, “This is the music of southern India,” or a hundred other things—I was haunted by the music I wasn’t not playing.

I don’t just mean gosh, there’s so much, we can never cover the amazing tapestry of musical style even in a single culture. That’s true, and that’s bad enough. Whether it’s a music appreciation course or an intensive music major history course or “world music,” that weird label for a thousand different music systems created not for “the world” but for a thousand specific local cultures—yes, for each of those, I have to pass up huge whacks of unique music that moves and fascinates me.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about music that we can’t hear or learn about because it’s nowhere. It’s just gone.

But before I get to that, lemme back up and talk about how we get intangible things from the past—not just music, but ideas as well.

Most of what people know today about the past depends on written records passed down hand-to-hand over thousands of years and hundreds of generations. That process isn’t ideal, but for most of history, it’s the only one we’ve had.

Consider what it takes for an idea to get from a mind in let’s say Ancient Greece, to your mind.

The shredder

In most cases, someone had to write it down. Most ideas are already out of the game right there, because most never left the heads of the people who thought them. To write it down, the person had to be literate, which means educated, which in most cultures (including ancient Greece) means relatively well-off and male. A lot of great ideas and inspiring art died in slave ships and coal mines with the people who conceived them, who as often as not were of a gender, race, or class disfavored in their historical moment.

Even if an idea was written down, it then had to be disseminated to other people. Ideas left in a desk drawer didn’t reach us. The written document then had to survive, one way or another, for more than 2,000 years.

To reach the present day, it must be the case that no person or thing destroyed the document—not just in its own time, but also in every year, every decade, every century that followed. Surviving over time is a challenge because most documents were on things like papyrus, paper, or parchment. Preserving those documents isn’t easy because the Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere likes to set such things on fire, not to mention a hundred other unhelpful conditions. (Even the original US Declaration of Independence, which after a mere two centuries now lives in a titanium condo full of argon gas, isn’t doing too well.)

So every couple of centuries you have to go through the laborious task of recopying the document. And people naturally tend to preserve and recopy ideas that they like. Ideas that were unpopular at any point in history after being committed to the page didn’t require a book burning to eliminate—simple neglect would do just fine.

The ancient Romans had a recipe for concrete, and medieval Romans staring up at the fantastic dome of the Pantheon wished they still had it. It wasn’t until 1414 that they discovered they did still have it, deep inside a treatise on architecture that had been dutifully copied and recopied in scriptoria around Europe, often by monks who did so because the rule of their order required daily practice at writing. This practice saved countless books. But the copyists seldom knew the significance of what they were copying, so they sat unread for centuries.

People naturally tend to preserve and recopy ideas that they like. Ideas that were unpopular at any point in history after being committed to the page didn’t require a book burning to eliminate—simple neglect would do just fine.

So even popular ideas can have a hard time navigating the dodgy process of history. Didymus of Alexandria was one of the greatest ancient scholars. He earned the nickname “Bronze Butt” for sitting long enough to write more than 3,000 books — of which zero have survived.

A literary historian in the 5th century named Stobeus compiled 1,430 quotations from the greatest authors of the ancient world. His works survived, but 1100 of the quotations are from works now lost. The revolutionary ideas of Democritus, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, survive only in glowing references by other writers.

A lot of cultures have developed impressive oral traditions to pass down stories and ideas. But oral transmission is notorious for drift, the tendency of content to gradually change over time, even if the participants are trying their best to pass it on intact. Techniques like rhythmic repetitive chanting, rhyming text, and alliteration have been used for millennia to try to trap oral text in amber as it’s passed along, keep it from changing. But even that is no guarantee that it will reach someone today in a form even slightly resembling the original.

The high bar for music’s survival

Music has it even worse. We have written music in our hands from 3500 years ago called Hurrian songs from a Canaanite city called Ugarit in what is now northern Syria. It survived because it was carved into clay tablets. But even though they are clearly music symbols, we don’t know what they signify in terms of pitch and rhythm. That hasn’t stopped musicologists from taking absolutely wild guesses. Here’s one of them:

YouTube video

So Hurrian Hymn No. 6, and all the other Hurrian songs, have pretty much left the building. Despite having the notation, we don’t know for sure how to interpret it.

There was also music 1,000 years later, in ancient Greece. And we know this in part because the Greeks considered music to have an outsized effect on a person’s ethos, or character, something they wrote about at length. Plato wrote a treatise in the Laws positively shrieking about these kids of today and the way they mix up different types of music.

“Our music was formally divided into several kinds and patterns. It was not permissible to misuse one kind of melody for another.

“In course of time, an unmusical freedom set in. Possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure, they contaminated laments with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, actually imitated the strains of the flute on the harp, and created a universal confusion of forms.”

He warned that if you disregard the rules of music, children will start disobeying their parents. Then people will start breaking the law, and have contempt for oaths and all religion. He said “The spectacle of which our old legends speak is reenacted, and man returns to the old condition of a hell of unending misery.” So not only did they have music, but they took its power really seriously.

Music that accompanied dramas in ancient Greece was said by writers at the time to be so moving that listeners would hurl themselves off of walls.

I doubt it, but damn! Don’t you want to hear the music they could even claim was that powerful? Well, you’re out of luck. Even though the Greeks had a fully formed music notation system, and we have a few fragments of music, every complete piece of music from ancient Greece is lost.

Except for one.

While a railway was being excavated in northern Syria in the 1880s, a short marble pillar was unearthed, about two feet high, with Greek symbols carved into it. That part of Asia Minor was in the Greek Empire back in the day.

So it was rushed to a museum somewhere, right?

Well… second-best thing. The director of the railway company, Edward Purser, brought it home for his wife to use as a flowerpot stand. The base was slightly broken, which prevented it standing up securely, so Purser had the bottom ground off so it rested flat on the floor.

By chance, someone knowledgeable eventually saw it and realized it was text combined with music notation. “I am a tombstone,” it says. “Séikilos placed me here as a sign of undying remembrance.” It was an epitaph for his wife. The text of the song itself is

While you live, shine, have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
and Time demands its due.

And because the rules of Greek music notation have survived, we know what it sounds like:

YouTube video

It’s the oldest complete song in existence.

Well, it was complete, when it was found. But when Edward Purser ground off the bottom of the column, he ground off the last line of text.

Even solid marble isn’t safe from us.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...