What types of musical instruments are mentioned in the Old Testament?

Music is important in the Old Testament. The first person to make a musical instrument lived before the flood of Noah’s day (Genesis 4:21). People used music when celebrating, mourning, worshiping, and prophesying. In addition, different sounds and voices were compared to musical instruments. Sometimes, the exact instrument referred to in the Bible is difficult to determine.

Winds

Pipe: The Old Testament mentions four different types of pipes or flutes:

Halil is translated “pipe” or “flute”; it was double-reeded and played vertically like an oboe or horizontally like a modern flute. The name is taken from the Hebrew for “perforated” or “pierced,” as the tube is pierced with fingerholes. Two of these pipes may have been played at the same time. It was mostly used during celebrations (1 Kings 1:40Isaiah 5:1230:29) but also when King Saul prophesied (1 Samuel 10:5). Its sound is compared to the moans of mourning over Moab’s judgment (Jeremiah 48:36).

The ugab was similar but used for less formal purposes. Bible versions translate ugab variously as “pipe,” “flute,” or “organ.” The name comes from the Hebrew for “breathing.” It is one of the first instruments mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 4:21) and was used for worship (Job 21:12Psalm 150:4). Some believe it was a primitive type of bagpipe with a pipe for fingering below, a bladder in the middle, and the mouthpiece coming up above.

Two different types of Aramaic pipes, the sumpponeya and the masroqi, are mentioned in connection with the worship of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Daniel 3:571015). The masroqi made a whistling sound; it was probably similar to panpipes. The identity of the sumpponeya is not as clear. It is translated as “bagpipe,” “tambourine,” “pipe,” and “sackbut,” which is a type of trombone.

Horns

The shofar is perhaps the most well-known horn mentioned in the Bible. It is made from a ram’s horn and most closely associated with Rosh Hashanah. Translators identify it as a “horn,” a “ram’s horn,” or a “trumpet”—not be confused with the metal clarion. The shofar was used in battle (Joshua 6:4Judges 3:276:341 Samuel 13:3), as a warning of coming battle (Ezekiel 33:3–6Hosea 5:8Amos 3:6Zephaniah 1:16), in celebration (1 Chronicles 15:281 Kings 1:34), and as a call or warning (Psalm 81:398:6Isaiah 27:1358:1).

The chatsotsrah was similar to the shofar but made of metal, often silver (Numbers 10:1–2) and is more properly identified as a cornet, although it would not have had valves like our modern cornets. It was used in similar ways as the shofar, including to sound the alarm (2 Chronicles 13:12Hosea 5:8) and in celebration (2 Kings 11:141 Chronicles 13:82 Chronicles 5:12–1315:1423:13). Where the shofar was used more for music, the chatsotsrah was primarily used to draw attention to announcements or warnings.

Qeren is Aramaic for “horn” and can refer to the instrument or the horn of an animal; it is the source of our word modern word crown. It is mentioned in the worship of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Daniel 3:571015).

Percussion

The Bible doesn’t mention drums as we think of them. Israelites used cymbals, bells, tambourines, and castanets.

Cymbals: both selselim and mesiltayim are translated as “cymbals.” They were played in pairs and may have been as small as finger cymbals. Selselim, which occurs infrequently (2 Samuel 6:5), is from the Hebrew for “clattering” or “whirring,” as an insect’s wings. Mesiltayim is from the Hebrew for “double tinklers” and is used extensively in reference to the ark of the covenant (1 Chronicles 13:815:16) and the temple (1 Chronicles 25:162 Chronicles 12—1329:25), as well as the dedication of the wall and temple after the return from Babylon (Ezra 3:10Nehemiah 12:27).

CastanetsMenaanim are difficult to identify, as the definition we have is “an instrument made of fir or juniper wood.” Most likely, they were similar to our castanets, small finger cymbals made of wood. Israelites used them to celebrate the return of the ark from the Philistines (2 Samuel 6:5). Since this celebration was impromptu and menaanim are not mentioned in temple worship, it was probably a common instrument of the people.

Tambourine: The toph or top seems to be the closest the Israelites had to a drum, although it’s not clear if it had a drumhead or if it was comprised of cymbals or castanets fastened to a ring of wood. Bible versions translate toph as “tambourine,” “timbrel,” or “tabret.” Like the menaanim, it is not mentioned in temple worship but is prolific in celebratory events (Exodus 15:201 Samuel 18:62 Samuel 6:5Psalm 81:2149:3150:4Jeremiah 31:4). Taphaph (Psalm 68:25) is a verb meaning “to beat a tambourine.”

Bells: Bells were used for ornamentation, not specifically for music. Pa’amon were attached to Aaron’s robe (Exodus 28:33–3439:25–26), while metsillah, from the Hebrew for “tinkler,” were used on horses’ bridles (Zechariah 14:20).

Strings

There are several terms in the Old Testament that evidently refer to stringed instruments, but we have few definitive ideas of what they actually were.

Zither: The most commonly mentioned stringed instrument in the Bible is the kinnor. Bible versions call it a “lyre,” “harp,” or “stringed instrument,” but it’s something in between. Together with the pipe, it is one of the first musical instruments mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 4:21). The base is solid or hollow with sound holes. The top of the base has two arms that rise to hold a bridge. Strings span the space from the bridge to the bottom of the base. It was played by plucking the strings with fingers or a stick. The Old Testament mentions it was used for celebration (2 Samuel 6:51 Chronicles 16:5Nehemiah 12:27Isaiah 30:32), worship (Psalm 33:243:457:8150:3), and prophecy (1 Samuel 10:51 Chronicles 25:1–3Psalm 49:4). Kinnor was an instrument specified for temple worship (2 Chronicles 9:1129:25).

Harp: The nebel is also frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Bible versions translate the Hebrew as “harp,” “lyre,” “psaltery,” and “viol.” The word is based on the Hebrew for “skin-bag” or “jar,” which reflects its overall shape. Modern scholars don’t know what it was—whether the strings ran over a sound box like a zither, from one frame to another like a harp, or both, like a kinnorNebel may be a general word for “stringed instrument.” It is often mentioned with the kinnor and for the same purposes. The King James Version’s reading of “viol” is anachronistic, as stringed instruments were plucked or strummed at that time, not drawn across with a bow.

Ten-stringed harp: The nebel asor was some kind of stringed instrument that had ten strings; asor means “ten.” It’s unknown if it was more like a harp or a lute. It was used for worship (Psalm 33:292:3144:9).

Related to the Hebrew nebel is the Aramaic picanteriyn, translated as “harp” or “psaltery.” It is only mentioned in connection with the worship of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Daniel 3:571015), so it’s probably the Babylonian version of the nebel. The Aramaic word picanteriyn and the Hebrew psanterin are related to the Greek psalterion.

Trigon: The Aramaic sabbka is also only referred to in the episode of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. It seems to be a triangular-shaped instrument, but we don’t know if that means a harp with two arms or a triangular lyre. The King James refers to it a “sackbut,” which is a type of trombone.

Lyre: The Aramaic qiytharoc is either a harp, lyre, or zither and is only mentioned in Daniel 3. Like picanteriynqiytharock is a transliteration of the Greek, in this case, qitaros.

Strings: Finally, the Hebrew men means “part,” as in parting a chord into several strings. Some versions translate it as “strings,” while others say, “stringed instruments.” It is used only once in this context, in Psalm 150:4.

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