Prof Mahmoud Effat

Prof. Fathi Saleh

Prof. Robert Gribbs

Institute of Arabic Music

Faculty of Engineering

California State

Academy of Arts - Cairo

Cairo University

Univ. - Sacremento



  1. Introduction
  2. Motivation of the Project
  3. The Work Program
  4. The Available Wind Instruments at Cairo Museum
  5. Characteristics of the Egyptian Flute "NAY"
  6. Some notes on the flute acoustics
  7. Parameters affecting air column length in a tube
  8. The Experiment
  9. Subjective Results
  10. Measured Results
  11. Interpretation of Results
  12. Conclusion
  13. Acknowledgement
  14. References
  15. Home

Fathi Saleh




There is a lost link between the ancient Egyptian music and the music of other civilizations. This is due to the fact that there was no attempt to play the ancient Egyptian instruments and try to discover their features such as notes, scales, etc. The instruments that are preserved at the museums are of two categories : the string instruments and the wind instruments. The string instruments have, in general, an important difficulty which is, once they are mistuned, one can not rediscover their original tuning position. On the contrary, the wind instruments keep their original tuning by keeping their dimensions, and the position of their holes. Investigating these instruments would reveal a lot about the nature of the ancient Egyptian music and its characteristics. An: important problem in the wind instruments is the nature of the Egyptian flute which is normally played vertically. For this type of instruments the position of the mouth affects considerably the notes produced by the instrument. Fortunately, in the modem times, the Egyptian flute is played the same way. That is why an Egyptian flute player would be the most suitable person to test such instrument.

In order to carry this project a team was formed from specialists of oriental music, history of music, computer systems specialists and music scientists under the supervision of the staff of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization of (EAO). The team had the following objectives:

  1. Carrying precise measurement of all the wind instruments in the Egyptian Museum with two purposes:
    a. Checking the old measurements carried by Dr. Hans Hickmann
    b. Completing the missing dimensions
  2. Building physical models for the instruments very similar to the existing ones. This is because most of the existing instruments are very fragile or partially damaged.
  3. Recording -the musical sound from the different instruments (Whether the originals if they are in good shape and/or from the models). This recordings is to be carried on specially designed computer system capable of storing the music and perform complicated analysis on it.
  4. Trying to trace the relation between the ancient Egyptian music and the music of other civilizations especially the Greek civilization which was very much affected by the Egyptian culture.

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Motivation of the Project

Over a period of more than a hundred years, different scholars had tried to decypher the notes of the ancient Egyptian flutes, either through the mathematical calculation of the dimensions of the flutes or building models and try to play it. Because of the nature of " the Egyptian-flute, it has no reed and it needs special training to play it. In general only egyptian modern flute players has the ability to play with such instruments. The western scholars, lacking this ability, failed to play this instruments and their efforts in the analysis of ancient instruments came to a deadlock (see reference # 1)

Recently, a team was formed to execute this project which was mainly centered around a famous Egyptian flute player Mr. Mahmoud Effat and got the permission from the organization of Antiquities to carry the project with the objective of getting answers to the following questions :

  1. Were the Greeks the first people to know the diatonic scale ?
  2. What are the different scales played by the ancient Egyptians ?
  3. What are the relation between the ancient Egyptian scales

and other scales ?

These questions bare in mind that Pythagoras the greek mathematician, to whom the modern western scale is attributed, had-lived in Egypt for 21 years and that the Greeks wrote a lot about the quality and perfection of the ancient Egyptian music.

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The Work Program

Upon the approval of the head of Egyptian Antiquities Organization last April to carry this project, a work plan was set that had the following steps :

  1. Investigating the available wind instruments at Cairo Museum.
  2. Selecting some instruments and building physical models for them.
  3. Recording the notes produced by some of the original instruments (that could be played) and all the replicas.
  4. The recording must be done on high quality tape recorder and also digitally on a computer system for scientific analysis.
  5. Carrying some scientific analysis for the acoustical features of the instruments.
  6. Deduction of the results which should reveal which notes and scales were used by the ancient Egyptians and what is its relation to the present scales (Western and Arabic).
  7. Setting future plans for further continuation of the research.

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The Available Wind Instruments at Cairo Museum

The available wind instruments at Cairo Museum (apart from the trumpets of king Tut) are all located in one show case. Figure 1 shows a photograph of this show case with all the-instruments inside.- The following table summarizes the basic information available on these instruments whereby C.G. stands for the "Catalogue Général" number, J.E. stands for "Journal d'entrée" number and the J.E. Prov. stands for "Journal d'entrée provisoire" number.

The table indicates that there are 24 wind instruments in the show case and that most of them are missing the dating and the provenance information. In fact, the wind instruments in this show case are of two categories. The first category is the "NAY", or "Egyptian flute", type of musical instruments which does not have any reed in it.

There are six Nays (from C.G. 69814 to 69819). Four of these Nays are made out of nile bamboo (which is the subject of this study) These four Nays are similar in nature to those used by the Egyptians today. The remaining two are short Nays. One of them is made out of wood and the other is metal.

The second category of wind instruments in the show case is a Clarinet or oboe type of instrument which should originaly has reed to below in. Unfortunately this reed is missing for all the 18 flutes displayed and it will be difficult to estimate how these reeds did look like and what was their dimensions.

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Characteristics of the Egyptian Flute "NAY"

The Egyptian flute as mentioned before is made out of nile bamboo. The bamboo is characterisied by the presence of nodes which tends to narrow the diameter of the air column at each node. These nodes are normally blocked in the case of raw bamboo rod. In the ancient Egyptian flutes, the nodes are fully cleared. In the modern Egyptian flute all nodes are cleared except the one near the blowing end. (This would allow the flutes to be blown to higher octaves than normal). The ancient Egyptians used to cut their flutes at the position of the nodes while the modern Egyptians cut their flutes in between the nodes. Finally the ancient Egyptians used very long flutes (about 90 cms) while the modern Egyptians use relatively shorter flutes (30-60 cms).


Some notes on the flute acoustics

The basic theory of the flute is that it produce a tone which is dependent on the length of the air column. The theory of resonance states that given a tube opened from both sides, it will resonate at a frequency corresponding to a wave length that is equals to twice the length of ;the tube. Which means that (tube length) = (wave length)/2. Figure 2 shows graphical representation of such a relation.

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Parameters affecting air column length in a tube

The previous equation ignores several effects that modify and add corrections to it. Some of these effects were discussed in several references (2,3,4) and some were not treated by the any reference due to the special nature of the Egyptian flute.
These effects can be summarized in the following :

  1. End of tube effect (open-end -correction)
  2. Mouth piece effect (mouth correction)
  3. Material effect
  4. Hole effect (hole correction)
  5. The bamboo nodes effect
  6. The internal smoothness effect.

The first three effects were treated in the conferences mentioned above while the last three effects were discussed in a special paper (reference 5)

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The Experiment

As it was mentioned before, six wind instrument are belonging to the nay group, four of which are made out of bamboo (C.G. 69814 through 69817), one made out of wood (CG 69818) and one made of Bronze (CG. 69818). The first step was to investigate these flutes, make accurate measures and compare the results with those of reference No. 6.

Table 1 shows the results of these measurements.

The results of these measurments indicated the following :

  1. There are three nays of one family of length around 90 cm (they look like the dominant flute length at the time of the ancient Egyptians as indicated by different references)
  2. There is one nay of length around 75 cms
  3. There are two flutes of shorter length and not made out of nile bamboo
  4. The measured dimension differs slightly from those of reference 6
  5. Reference 6 has ignored the diameter of flute CG. 69817 and indicated that the flute is in a bad shape. The team found that this flute is in a better shape than the three others.
  6. All references did not take into consideration the measurement of the bamboo nodes.


After finishing. the measurement and investigation task, the team decided the following :

  1. Making exact model for all the four bamboo flutes out of similar material
  2. Making models for the wood and bronze flutes out of plastic tubes.
  3. From investigations of the different references, the team decided that only the bamboo flutes belong to the pharaonic dynasties while the other flutes belong most probably to the ptolemaic period. The team decided not to stress on the results of these two flutes.
  4. The team found that only two original flutes can be played. The bronze flute and the flute number CG. 69817 (from the middle kingdom), if restored. All other flutes were in bad conditions and very fragile to handle.
  5. The team solicited the organization of Antiquities to restore the mentioned flute and decided to carry the experiment by playing the two original flutes and the six replicas.

In the third step the team entered the museum with two types of equipment

- Sound recording equipment
- Digital recording equipment on computer based system.

The first piece of equipment was used to record the sound in a standard audio recording way for subjective (non engineers) analysis especially by musicians.

The second piece of equipment was used to record the sound digitally on a computer media and then treat it with special computer prepared for scientific analysis. The equipment records *the signal digitally, loads it into the memory of the computer, apply fourier transform to generate the frequency spectrum, from which the fundamental frequency of the note and all its harmonics are measured to the nearest one thousand of a Hertz.

Each flute, was played once as a sequence of possible notes of its scale and then played secondly as improvisation music on that scale.

Figure 3 shows Mr. Effat playing the flute number 69817 (RealAudio) and figure 4 shows Mr. Effat playing the flute number 69819 (RealAudio). Figure 5 shows the computer display of the notes while playing. Figure 6 shows the working team.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

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Subjective Results

Playing the different (bamboo) flutes has produced the following notes that were identified by different music experts in a subjective test as follows on this table.

*These two notes are somewhere in between the flat and the 1/2 flat)

Note: 1/2 flat means a note that falls half way between the natural note and the flat (sometimes noted in case of arabic music as quarter tone). It is noted in this table as bb.

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Measured Results

The Measurement was carried for each flute as follows :

  1. A sequence of notes is recorded within a total period of 15 seconds (which corresponds to about 2 Megabytes of memory)
    Figure 7 shows the computer printout of such signal for the flute No. CG 69817.
  2. The display of the notes one by one is isolated and expanded for the analysis of that note'
    Figure 8 shows the computer printout of an expansion of the note number of the figure 7
  3. A fourier transform is applied to the isolated note signal in order to obtain the spectrum of the signal and its harmonic content.
    Figure 9 shows the computer printout of the spectrum of the signal of figure 8
  4. The values of the maxima of the spectrum is normalised (such that the highest peak would equal to 50) and printed
    Figure 10 shows the print out of the spectral values.

It should be noted that the selection of range of the isolated note is very important. If this range is very wide, ' it will includes some of the noise inbetween the notes and also the rise and fall of the notes. This would cause the appearance of many unwanted maxima in the spectrum. On the other hand, if the range is very narrow, it might fall in a range that is not really representing the average played frequency of the note.

Table 2 gives the computer frequency measurement in a comparative tabular form.

Table 3 gives the calculated frequency ratios of frequencies calculated with reference to the basic note.The table also shows these ratios for the natural scale.

Table 4 gives the calculated logarithmic (cents) values of the different notes

Figure 11 and figure 12 shows graphic representation of these results.

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Interpretation of Results

The results of this tables indicates the following :

  1. It emphasises the subjective results with the following comments :
    a. The uncertain notes of the flute number C.G. 68916 is closer to the arabic scale notes
    b. The values of the frequences of the flute number CG 68917 has frequencies flatter than the standard ratios.
  2. The presence of a diatonic (seven notes) scale in three of these flutes.
  3. The flute No. C.G 69814 is from the middle kingdom and found at Beni Hassan gives an almost perfect pentatonic scale having the F-note as a base note and missing the third and seventh notes of the diatonic scale.
  4. The flute No. 69817 is from the new kingdom (XVIII dynasty) was found at Deir El Medina plays a clear diatonic scale that is based on the A-note. It gives in A-minor scale with the fourth note flatter than usual.
  5. The flute number CG 69815 is of unknown dating and was found in Sakkara. It gives an almost perfect arabic seven note scale (which has the third note half way between the A and Ab). which is also based on the F-note. This suggests that the arabic scale was originated at the time of ancient Egyptians and was used afterwards by the Persians who transfered it to the arabic civilization.
  6. The flute number CG 69816 is of unknown dating and was found also in Sakkara. It gives scale which is very similar to that of the CG 69815 flute except that the fourth note is a little bit ambigous in subjective test.
  7. Although the flutes No. 69815 and 69816 are of unknown dates, yet from the shape and length of the flutes one can deduct that they are pure ancient egyptian flutes. One of the extensions of this project is to carry Carbon-14 dating test for these two flutes.
  8. There are three out of the four flutes of almost the same length and consequently base note (F-note). This base note corresponds to the lowest human natural singing sound.
  9. Investigating the frequency table shows very interesting result.

The frequency values of the notes of the flute No. 69814 (pentatonic) and No. 69816 are very close to one another with one Hertz.

Remembering that these two flutes are hundreds of years apart and hundreds of kilometers apart, this would suggest that there was a kind of a source of standard musical notes. (may be there was a sacred flute in a principal temple that was used as a yard-stick). Also note the similarity of frequencies of the first two notes of the flute number 69817 and the third and fourth notes of the flute number 69816 (although one of them is F-based and the other is A-based).

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Conclusion :

The main objective of the project was to find out whether the ancient Egyptians knew the diatonic scale.

The answer is more fascinating than the objective in the following sense:

The ancient Egyptians had a pentatonic scale in the old time that developed at the beginning of the new kingdom to seven note scale of A-minor.

The ancient Egyptian has in addition to the diatonic scale an arabic seven note scale that was thought to have originated in Persia.

There is a fascinating correlation between the frequencies produced from different flutes which suggests the presence of a means for calibration of these instruments.

All these conclusions are sterned from experimentation with only four flutes. The team thinks that extending the research work to a wider number of flutes (from different museums) would reveal more and more information.

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The authors would like to express their deep gratitude to Dr. M. Bakr head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization for giving the permission to carry this project and to Mr. M. Mohsen the general manager of Cairo Museum and Mrs. S. Abdelaal the assistant general manager for their encouragement and technical support to carry this work.

Thanks also goes to Dr. Bahaa Madkour for the photographic coverage of the project and the team of Cairo University Dr. A. Darwish, H. El Kadi, H. Hussein and M. Elhady without whom this experiment could not have been realized efficiently.



  1. Christiane Ziegler "Catalogue des Instruments de Musique Egyptiens" Musée du Louvre, 1979 [Back]
  2. Jean Claude Risset "Musical Acoustics" Université d'Aix Marseille -1977 [Back]
  3. Sir James Jeans "Science and Music" Cambridge - England 1938 [Back]
  4. Charles Culver "Musical Acoustics" Mc Graw Hill 1956 [Back]
  5. M. Effat and F. Saleh "Theory of the Modem Egyptian flute" (under preparation) [Back]
  6. Hans Hickmann "Catalogue Général: Instruments de Musique" Cairo Museum. [Back]


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