The Seikilos Epitaph: The Oldest Song in the World

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I like to think that, of all the ways to express one’s unique brand of nerdery, we music geeks are an extra special breed. Whether you’re a rabid record collector or a burgeoning singer/songwriter or just a guy who can’t sleep until he knows his iPod has been properly charged and synced, you understand that music is more than mere entertainment. It is a primal force nearly as old as humankind itself. But where exactly did it all begin?

While every armchair musicologist has his own theory – mine, for example, closely follows the narrative of Mojo Nixon’s “The Story of One Chord” – it’s a question that can never truly be answered. We have, however, identified the oldest surviving complete musical composition in existence.

Known as the Seikilos epitaph, in reference to the discovery of its lyrics and musical notation engraved on an ancient tombstone, this work dates from between 200 BC and 100 AD. Yet, despite its somber moniker, the song itself is actually quite encouraging. An English translation might read:

As long as you live, shine,
Let nothing grieve you beyond measure.
For your life is short,
and time will claim its toll.

Older surviving fragments of musical works preserved on cuneiform tablets predate the epitaph by up to two millennia, but Seikilos’s song represents our earliest record of a full composition. It sort of puts the true scope of music in perspective. And it’ll also put relativity on your side when the kids start complaining about you listening to 80s New Wave on your next road trip.

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