Music and its tools of production, musical instruments, as mentioned in the Bible are among the most perplexing phenomena of the past. This stems from both the ephemeral nature of music itself and the indirect sources of study — written, archaeological-iconographical, comparative — and the fact that only a few musical instruments discovered in excavations (e.g., cymbals, rattles) are still able to produce sound.

The oldest documentation of the oral tradition of biblical recitation is preserved in the Codex Cairo (9th cent.), where the biblical text is provided with ṭa˓amê hammiqrā˒ (biblical accents), a type of ekphonetic writing, which can serve as a comparative source, albeit not reliable for recreating the cantillation of ancient Israel (likewise Ugarit cuneiform notation or the transcription of contemporary Jewish traditional music as frequently used for this purpose). The Bible, considered the main source for the study of music in ancient Israel, may be helpful only for the study of its social context: e.g., the sacred service (1 Chr. 23; 2 Chr. 29:25) and praise of God (Isa. 12:5–6; Ps. 150); the apotropaic-prophylactic (Exod. 28:33; 1 Sam. 16:16), ecstatic-prophetic (10:5), or supernatural (Exod. 19:19) media; communication (Num. 10:1–9); war (2 Chr. 20:28); events of joy (Exod. 15:20) and sorrow (2 Sam. 1:17–27); or symbol of sin and prostitution (Isa. 5:12; 14:11). The accounts are sometimes ambiguous: e.g., the advance of David with the ark as a kind of orgy, with dominant percussion instruments of a Dionysiac character (2 Sam. 6:5), or a somewhat ceremonial occasion with singing and trumpet fanfare (2 Chr. 13:8).

Various accounts suggest that different styles of singing were employed: solo (2 Sam. 23:1), choral (2 Chr. 20:21; Exod. 32:18–19), a capella (15:1) or with instrumental accompaniment (15:20–21; Ps. 149:1–3), responsorial (1 Sam. 29:5; Ezra 3:10–11), or antiphonal (1 Sam. 18:6–7).

The greatest potential for information concerning music as described in the Bible is the study of the instruments recorded, but this information is similarly limited. The precise character of the music is never described, except for some general terms regarding the shophar and trumpet signals (Num. 10:2–10). Only three verses mention the material of which a musical instrument is made (Num. 10:2; 1 Kgs. 10:12; 1 Chr. 15:19), and seldom is the performance technique mentioned (1 Sam. 16:23).

The names of musical instruments are not entirely clear. The LXX, Peshitta, and Vulgate translate them with no precise understanding of their meaning. One version may render the same word in several different ways: e.g., the LXX translates Heb. kinnôr as kithára, kinýra, psaltḗrion, órganon, and nábla; ˓ŝg̱āḇ as kithára, psalmós, and órganon. Ambiguous information is available from postbiblical sources: the writings of Josephus Flavius and Philo from Alexandria, the Talmud, and the Qumran scrolls.

For these reasons, and particularly the historical and chronological uncertainty of the biblical record, archaeology must be regarded the primary source for the study of the musical cultures of the biblical world. At present some 700 artifacts — actual remains of musical instruments and artistic depictions — have been excavated. Statistical analysis of these artifacts provides an important indication of musical instruments present in ancient Israel/Palestine. For instance, harps are not attested, so consequently there is no reason to interpret Heb. nēḇel as “harp,” the instrument King David is commonly depicted as playing. From the Babylonian-Persian period, which the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles report as having developed an exceptionally rich musical liturgy and musical life, no significant musical evidence has survived.

The most common instruments in Iron Age Israel were derived from Canaanite culture. They seem to have been of modest construction, yet of great variety and capable of relatively sophisticated performance technique. Among those instruments available to the masses were clay rattles (probably mĕna˓an˓ɩ̂m), round frame drums (tōp̱), and double pipes similar to the oboe and clarinet (probably ḥālɩ̂l). The elaborate Egyptian lyres with eight or more strings gave way to the smaller kinnôr and nēḇel with fewer strings, mainly used in cultic and court music. During the Babylonian-Persian period a decline in musical life was apparent, perhaps reflective of local religious and social constraints (cf. Isa. 5:12; 24:8–9; Hos. 9:1). The Hellenistic-Roman period brought a blossoming of all kinds of musical activities and the introduction of many new types of instruments (e.g., new varieties of harps and lutes, bone pipes with bronze overlay). This was met with resistance in orthodox circles, who cited biblical admonishments regarding licentious activities associated with music (m. Soṭa 9:11; b. Soṭa 48a-b; Giṭ. 7a-b).

Old Testament

Bĕḵōl ˓ăṣê Ḇĕrôšîm

Instruments made of various kinds of wood (2 Sam. 6:5; 1 Chr. 13:8 reads bĕḵol-˓ōz ûḇšɩ̂rɩ̂m, “with all might and singing”). These may be the cypresswood double-clappers used by the masses (in contrast to the Egyptian-type ivory or bone Hathor-clappers of the wealthy).


Single or double-pipe reed instrument similar to the clarinet or oboe (from ḥll, “hollow, empty,” also “profane”). It accompanied ecstatic prophecy (1 Sam. 10:5), and was used in both joyful revelry (1 Kgs. 1:40) and mourning (Jer. 48:36) as well as secular debaucheries (Isa. 5:12). Simple bone instruments as well as elaborate ones dressed in bronze have been found from the Hellenistic-Roman period, and numerous artistic representations from all strata as early as the 14th century b.c.e. portray goddesses and erotic dancers, priests and satyrs, mourners and the joyful playing double-pipes.


The trumpet, made of hammered silver (Num. 10:2) or bronze. It was originally to be blown only by the priests for communication (to assemble the congregation and leaders) or alarm, in times of war, celebration, or on solemn days, at the beginning of the month and for the burnt offering (Num. 10:2–10). In the Babylonian-Persian period the trumpet was blown at the temple service (2 Kgs. 12:13 [MT 14]), at coronations (11:14; 2 Chr. 23:13), construction of the temple (Ezra 3:10), and in connection with vows to God (2 Chr. 15:14). Some passages describing trumpet blowing should be considered later additions reflecting liturgical practices (cf. 2 Sam. 6:5; 1 Chr. 13:8). Depictions believed to represent the temple trumpets on the Bar Kokhba coins and the arch of Titus are now questioned. Num. 10:4–5 and especially the Qumran scrolls (1QM 2:15; 3:1; 7:9; 9:9) contain general descriptions of techniques for playing the trumpet (sustained sound, short blast, quavering blast, sharp sound, battle alarm).


The lyre, a popular instrument attested in various ancient Near Eastern texts, as well as in the names of gods and place names, and in Syro-Palestinian iconography. It was a symbol of early professional musical activities (Gen. 4:21) and associated with nearly every type of musical occasion, from praise of God (Ps. 150:3) and prophecy (1 Sam. 10:5) to grief (Job 30:31), secular celebrations (Gen. 31:27) and debauchery (Isa. 23:16). Lyres were made of almug wood (1 Kgs. 10:11–12), with 10 (Josephus Ant. 8.3.8) or seven (m. Qinnim 3:6) thin gut strings, and usually played with a plectrum (1 Sam. 16:16 specifies plucking). The kinnôr changed form over time, although regional differences were less apparent in the multicultural biblical society.


An idiophone, probably a clay rattle (from nŝa˓, “shake”) of various shapes (geometric, zoo- and anthropomorphic; 5–12 cm. [2–5 in.] long), as suggested by more than 70 archaeological finds from the Bronze to Babylonian periods. It was a popular instrument used in orgiastic cultic activities (2 Sam. 6:5), and so not favored by the theocratic establishment (cf. 1 Chr. 13:8).

Mĕṣiltayim, Ṣelṣĕlîm

Cymbals (occurs only in the dual form), mentioned as early as the 14th century. Examples have been recovered ranging from Canaanite occupations to Hellenistic-Roman sites nearly a thousand years later. Two types have been found: saucerlike plates (7–12 cm. [3–5 in.]) held by hand loops, beaten mainly in a vertical position, and smaller cymbals (3–7 cm. [1–3 in.]), fastened to two fingers of one hand. Cymbals “of brass” are mentioned only in postexilic texts (1 Chr. 15:19; cf. Ezra 3:10; Neh. 12:27); they are to be played by the Levites (1 Chr. 15:16) and at cultic events (2 Chr. 5:13). The ṣelṣĕlɩ̂m mentioned at 2 Sam. 6:5 may have been simply small noise-making instruments, a kind of metal rattle, while the mĕṣiltayim in 1 Chr. 13:8 are larger and so better suited to temple worship. Ps. 150:5 mentions ṣilṣĕlê-šāma˓ (“clanging ṣelṣĕlim”) and ṣilṣĕlê-tĕrû˓â (“loud, crashing ṣelṣelɩ̂m”), perhaps the two types attested by archaeology.

Nēḇel, Nēḇel ˓Āśôr

A type of lyre. Like the kinnôr, with which it is generally mentioned, the nēḇel was made of almug wood (1 Kgs. 10:12), but it had 12 thick strings (m. Qinnim 3:6) and was always plucked (Josephus Ant. 7.12.3). Archaeological evidence discounts its identification as a harp (NRSV), suggesting instead that the nēḇel was a large, lower-pitched bass lyre. The nēḇel ˓ākôr was a ten-stringed lyre (Ps. 33:2; 144:9). The nēḇel was played by Levites (1 Chr. 15:16; 25:1) at cultic events (1 Chr 13:8; Ps. 150:3), victory celebrations (2 Chr. 20:28), and accompanying ecstatic prophecies (1 Sam. 10:5), as well as orgiastic revels (Isa. 5:12).


Bell (from Heb. p˓m, “beat”). “Bells of gold,” placed between pomegranates, were attached to the lower hem of the high priest’s robe (Exod. 28:33, 34; 39:25, 26) and had apotropaic-prophylactic significance (28:35). Attested in the Near East as early as the 15th century, bells appear in ancient Israel from the 9th-8th centuries on. Finds from the Hellenistic-Roman period include bells accompanied by remnants of fabric which indicate their placement on a garment. The recently discovered mosaic from the Sepphoris synagogue (early 5th century) depicts Aaron with bells fastened to his robe.


Ram’s horn (cf. Akk. šappāru, “wild goat”). The most frequently mentioned musical instrument in the Bible, used from at least the Iron Age until today. It is capable of producing two or three sounds of different pitch and alarming nature, characterized as tēqa˓ (“blast”), tĕrû˓â (“shout of jubilation”), and yabbāḇâ (“sobbing, moaning; trembling”). The earliest known musical notation for the šôp̱ār is recorded in Sa˒adia Gaon’s Siddur (10th century c.e.). The šôp̱ār was a solo instrument at significant cultic and national events: theophanies (Exod. 19:13, 16), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9), the New Moon feast (Ps. 81:3 [MT 4]), the day of judgment (Joel 2:1), transporting the ark (2 Sam. 6:5), during battle (Judg. 3:27), and in victory celebrations (1 Sam. 13:3). From the 3rd century c.e. the šôp̱ār appears as a symbol in synagogue mosaics (Hammath-Tiberias, Beth-shan), on fragments of columns, oil lamps, etc.

Qeren Hayyôḇēl

Ram’s horn, mentioned only once in connection with the destruction of the walls of Jericho (Josh. 6:5). It may have been a variety of the šôp̱ār.


Drum, tambourine, timbrel. An instrument widely attested throughout the ancient Near East, its most common form in Syria-Palestine was a 25–40 cm. (8–16 in.) frame over which was stretched a skin or membrane. It had both cultic and secular use, accompanying singing and dancing (Ps. 149:3) and prophetic ecstasy (1 Sam. 10:5). Drums were played for feasts (Ps. 81:2 [3]), processions (2 Sam. 6:5; Ps. 68:25 [26]), and other celebrations (Gen. 31:27), but apparently not for temple worship. The tōp̱ seems to have been played most often by women, frequently as a solo instrument and in connection with dancing, also a female activity. Numerous terracotta figurines of female drummers have been found from the Iron Age on; two types are common, seemingly reflecting the synthesis of sacral and secular in the musical culture of ancient Israel: women in long, bell-form dresses, without jewelry, or partly unclad and wearing rich jewelry.


Often identfied as a vertical flute (cf. Egyp. ma˓t), although the LXX and Josephus consider it a stringed instrument (cf. Gen. 4:21; NRSV “pipe”). It occurs as an instrument of praise (Ps. 150:4), joy (Job 21:12), and mourning (30:31).


The names of the six musical instruments listed in Dan. 3:5, 7, 10, 15 are of Aramaic or Greek origin: qarnā˒ (cf. Heb. qeren, “animal horn”), here a brass trumpet known from Neo-Babylonian sources; mašrôqɩ̂ṯā˒ (from šrq, “to whistle”), probably a kind of reed instrument; qayṯrōs (Gk. kithára), a Greco-Roman lyre; sabbĕḵā˒, Greek or Phoenician angular harp, attested in the Seleucid period; pĕsantērɩ̂n (cf. Gk. psaltḗrion), a large, angular horizontally-held harp, beaten with two sticks; sûmpōnyâ, variously understood as the bagpipe or kettledrum or perhaps a designation for “the entire ensemble” (kōl zĕnê zĕmārā˒).

Collective Terms

A number of other terms occur designating classes or varieties of instruments, mostly string instruments: kēlɩ̂m, lit., “vessels, implements,” a generic term for instruments (1 Chr. 23:5); kĕlê-ḏāwɩ̂ḏ, “instruments of David” (2 Chr. 29:26); kĕlɩ̂-neḇel (Ps. 71:22; 1 Chr. 16:5; NRSV “harp”); kĕlê-˓ōz, “loud instruments” (2 Chr. 30:21); kĕlê-šɩ̂r, “instruments of song” (e.g., Amos 6:5); minnɩ̂m, “strings” (Ps. 150:4).

Superscriptions to the Psalms

Musical terms in the headings of the Psalms are among the most difficult problems in translating the Bible. Modern musicologists consider many to be notations regarding performance techniques or perhaps catchwords for popular melodies. Heb. lamĕnaṣṣēaḥ, “For the choirmaster” (or “Master of Victory”), which occurs 55 times in the Psalms and also with Hab. 3, may indicate instructions for the leader. Heb. mizmôr, which occurs in 57 Psalms, may specify singing with instrumental accompaniment. Many of the notations remain highly uncertain. For example, ˓al-˓ălāmôṯ (Ps. 46:1) may mean “with a string instrument” (cf. 1 Chr. 15:20) or “drum” (cf. Ps. 68:25 [26]) or perhaps “on the eighth (tone or mode)” (cf. 1 Chr. 15:20–21). Heb. ˓al-haggittɩ̂ṯ (Pss. 8, 81, 84) may specify “in the style of Gath” or “on the instrument of Gath.”

New Testament

Four or perhaps five musical instruments are mentioned in the NT.

Single or double-pipe (Gk. aulós; Lat. tibia). This popular Greco-Roman reed instrument was played both at weddings and funerals (1 Cor. 14:7; cf. Matt. 9:23; 11:17).

Lyre (Gk. kithára). Comparison of the sound of lyres with the voice of many waters and great thunder (Rev. 14:2) may indicate the larger Roman instrument (NRSV “harp”).

Trumpet (Gk. sálpinx; Lat. tuba). The most frequently mentioned instrument in the NT (11 times), its sound symbolized supernatural power (“God’s trumpet,” 1 Thess. 4:16) and the apocalyptic “last trump” heralding the Parousia (1 Cor. 15:52).

Cymbals (Gk. kýmbalon). The “noisy gong” (chalkós ēcĥn, 1 Cor. 13:1) was probably a resonating device, a bronze vase at the back of the Greek theater (KJV “sounding brass”).

Gk. symphōnɩ́a (Luke 15:25) may designate another instrument, but is more likely a collective term for a consort of musical instruments or perhaps a general term for “music.”

1 Cor. 14:7–8 is particularly significant for music history. Here for the first time in the Bible is reference to “distinct notes.” This and the parallel concern regarding “indistinct sound” suggest emergent aesthetic regard for musical precision.

Bibliography. B. Bayer, “The Finds That Could Not Be,” BAR 8/1 (1982): 20–33; J. Braun, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine (Grand Rapids, 2002); C. Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1940); A. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York, 1969); W. W. Smith, Musical Aspects of the New Testament (Amsterdam, 1962).

Joachim Braun