Much of its context is lost, but we know it was a song of mourning.
Like religion and language, music is an aspect of culture to which every civilization has made contributions. Considering how far back human history goes, and that we’ve only been formally writing music since the Middle Ages, reason would suggest that there has been a tremendous amount of music lost to human memory. But now, some of it has been recovered.
Researchers have identified the oldest complete musical composition, “The Seikilos Epitaph,” which could date back as far as 200 BC. Much of the context of this ancient tune has been lost, but there are some clues as to its creation. The title of the stele, a stone slab with a commemorative inscription on which the song was inscribed, translates as “Seikilos to Euterpe.” Historians believe that the composer’s name was Seikilos, and he wrote the song for a woman named Euterpe.
It is unknown whether Euterpe was Seikilos’ wife or mother, since the translation could be enterpreted as “Seikilos, son of Euterpe [or Euterpos].” The lyrics do nothing to clarify this:
“As long as you live, shine,
Let nothing grieve you beyond measure.
For your life is short,
and time will claim its toll.”
Experts have little doubt that the song was written to mourn the loss of a loved one. An inscription seperate from the music and lyrics reads, “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.”
All That’s Interesting explains how the researchers were able to date the stele by the primative ancient Greek notations:
This type of notation used ancient Greek letters with markings above them to indicate syllables and pitch (because researchers know the period in which this type of notation was used, this also allowed them to date the stele).
By examining the letters and accents, researchers were ultimately able to transcribe the piece into contemporary musical notation.
The Seikilos Epitaph was discovered by Scottish archaeologist W. M. Ramsay in 1883. This is generally agreed upon, but from there its history is a bit hazy. One theory suggests that Ramsay brought the artifact to a museum in Smyrna, Greece, where it was kept safely until the Turkish War of Independence.
Another theory says that Ramsay came across the object by accident and took it to give to his wife as a garden decoration. While the exact history of the stele is unknown, it is agreed that an unidentified man spirited the artifact out of Greece during the war and gave it to his son-in-law, who brought it to The Hague, Netherlands.
The stele was kept safe in The Hague, capital city of the province of South Holland, until it was purchased by the National Museum of Denmark in 1966 and was brought to Copenhagen, where it remains to this day.
Above is an accurate recreation of the melody using instruments that would have been popular in 200 BC. However, this piano arrangement is also quite lovely: