Trumpet made of conch shell with copper, gilt copper alloy and semi precious stones. Metal pendant with dragon motif.

A history of world music in 15 instruments

Publication date: 5 April 2018

From the ancient Egyptians to the Sámi people of northern Europe, music has been an integral part of societies around the world.

To celebrate the Museum's first major musical festival this April, here are 15 extraordinary instruments from history that hit just the right note!

A history of world music in 15 instruments

This April, the Museum is hosting its first major music festival. The galleries will be filled with the sound of music from across the world, from classical traditional Indian music and Chinese kunqu opera to 20th-century European avant-garde works by composers such as Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti. With these unique performances taking place surrounded by objects in the collection, our curators have orchestrated this list of 15 musical instruments from around the world and across time.

1. Mesopotamian lyre

Silver lyre with bull's head on front, the panel on the front of the lyre depicts fallow deer and a tree on a hill, lions attacking a goat, and a lion attacking a gazelle.
Silver lyre. Royal Cemetery of Ur, now in southern Iraq, 2600 BC.

This imposing silver lyre was played in Mesopotamia (modern-day southern Iraq) over 4,000 years ago. Music was an important aspect of many celebratory and ritual occasions in ancient Mesopotamia. The lyre is made of lavishly decorated silver and red limestone. The frame, tuners and strings are modern reproductions made from casts of the long-decayed wooden parts. The decorated panels below the bull's head depict fallow deer and a tree on a hill, lions attacking a goat, and a lion attacking a gazelle.

2. Medieval citole

Citole with carved decorative panels with forest scenes comprising huntsmen, foresters, animals, the end terminating in a dragon
Citole made of wood, silver and gold. England, c. 1280–1330.

This richly decorated instrument, dripping with carved foliage, has an interesting story. It was originally made between 1280 and 1330 as a citole, a medieval guitar-like instrument, usually with four strings. This one is intriguing as it was converted into a violin at some point – possibly during the 16th century or later when the violin was becoming more fashionable. The coats of arms of Queen Elizabeth I and her alleged lover Robert Dudley appear on the silver plate at the headstock.

3. Ancient Egyptian harp

Elaborately decorated model arched harp, the underside of the soundbox is in the shape of a ladle, rounded and finely carved. It ends in a human head, with lengthy wig and double crown
Arched wooden harp. Tomb of Ani, Thebes, Egypt, New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC).

Harps like this highly decorated example were played at ancient Egyptian banquets – they're often shown in scenes covering the walls of tombs. This one was found in a tomb and is over 3,000 years old. The strings were plucked two at a time, and depictions of harps show they could be accompanied by singers and instruments that resemble lutes and oboes. Songs at banquets were usually dedicated to deities.

4. Arabian lute

Lute with a short-neck and pear-shaped body
Arabian lute made of cedar, Indian rosewood, ebony and bone. Basra, Iraq, 1981.

This Arabian lute (oud in Arabic) was made by the famous Iraqi luthier Fawzi Monshid of Basra in 1981. The cedar wood soundboard has decorative details in ebony, rosewood and bone and the belly is made of strips of north Indian rosewood. This beautiful instrument has been synonymous with the music of the Middle East for centuries, and the word 'lute' originally comes from a corruption of the Arabic al-oud. This magnificent example will go on display in the Museum's new Albukhary Foundation Galleries of the Islamic world, due to open in October 2018, where you will be able to hear a recording of it played by the London-based master Ahmed Mukhtar.

5. Statue of a woman playing a lyre from Cyprus

This limestone statue of a woman playing a lyre was dedicated in a shrine in ancient Cyprus around 300–250 BC to entertain and honour the gods for eternity. This type of statue represents high status women who took part in major religious festivals as priestesses. The dress and jewellery indicate that she was a member of the upper classes, while her wreath signifies that she is a worshipper. The strings of the lyre are still faintly visible in red paint – this whole statue was most likely painted.

6. A satirical print of a celebrated performer

Portrait of a violinist whose face is formed by the violin which he plays, the sound-holes form the eyes and nose. He is fashionably dressed, wearing long tight pantaloons to the ankle
George Cruikshank (1792–1878), A celebrated performer in the philharmonic society. Hand-coloured etching, 10 May 1818.

This satirical print made by George Cruikshank is a portrait of a violinist, thought to be P Spagnoletti (1768–1834). He was the leader of the orchestra at the King's Theatre (Opera) for nearly 30 years, and one of the first Associates of the Philharmonic Society founded in 1813. The violin forms the performer's face and the sound-holes create the eyes and nose.

7. A Roman water-organ

Medallion depicting figure seated, facing, head left, in front of a water-organ
A water-organ (hydraulis) on a Roman bronze medallion, 4th–5th century AD.

Invented in the 3rd century BC, the water-organ (hydraulis) was the most elaborate musical instrument of classical antiquity. Here, the seated musician is shown turned towards his audience with his back to the pipes. When played, assistants were needed to work the long-handled pumps seen either side to keep up water pressure in a tank forcing up air through keys and into the pipes. Roman art sometimes shows organs accompanying gladiator combat – a bloodthirsty purpose compared to their long subsequent association with churches.

8. Chinese flute

Two images of a porcelain flute, one showing full length with tassel of similar length, the other showing the end where tassel is attached
Porcelain flute with gilt decoration and transparent glaze and silk tassel. Dehua, Fujian province, Qing dynasty, about AD 1800–1900. On loan from the Sir Percival David Collection.

Dehua wares of the period AD 1600–1911 are typified by figures and vessels with a granular sugary white body and either a blue-tinged or creamy glaze. The pure whiteness of these ceramics is due to the relative absence of iron impurities in the body – indeed the clay used contains only half a percent of ferric oxide. This flute has the character 清 (Qing, meaning pure) in the mouthpiece.

9. Jewish shofar

Curved horn made of ram's horn
Jewish shofar. Europe, 18th–19th century.

This musical instrument is made from a ram's horn, and today it is used mainly in synagogue services during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). It has a distinctive sound, and is blown following an elaborate order of sounds and notes. The custom of sounding a shofar on ceremonial occasions originated in biblical times. It is first mentioned in the Book of Exodus when God revealed himself at Mount Sinai and the sound of the shofar made the Israelites tremble in awe.

10. Ancient Greek wooden pipes

Two wooden auloi pipes, slightly curved with holes for fingers to create notes
Wooden auloi (pipes). Said to be from Athens, 5th–4th century BC.

Whenever people came together in ancient Greece, there was likely to be some form of musical accompaniment. There were joyful songs to celebrate marriage and childbirth, sad lamentation after death, work-songs for harvesting, grinding grain and weaving, drinking songs, love songs and even songs for curing illness. Auloi are pipes made of wood, bone or metal blown through a reed inserted into the end, and were often played in pairs. They were used as the musical accompaniment in Greek theatre.

11. Tibetan trumpet

Trumpet made of conch shell with copper, gilt copper alloy and semi precious stones. Metal pendant with dragon motif.
Conch shell trumpet. Tibet, 18th–19th century.

Trumpets like this were used in Buddhist temples across Asia, blown to call monks to services, and were usually decorated with textile streamers. This large example is made from a conch shell and decorated with gilt-copper and semi-precious stones. A very lively dragon stands in contrast against the background of clouds indicated by lapis lazuli, with its body inlaid with coral and other semi-precious stones.

12. Sámi drum

Image showing top and bottom of drum made of wood with reindeer skin stretched across. The skin is covered in painted designs
Sámi drum. Norway, Sweden or Finland, 1500–c. 1680.

Made of wood and reindeer skin, drums like this were an important tool for survival for the Sámi people, whose homeland covers parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. These drums were magical weapons that, in the hands of a shaman, or noaidi, could help to protect the community. In front of a flickering fire, the noaidi would beat the drum rhythmically, using the sound like a drug to enter a trance. Magic drums were used by Sámi for many generations, and this may be among the oldest surviving examples.

13. Akan drum

Akan drum made from wood
The Akan Drum. Drum made of wood with an animal skin head. Made in Ghana, found in Virginia, USA, 18th century.

This drum is one of the earliest surviving African-American objects. It was made by the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa and constructed from wood, vegetable fibre and deer skin. It would have been played at religious ceremonies or social occasions as part of an ensemble, and hit with an open hand. It was probably brought to America on a slave ship in the early 18th century, arriving in Virginia. Despite the oppression of slavery, drumming and other African musical traditions continued in colonial America, giving rise to many different kinds of music.

14. An Indonesian metallophone

Saron with seven cast bronze keys, attached to base in the form of intricately carved horned mythical creature
Metallophone (saron). Java, Indonesia, late 18th century–early 19th century.

A saron is an Indonesian metallophone with seven bronze keys on top of a wooden frame. It is played with a mallet made of wood or buffalo horn. Predominantly used in Java and Bali, the instrument is part of a larger orchestral ensemble known as a gamelan. An integral part of Indonesian culture, gamelans normally accompany dance and puppet (wayang) performances, rituals and ceremonies.

15. Rattle from ancient Cyprus

Terracotta rattle in the form of a pig or boar, wheel-made body with pinched and incised anatomical details
Terracotta rattle in the shape of a pig. Cyprus, 300–100 BC.

This adorably cute pig-shaped rattle from ancient Cyprus dates from around 300–100 BC. Made from terracotta, it may have been used to keep the beat in music or dance, or to scare off evil spirits with its rattling sound. It could also have been a toy, as a few examples have been found in children's graves.

Europe and the world: a symphony of cultures took place from 16 to 29 April 2018. The performances were accompanied by a series of panel discussions that explored the role of museums in complex political times, as places to listen, to debate and to experience music.

This festival was organised by the British Museum and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and made possible by the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany. In association with BBC Radio 3.