Engraved on a tombstone almost 2000 years ago, this is music’s oldest surviving composition

4 November 2021, 15:03 | Updated: 4 November 2021, 17:57

The marble Seikilos stele with poetry and musical notation
The marble Seikilos stele with poetry and musical notation. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

Hear the ‘Seikilos Epitaph’; written in Ancient Greece, it is the oldest surviving musical composition.

Written in the 1st or 2nd century CE, the Song of Seikilos was discovered on a tombstone in Turkey in 1883.

The song explores themes of the transience of life and the passage of time. At almost 2000 years old, it’s believed to be the oldest surviving piece of music in the world.

Listen to a performance of the musical engraving, as its tender, heartrending tones pass through millennia.

The mournful lyrics have been translated from Ancient Greek to English. The text reads:

While you live, shine
have no grief at all 
life exists only for a short while
and Time demands an end.

A further inscription reads:

I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as a long-lasting sign of deathless remembrance.

Seikílos Eutér[pēi]

Scholars have surmised these last two words to be a dedication from Seikilos to Euterpe, who could have been the composer’s wife, or the Muse of Music from Greek mythology.

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A modern transcription of the melody
A modern transcription of the melody. Picture: Wikipedia Commons

The song is thought to be the oldest surviving complete musical composition from anywhere in the world. While there are older examples of musical notation, such as the Hurrian Song, these are fragmented and unlike the complete engraving found on the Seikilos Epitaph.