Norman A. Rubin

The English word “Psalms “ is a transliteration of the Greek title of the book; that is, Psalms is the Greek word simply spelled in English or Roman letters. The Greek word, psalmoi, was first translated into Latin as psalmi, and then into English as Psalms. The Greek word originally meant, “a striking or twitching of the fingers on a string.The related verb was used by classical writers for “the pulling of a bowstring.” From that came the idea of pulling or playing a stringed instrumenta stringed musical instrument. When the word took on an extended meaning of a song, there was always the latent background of the stringed instrumental accompaniment to the singing. So the meaning of the Greek title of the book is Sacred Songs, Sung to Musical Instruments. (Dr. Ronald Allen, as quoted by Charles Swindoll. during Insight For Living broadcast on Jan. 29, 2001)

Music was an important part of the Biblical world and the Bible is full of ancient songs. The book of Psalms is a collection of these songs, often with information about instruments used in accompaniment. This article briefly summarizes our present knowledge of ancient musical instruments.

There is a sense in which the Bible is part of every person’s heritage. It contains deep insights into the human condition and provides moral guidance which has stood the test of time. It is also replete with songs which were always accompanied by musical instruments. However, in spite of their frequent mention in the Bible, the physical appearance of the instruments is hardly ever described.

The kinnor was the first musical instrument mentioned in the Bible (Gn 4:21), Generally believed to have two arms and a wood-framed box-shaped body, it was probably the string instrument most often depicted in ancient paintings and sculptures. That is the instrument the man on the right is playing in the photo.

The beginning of Psalm 81 illustrates this for us:

Begin the music, strike the tambourine, play the melodious harp and lyre. Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon, and when the moon is full, on the day of our Feast. (Ps 81:2–3)

For many generations, research into Biblical music and Biblical musical instruments was chiefly of a linguistic nature. Now, thanks to important archaeological discoveries of the last three decades, new horizons have been opened for research into the ancient music scene. Various finds have supplied scholars with clues of a material culture giving an iconographic basis for determining the physical appearance of the instruments and, in certain cases, the actual mode of playing them. Figures of both male and female musicians, dance groups, orchestras and musical instruments appear in mosaics and frescoes. Coinage is another source. We have sculptures and figurines, also carved in ivory and stone, and molded in pottery.

Comparative sources from other cultures add to the knowledge of Biblical music and instrumentation. The use of musical instruments in Biblical times is confirmed by extra-Biblical sources, such as the writings of the historians Philo and Josephus. From Josephus, we learn that Herod organized musical events. (Ant., 15:269ff). The writings of the sectarians of Qumran, the Apocrypha, and the Mishnah are other non-Biblical sources.1

The first reference to musical instruments in the Bible is to be found in the book of Genesis, “His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute.” (Gn 4:21).

BSpade 14:3 (Summer 2001) p. 84

Distinct from the metal trumpets (hazozeroth) which first appeared in the Bible in Numbers 10 and were regularly used in temple music, the ram’s horn (shofar) was usually associated with calling the people together. The sound of the ram’s horn along with thunder, lightning and a thick cloud called the children of Israel to assemble at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:16, 19)

Harp (Nevel-Heb.) and L yre (Kinnor-Heb.)

These two stringed instruments are the most frequently mentioned instruments in the Bible. Psalm 150 verse 3 mentions both the harp and the lyre. The lyre was the chief instrument of the orchestra of the Second Temple.2 King David excelled at playing the lyre and therefore it was held in particular honor by the Levitcs. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, it had ten strings and was sounded with a plectrum. The lyre is box-shaped, with two arms and a yoke having an average height of 50-60 cm. The only iconographic evidence of the harp (psaltery) is in a mosaic from Gaza from the sixth century AD, showing David playing a harp and not a lyre. It is assumed therefore, that it is a stringed instrument with a broad resonance body, ten or 12 strings and arms made of horns with approximate dimensions of 60.5 cm in height and 38 cm in width. Josephus mentions it as an instrument plucked with the fingers (Ant. 7:306).

Pipe (Halil-Heb.)

This instrument was a reed flute that was used for rejoicing and mourning ceremonies. Another theory it that it is the syrinx—the Greek word for pan-pipes, a row of hollow reed pipes tied together, sounded by blowing across their tops. The pipe mentioned in the passage from Genesis is most probably the lute (Minnim—Heb.) as written in Psalm 81:3; 150:3.

Tambourine or Timbrel

The carrying of the Holy Ark to Jerusalem by King David was accompanied by the playing of harps, tambourines, castanets, cymbals and trumpets (2 Sm 6:5; 1 Chr 13:8). The tambourine or timbrel (frame skin-taut drum) is mainly a instrument used for the accompaniment for song and dance.

Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp (Ps 149:3).

Archaeological finds indicate that it is an instrument usually played by women. Thus, after the destruction of the Temple, Jewish tradition opposed the use of the instrument. This opposition was based on the belief that timbrels, connected with women and dance, were associated with temptation and corruption.

Castanets or Pottery Rattles

The numerous finds of pottery rattles (Mena ane ‘im—shaking Heb.) probably applies to the instrument mentioned in 2 Samuel 6:5 and 1 Chronicles 13:8. The most typical rattles are in the form of a spool, with a loop for suspension and in a fruit or animal shape. Hard objects such as small pebbles or pottery sherds were put inside.

Sistrum and Cymbals

A sliding rattle pictured mainly on Roman coins, indicated its usage as a musical instrument in the ancient world. The cymbals in the Hebrew text were written ‘Mezilayim, Zilzalim, Mezillot3 bronze plates with a hollow boss and with a metal thumb-loop or with long thin metal arms with an average diameter of about 12 cm.

The cymbals were most probably played by the Levites in the Temple.

Make two trumpets of hammered silver, and use them for calling the community together and for having the camps set out…The sons of Aaron, the priests, are to blow the trumpets…you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings…(Nm 10:2, 8, 10).

BSpade 14:3 (Summer 2001) p. 85

Music in the Bible included stringed instruments (lyre), wind instruments (flute) and instruments of percussion (cymbals) as pictured above.


Trumpets were used as a mustering call for the Israelite clans as a cheering sound into battle. Also the sounding was a reminder for the offering at appointed seasons on behalf of the Lord. Later the trumpet was sounded in the presence of royalty and like the shofar, was an integral part of the service in the Temple. Biblical trumpets may be classified as follows:

Temple trumpets made of silver, long and conical with broadened bell are shown on the relief on the Arch of Triumph in Rome.

Military Trumpets, short and broad, with a prominent mouthpiece are depicted on Bar Kokhba coins minted during the revolt with Rome. The conch shell, found in excavation sites such as Jericho and Hebron, indicate it was a form of trumpet used for mustering a call to battle.

The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the LORD went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the LORD’S covenant followed them (Jos 6:8).


The ritual horn is a natural sound-producing instrument carved from a ram’s horn. Its most famous appearance was at the siege of Jericho when shofar were blown and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Scholars suggest that it was used as a signaling instrument which served as a call to the army. Only after the shofar was taken into the service of the Second Temple did its sound express spiritual significance. It is mentioned in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 16) that the shofar, sounded for the Jewish New Year, must be a straight ram’s horn with a gold-plated mouthpiece, while on the Day of Atonement, it has to be curved, with a silver-plated mouthpiece. Today, the shofar is blown in the synagogue at the final prayer on the Day of Atonement. The sound of the shofar is the only sound preserved from ancient Israel.


“Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them.” (Ex 28:33). In the Bible, the bell (Pa ‘amon-Heb)5 is mentioned as a distinctive feature, along with the pomegranate ornament, of the High Priest. The trappings served as a ritual accessory. The bell was also used on secular occasions until the Byzantine period. At various archaeological sites in Palestine bells of different shapes and metals are found. Most bells are small and made of bronze with an iron clapper.

BSpade 14:3 (Summer 2001) p. 86

Drum (tov) and Membraphone (tof)

“Then Miriam the prophetess. Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her. with tambourines and dancing.” (Ex 15:20)

In the original Hebrew text the name of the instrument is tov-drum.

The membraphone (tof-Heb.) is an instrument that produces sound by means of vibration of a lightly strained framed membrane which in turn causes the air to vibrate.

The membraphone (timbrels) may be a single-frame drum, or double-membrane drums that have membranes on each end (both types are still in use in many countries).

Friction timbrels can be of varying shapes and materials. They are sounded by being rubbed with the hand or set into vibration by a friction chord or stick.

The tambourine (tabor) as mentioned in Psalm 81:2 is a small drum used to accompany oneself to the playing of a pipe or flute.

“As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music…” (Dn 3:5).

Daniel in this passage describes the orchestra of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.

Horn and Pipe

The horn might be a double-pipe wind instrument made up of one melody pipe and one drone pipe. The pipe is a wind instrument (aerophone) such as pan-pipes, whistles or skin bagpipes.

Zither and Triangle

The zither of the ancient past was a musical instrument made from various materials which produce some sound. There is a diversity of instrumental types and a variety of material is used such as wood xylophones, musical glasses, stones chipped to give a graded scale, natural materials such as reeds and nut shells, metals such as upturned metal bowls. The triangle is a small percussion musical instrument that consists of a steel triangle, open at one corner. It is struck with a metal rod. Children still play these today.


The dulcimer is an instrument that produces sound by moans of the vibrations of tightly stretched cords or strings. These arc struck by a small metal or wooden hammer. The revolt against the Romans in AD 70 and the catastrophe that followed put an end to the Temple-centered music of the Jewish people. This opened a new period in which the synagogue became the focal point of creativity in the musical form and tone.6

The sounds of the musical notes of the ancient past are lost. But the study of comparative Near Eastern traditions may be able to point to certain melodic and formal elements as very old. These may be a connection to the ancient past. Yet, their attribution to Biblical or early post-Biblical times can never be proved or confirmed.

BSpade 14:3 (Summer 2001) p. 87

The Sea of Galilee is the largest freshwater lake in Israel. Roughly 7 (east-west) by 13 (north-south) miles (22.5 x 42 km), it is both fed and drained by the Jordan River and today provides most of Israel’s drinking water. Technically a lake in the modern sense, it was generally referred to as a sea (yom Hebrew; thalassa Greek) in both the Old and New Testaments. The lake is best known by its New Testament name, Sea of Galilee (Mt 4:15, 18, 15:29; Mk 1:16, 7:31; Jn 6:1), coming from the Hebrew word galil, meaning circle or circuit. Its Old Testament name was the Sea of Chinnereth (or Chinneroth; Nu 34:11; Dt 3:17; Jo 12:3, 13:27), probably taken from the name of one of the walled cities in the region of Naphtali, Chinnereth (Jo 11:2, 19:35). Today Chinnereth is identified with modern Tell el-’Oreimeh (Tel Kinrot M.R. 200252), on the lake’s northwest shore. This ancient city, settled during the Bronze and Iron Ages was abandoned after the Assyrian invasion and replaced by a later town a few hundred yards to the south. Called Gennesaret (Greek form of Chinnereth) in the Maccabean period, this city also gave it’s name to the lake in the New Testament (Lu 5:1; note – here Luke uses the more technically correct Greek word for lake, limen). Later Jewish tradition called this city Ginnosar. One final New Testament name for the lake is the Sea of Tiberias (Jn 6:1, 21:1 and also in the Talmud), again coming from an important city on its southeastern shoreline, the Herodian city of Tiberias. The original name of the city and the lake, Chinnereth, probably comes from kinnor, the Hebrew word for lyre. While it is not clear exactly how the city got this name, it has been noted that the ancient tell is shaped like that musical instrument. The lake also resembles a lyre in shape, wide in the north and tapering towards the south. Yet, it is not clear that the earthbound ancients had opportunity to see a sufficient amount of the lake’s shape and make such a connection.

BSpade 14:3 (Summer 2001) p. 88