The ancient Hebrews had a great taste for music, which they used in their religious services, in their public and private rejoicing, at their weddings and feasts, and even in their mourning. We have in Scripture canticles of joy, of thanksgiving, of praise, of mourning; also mournful elegies or songs, as those of David on the death of Saul and Abner, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah on the destruction of Jerusalem; so, too, songs of victory, triumph, and gratulation, as that which Moses sung after passing the Red Sea, that of Deborah and Barak, and others. The people of God went up to Jerusalem thrice a year, cheered on their way with songs of joy, Psalms 84:12 Isaiah 30:29. The book of Psalms comprises a wonderful variety of inspired pieces for music, and is an inexhaustible treasure for the devout in all ages.
Music is perhaps the most ancient of the fine arts. Jubal, who lived before the deluge, was the "father" of those who played on the harp and the organ, Genesis 4:21 31:26-27. Laban complains that his sonin-law Jacob had left him, without giving him an opportunity of sending his family away "with mirth and with songs, with tabret and with harp." Moses, having passed through the Red Sea, composed a song, and sung it with the Israelitish men, while Miriam, his sister, sung it with dancing, and playing on instruments, at the head of the women, Exodus 15:20-21. He caused silver trumpets to be made to be sounded at solemn sacrifices, and on religious festivals. David, who had great skill in music, soothed the perturbed spirit of Saul by playing on the harp, 1 Samuel 16:16,23; and when he was himself established on the throne—seeing that the Levites were not employed, as formerly, in carrying the boards, veils, and vessels of the tabernacle, its abode being fixed at Jerusalem-appointed a great part of them to sing and to play on instruments in the temple, 1 Chronicles 25:1-31. David brought the ark to Jerusalem with triumphant and joyful music, 1 Chronicles 13:8 15:16-28; and in the same manner Solomon was proclaimed king, 1 Kings 1:39-40. The Old Testament prophets also sought the aid of music in their services, 1 Samuel 10:5 2 Kings 3:15.
Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun were chiefs of the music of the tabernacle under David, and of the temple under Solomon. Asaph had four sons, Jeduthun six, and Heman fourteen. These twenty-four Levites, sons of the three great masters of the temple-music, were at the head of twenty-four bands of musicians, which served in the temple by turns. Their number there was always great, but especially at the chief solemnities. They were ranged in order about the altar of burnt-sacrifices. As the whole business of their lives was to learn and to practice music, it must be supposed that they understood it well, whether it were vocal or instrumental, 2 Chronicles 29:25.
The kings also had their music. Asaph was chief master of music to David. In the temple, and in the ceremonies of religion, female musicians were admitted as well as male; they generally were daughters of the Levites. Ezra, in his enumeration of those whom he brought back with him from the captivity, reckons two hundred singing men and singing women, 2 Samuel 19:35 Ezra 2:65 Nehemiah 7:67.
As to the nature of their music, we can judge of it only by conjecture, because it has been long lost. Probably it was a unison of several voices, of which all sung together the same melody, each according to his strength and skill; without musical counterpoint, or those different parts and combinations which constitute harmony in our music. Probably, also, the voices were generally accompanied by instrumental music. If we may draw any conclusions in favor of their music from its effects, its magnificence, its majesty, and the lofty sentiments contained in their songs, we must allow it great excellence. It is supposed that the temple musicians were sometimes divided into two or more separate choirs, which, with a general chorus, sung in turn responsive to each other, each a small portion of the Psalm. The structure of the Hebrew Psalms is eminently adapted to this mode of singing, and very delightful and solemn effects might thus be produced. Compare Psalms 24:10,10,10.
Numerous musical instruments are mentioned in Scripture, but it has been found impossible to affix heir names with certainty to specific instruments now in use. By a comparison, however, of the instruments probably held in common by the Jews with the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, a degree of probability as to most of them has been secured. They were of three kinds:
A. Stringed instruments:
1. KINNOR, "the harp," Genesis 4:21. Frequently mentioned in Scripture, and probably a kind of lyre.
2. NEBEL, "the psaltery," 1 Samuel 10:5. It appears to have been the name of various large instruments of the harp kind.
3. ASOR, signifying ten-stringed. In Psalms 92:4, it apparently denotes an instrument distinct from the NEBEL; but elsewhere it seems to be simply a description of the NEBEL as ten-stringed. See Psalms 33:2 144:9.
4. GITTITH. It occurs in the titles of Psalms 8:1 81:1 84:1. From the name, it is supposed that David brought it from Gath. Others conclude that it is a general name for a string instrument.
5. MINNIM, strings, Psalms 150:4. Probably another kind of stringed instrument.
6. SABECA, "sackbut," Daniel 3:5,7,10,15. A kind of lyre.
7. PESANTERIN, "psaltery," occurs Daniel 3:7, and is supposed to represent the NEBEL.
8. MACHALATH. Found in the titles of Psalms 53:1 88:1; supposed to be a lute or guitar.
B. Wind instruments:
9. KEREN, "horn," Joshua 6:5. Cornet.
10. SHOPHAR, "trumpet," Numbers 10:10. Used synonymously with KEREN.
11. CHATZOZERAH, the straight trumpet, Psalms 98:6.
12. JOBEL, or KEREN JOBEL, horn of jubilee, or signal trumpet, Joshua 6:4. Probably the same with 9 and 10.
13. CHAIL, "pipe" or "flute." The word means bored through, 1 Samuel 10:5.
14. MISHROKITHA, Daniel 3:5, etc. Probably the Chaldean name for the flute with two reeds.
15. UGAB, "organ" in our version Genesis 4:21. It means a double or manifold pipe, and hence the shepherd’s pipe; probably the same as the syrinx or Pan’s pipe; or perhaps resembling the bagpipe.
C. Instruments which gave out sound on being struck:
17. TOPH, Genesis 31:27, the tambourine and all instruments of the drum kind.
18. PHAAMON, "bells," Exodus 28:33. Attached to the hem of the high priest’s garment.
19. TZELITZELIM, "cymbals," Psalms 150:5. A word frequently occurring. There were probably two kinds, hand-cymbals.
20. SHALISHIM, 1 Samuel 18:6. In our version, "instruments of music." "Three-stringed instruments." Most writers identify it with the triangle.
21. MENAANEIM, "cymbals," 2 Samuel 6:5. Probably the sistrum. The Hebrew word means to shake. The sistrum was generally about sixteen or eighteen inches long, occasionally inlaid with silver, and being held upright, was shaken, the rings moving to and fro on the bars.
Further particulars concerning some of these may be found under the names they severally bear in our English Bible.