The Lyre Through the Ages

The Universal Lyre: three perspectives

by Diana Rowan, Ph.D.

This article first appeared in The American Harp Journal Vol. 24 no. 1 Summer 2013


The harp has entranced people for its mystical sound and image, hearkening back to the most ancient times. This paper explores the work of three figures today who are reclaiming ancient lyre construction: Temesgen Hussein, Michalis Georgiou, and Michael Levy.  The exploration of ancient roots begins in Ethiopia  and travels through Greece and the Middle East. From these regions and their vibrant history the paper creates a holistic view of an instrument that has captured the hearts of souls of people for millennium.

Drawing from a rich past, the paper continues to discuss the current practice and applications for Western harpists covering physical techniques, scales, modes, and tuning.  Through understanding its history, the paper concludes with the connection of Hussein, Georgiou and Levy, bringing a musical vocabulary that resonates with modern harpists.


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dated anywhere c. 4000 BC to 323 BCE-330 CE (Bayer, 1968)


“At times when man is exhausted by the conditions of universal globalization, there is an absolute need to take refuge in the roots of ancient education and in the entirety of its harmony, where philosophy and music, in man’s relationship with the gods, give unique moments of spiritual self-sufficiency and intellectual delight.

Our ancient forebears attributed magic powers to sound and thought that the origin of music was not an invention of human beings but was given to them by supernatural beings. They believed that the power of sound holds sway over the natural world, influencing and protecting human life. It is precisely this belief in the magic of sound that determines the dual nature of music.”

Michalis Georgiou, creator of Terpandros music ensemble, Cyprus

People are often entranced by the harp for its mystical sound and image, hearkening back to the most ancient of times.  Whether we realize it or not, the harp’s roots lie deep within our collective consciousness worldwide.  As Georgiou alludes to, the harp touches us in dual fashion: body and soul.

Perhaps because of its holistic nature, the harp has soared in popularity during these complicated times; people want to reclaim this ancient wisdom.  In this paper I will explore the work of three of the most active figures in today’s reclaiming movement of ancient lyre reconstruction.  The lyre and harp will be considered somewhat interchangeable for this paper, since many construction and playing techniques are similar, as well as the intention of the music.  Harp and lyre have been deemed uniquely suited to address both the sacred and secular throughout time, as we shall reaffirm below.

One of the most interesting findings of this paper is that “globalization” as referred to by Georgiou has in fact been in play since prehistoric times: we encounter the lyre in very similar form spread far across the Middle East, Greece and Africa.  The nature of this particular globalization of course is positive, and offers us a model for deep and peaceful interchange between cultures.  Each artist is obviously proud of their different heritages – Ethiopian, Greek and Jewish, and it is through this profound appreciation of their own cultures that they touch upon the universal connections between us all.

Three artist-scholars

Temesgen Hussein of Ethiopia  has perhaps the most immediate relationship with the ancient harp/lyre, having learned the krar and begena (lyres) from age 19 in traditional fashion, aural training directly with teachers Alemayehu Fanta and Teshome Shenkute of the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa.  Embedded in tradition plus a trained architect, Temesgen is also an innovator, bringing his instruments into our era via fusion projects incorporating reggae, jazz, and Indian music and a patent-pending series of improvements to krar construction and tuning.  He plans to open a school for krar and begena.  Besides his many recordings, Temesgen has instructional DVDs for krar and begena, with additional titles in the works.  He is also a source for people looking to purchase these instruments.

Michalis Georgiou of Cyprus is steeped in that island’s ancient, always visible history, and over twenty years ago stepped in the world of instrument reconstruction.  Already a lifelong musician, Georgiou took to his workshop recreating ancient Greek instruments; most interestingly for this paper, he has built over 23 different types of stringed instruments, many of which can be classified as lyres.  He formed a large award-winning student-based orchestra to perform reconstructions of ancient music on these instruments, leading to:

…the creation of Terpandros, named after the great musician of antiquity. It is a non-profit institution with specific aims; the reconstruction of ancient Greek musical instruments, the study, revival and projection of ancient Greek music, and finally research on subjects that are related to Greek civilisation.  I have personally undertaken the reconstruction of the ancient instruments, the activities of Terpandros. Other members of the research team are working on Greek philosophy, ancient Greek discourse and its pronunciation, mathematics and their relationship with discourse and music, performance of ancient Greek music, and the writing of a book for the teaching of ancient Greek music. The holding of seminars, concerts and other events is also one of the main activities of Terpandros.”

I had the pleasure of personally playing on some of these exceptionally beautiful instruments one magical evening at Georgiou’s house in Nicosia, Cyprus.  As others who were there experienced as well, it was as if the centuries melted away and an old, familiar voice spoke with us again.

Finally we meet Michael Levy of the United Kingdom, whose explorations into his Hebrew roots via klezmer fiddle eventually led him to dedicate himself to the ancient biblical lyre, in particular its playing techniques:

“…my musical exploration of antiquity began in 2006, when I discovered that over 2000 years ago, it was my very own, very ancient Levite ancestors who actually played the 10-string Biblical lyre (the “kinnor”) in the Temple of Jerusalem to accompany the singing of the Levitical Choir – my quest to revive the lost lyre playing techniques of antiquity, for me, has simply got to be the ultimate in ‘roots music’!”

He has delved into how construction affects playing techniques, explored clues garnered from artifacts such as paintings and sculptures (one in particular from mosaics viewed in Cyprus, highlighting the cyclical nature of this subject), digested historical references from ancient texts, and finally gathered together information from other researchers such as France’s Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura and her study of Hebrew Bible cantillation marks in reference to possible ancient melodic shapes.  In doing so, Michael has promoted evidence that shakes some of our deeply held presumptions about ancient music, such as it being simply diatonic and monophonic, supported by Denmark’s Lise Manniche’s findings on chromatic scale/microtonal use in ancient Egyptian music (1992).  Levy has released many recordings, plus uploaded numerous educational videos via YouTube, and generously shares his insights on his website.

Ancient roots and routes

Ethiopia, currently home to over 91 million people, is one of the oldest sites of human existence (Hopkin, 2005) and believed to be the point from which all people eventually migrated across the world (Li et al., 2008).  As such, it is a good place to start exploring the roots of our beloved harp.  The krar and begena, both lyres, are alive and well in Ethiopia, and rare examples of an unbroken tradition.

Ethiopia’s krar and begena reflect the dual nature of music: krar, the smaller instrument of the two and tenor in voice, is used in secular performance, while the imposing bass-range begena is reserved for sacred events.  The krar has 6 strings and can be held vertically or horizontally, while the begena has 10 strings, is much larger, and is held vertically, as Hussein demonstrates:

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As with much from the past, there are several stories about the origin of these instruments.  It is generally acknowledged that the begena predates the krar (personal communication, Hussein, 2012).  In the Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”), a compilation of Ethiopian legends, the Queen of Sheba, also known as Makeda, had a son by Solomon.  That son became Menelik I, the first emperor of Ethiopia.  He grew up to visit his father in Israel, returning with the Ark of the Covenant and other artifacts including King David’s harp.  Although there is of course controversy regarding the veracity of this story, the connection between Ethiopia, Israel and the harp/lyre is clear, and we shall discover more connections between ancient worlds and instruments below.

Another story states the begena already existed in Ethiopia before the Queen of Sheba’s time, and the regular citizens wanted a smaller, secular version for themselves.  Hence the krar was invented (rather like the Israeli kinnor’s story, which we will hear of below).  Moving into more symbolic territory, we hear the familiar tale that Mercury fashioned the begena from a turtle shell found on banks of Nile – exactly the same belief we find in ancient Greek sources about the lyre, although sometimes Apollo is the creating god, and the location varies – the ancient connection between cultures is clear. Finally, we hear of a notion that the Devil invented the krar to accompany songs celebrating worldly pleasures, reminding us of the various times music was banned from religious settings throughout history.

From these stories we can glean the great importance attached to these instruments, carrying across many cultures and eras – they are the purview of royalty, gods and demons.  They address body and soul.  Georgiou further elucidates this secular/sacred contrast from a Greek point of view:

“They [ancient Greeks] divided music into “esoteric”, the music of the gods, which was intelligible only to a closed circle of initiates, and “exoteric”, which was the music of men. Exoteric music was used as a means of entertaining and delighting the soul and also as a means of communication with the divine. This music of men included folk music, artistic music and music which was designed for public, religious and other ceremonies, in contrast, the musical forms of esoterism were determined by the relationship of man with the harmony of the universe…Asclepios used this music for therapeutic purposes and for putting his patients to sleep before operations. Pythagoras set free the mind of his pupils from the cares of daily life by playing them music that calmed the mind and induced deep sleep.  Through the philosophy of esoterism, music helps us to overcome the anxiety we feel in a world that is often hostile. It lifts our spirits and confirms the existence of harmony in the universe.”

For harp players, everything Georgiou mentions rings true as we perform today for all the same reasons; high art as a way to transcend and understand everyday life, healing harp as a way to soothe and reconnect, accompaniment music to entertain and celebrate.

The oldest actual harps/lyres still in existence were found in present day Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia), in the city of Ur, and bear striking resemblance to the Ethiopian begena pictured above:

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The Golden Bull Lyre of Ur and the Silver Lyre of Ur above date back to at least 2600 BCE, and are among the oldest stringed instruments ever discovered.  Since harps are made of such perishable material (wood, gut, leather), we can assume such harps were in existence before even this ancient date.  Performances on reconstructions of these lyres sound almost identical to the music of the begena.  Historical harpist Bill Taylor  worked in close collaboration with harpist-historian Andy Lowings to produce this performance on a reconstructed Golden Bull Lyre in 2006 – compare this to Hussein’s begena recordings:

There is speculation that the earliest lyres emerged from early-dynastic and Akkadian Mesopotamia and migrated through the Negev and into Egypt (Braun, 2002) and thus on to Ethiopia.  As our quest passes through Israel, Michael Levy comments:

“By the time of the Ancient Hebrews (c. 1900 BCE) the lyre had become portable and could be played horizontally – ideal for wandering groups of Semitic nomads to play whilst constantly on the move.  The very first illustration of nomadic Semites playing such a lyre is seen in the tomb of a prosperous ancient Egyptian baron named Knumhotpe – he had a forty-foot-long mural painted in his tomb at Beni Hassan, about halfway up the Nile to Nubia [note the recurring Africa connection, and the horizontal holding of the instrument]”:

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Further evidence of the intertwined connections between these locations, instruments and the intention of lyre music, from Albert Barnes in Barnes Notes on the Old and New Testaments:

“The harp – כנור  kinnor. This is a well-known stringed instrument, employed commonly in sacred music. It is often mentioned as having been used to express the pious feelings of David; Psa_32:2; Psa_43:4; Psa_49:5. It is early mentioned as having been invented by Jubal; Gen_4:21. It is supposed usually to have had ten strings (Josephus, “Ant.” B. x. ch. xii. Section 3). It was played by the hand; 1Sa_16:23; 1Sa_18:9. The “root” of the word כנור  kinnôr, is unknown. The word “kinnor” is used in all the languages cognate to the Hebrew, and is recognized even in the Persian. It is probable that the instrument here referred to was common in all the oriental nations…and of course the knowledge of it would be extended far. It is an oriental name and instrument, and from this word the Greeks derived their word κινύρα kinura. The Septuagint renders it κιθάρα  kithara and κινύρα kinura.   Hence, it is referred to as the instrument employed by David to drive away the melancholy of Saul 1Sa_16:16-22, and is the instrument usually employed to celebrate the praises of God; Psa_33:1-2; Psa_43:4; Psa_49:5; Psa_71:22-23. But the harp was not only used on sacred occasions. Isaiah also mentions it as carried about by courtezans Isa_23:16, and also refers to it as used on occasions of gathering in the vintage, and of increasing the joy of the festival occasion.” [emphasis mine]

Interestingly, the Arabic word for harp, “قيثار”, is pronounced approximately “githar”, very similar in sound to the Greek “kithara” (Margaret Larkin, Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley, personal communication, 2010).  Again this instrument weaves together cultures.

Michael Levy (pictured above) finds another cross-cultural connection:

“The root of the word kinnor was even incorporated into the names of deities such as the mythical Cypriot king“Kinyras/Cinyras”.  In ancient Egypt at this time, the word “knwrw” refers to a lyre.”

The kinnor (like the krar) is understood to be a smaller lyre than the “NVL” (נבל ) – pronounced “nevel” or “naval”- also mentioned in the Bible.  According to Romano-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus (aka Joseph ben Matityahu, 37-100 CE) the nevel had 12 strings, while the nevel asor had 10 strings and perhaps a skin membrane, exactly like the begena.  Levy explains these size distinctions:

“The ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, limits the number of nevels in the Temple Ensemble to “no fewer than two and no more than six”, but “never fewer than nine kinnorot, and more may be added” (Mishna, Arak 2:5).  This is the first piece of evidence that the Biblical nevel could have been a bass register lyre – just as in a modern string orchestra, there are proportionately more violins in the upper register than the cellos and basses. The Mishnah also informs us that the strings of the nevel were made of sheep’s large intestines, whilst those of the kinnor were made of the small intestines (Mishnah, Quinnim 3:6).”

Moving on to the gorgeous ancient Greek lyre reproductions of Michalis Georgiou, we hear echoes of what we discovered above.  The 7 string lyre was most popular in the ancient Greek world, deeply associated with Apollo & Pythagoras’ concept of the natural scale and foundation of reality, very much in line with the holistic qualities associated with lyres in all these cultures.  The oldest lyres sported 4 strings, increasing to 12 strings as time went on.  There was also great variation in size; lyres could be soprano to tenor in range.  As with the krar, begena, kinnor and nevel, strings were attached in a variety of ways: leather thongs, small wooden sticks (toggles), pegs, and strings were made of animal gut, nerves or plant fiber.  Sometimes a plectrum was attached, as with the other lyres.   A back of tortoise shell was common along with a leather covering, although Georgiou now uses modern materials such as fiberglass for ecological and convenience purposes.  Arms were made of wood or bronze, and attention to the curvature of arms allows vibrato and pitch bending, as Georgiou demonstrates below:

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The Archaic Kithara, the gold standard of ancient lyres, had a hollow wooden base, ranged from 3-7 strings, and had very complex arms allowing great expression of tone.  Bells and cymbals were sometimes attached for extra percussive effect, as seen above.

Coming full circle, Georgiou’s reconstruction of an ancient Samvyx (middle) is strikingly similar to bow harps of Africa such as this Adungu from Uganda (right), which Levy also notes is virtually identical to the ancient Egyptian arched harp (left) – in fact, these bow harps are considered to be the mother of all harps, derived from the bow and arrow:

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Current practice and applications for Western harpists

As we see, Hussein, Georgiou and Levy have great respect for practices of the past and are eager to reclaim them.  At the same time, they are all developing the state of the art and thus keeping it alive.  Many of the devices they use and document (see for clear krar & begena materials) have exciting applications for harpists today in terms of performance and composition, and while some are considered avant-garde, we know they are actually very ancient devices:

Physical Techniques:

Strumming by blocking certain strings with one hand and performing a glissando with the other, forming a chord.  This can be performed rhythmically with additional attention to strumming direction (rather like flamenco guitarists do), or arrhythmically.

Holding instrument horizontally allowing different approaches to aggressive strumming or muting.

Plectrum use, and combination plectrum/finger plucking use for contrast in tone.

Baton use on strings and body of lyre as seen on bas reliefs of musicians in Palace of Nineveh c.700 BCE (this technique can be heard on Richard Dumbrill’s interpretation of “Hurrian Hymn Text H6” one of the very oldest discovered scores, on Michael Levy’s recording Musical Adventures in Time Travel, and is similar to current dulcimer practice).

Actual bending of the instrument (specifically the arms) to create vibrato and pitch alterations.

Hand position with fingers straight up (different tone), automatic finger patterns (motifs) combined with different types of muting, similar to current medieval music performance practice on small harps.

Use of different colors along length of the string (for example, as we understand pres de la table).

String stopping to create chromatics and microtones (used in some Latin American harp music today).

Harmonics which ring differently due to different temperaments, allowing different overtones.

Scales, Modes & Tuning

Use of multiple scales/modes, and developed deployment of these; for example the krar and begena’s scales (kignits) have more in common with raga modes than western linear scales:

Anchihoye (begena scale, translates to “hey, love”) C C# F F# A C’

Bati (krar, most popular, named after a town) C E F G B C’ or C Eb F G B C’

Tizita (krar, 2nd most popular, translates “nostalgia” from Amharic) C D E G A C’ or C D Eb G Ab C’

Ambassel (krar, less common, named after a town) C C# F G G# C’

            Greek modes (note these are differently named than the “Church Modes” we are familiar with today, the latter being erroneously named during the Middle Ages, and Pythagorean tuning was used):

B-B Mixolydian , E-E Dorian, A-A Hypodorian, D-D Phrygian, G-G Hypophrygian, C-C Lydian, F-F Hypolydian, D E F G# A B C D Chromatic Phrygian

            Hebrew modes (based on the Jewish Chazzanut (Cantorial) Modes and just intonation, Levy)

Ahava Raba (prayer of gratitude) mode:  E F G# A B C D E (also Greek Chromatic Dorian Mode)

Natural minor:  E F# G A B C D E

Misheberakh (healing blessing) mode: E F# G A# B C# D E (also Greek Chromatic Phrgyian Mode)

            Egyptian modes (historian John Wheeler , quoted at length due to astonishing parallels with modern practice):

“Lise Manniche concludes that the Egyptians also knew of and used scales with chromatic or even smaller intervals. This would seem to be confirmed by recent work by others with reconstructions of ancient Egyptian reed pipes or nays tuned to various scales. These include the diatonic scale in the “minor” mode, the chromatic scale, and certain “enharmonic” scales.  The heptatonic or diatonic scale was also known from high antiquity in Mesopotamia. Cuneiform tablets found in Babylonia and Assyria and the city of Ugarit in modern Syria document the existence of that scale and all seven modes based on it as far back as 3,000 years ago. The Mesopotamian texts in particular document a system of tuning a lyre in the seven diatonic modes, complete with technical terms for the modes and even a description of the tritone as the “unclear” interval of a given mode. (Apparently only the tritone was considered “dissonant” by the ancient Mesopotamians – which fact alone has implications both for melodic and harmonic practice.) The various modes were derived by a tuning cycle called a “cycle of fifths” – the very same cycle used to tune a folk harp “by ear” today. The resulting “temperament” of the modes would have been “Pythagorean” – that is, the same temperament noted by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (who studied music and mathematics in Egypt and Mesopotamia before founding his famous school).”

Use of different temperaments: just intonation, Pythagorean tuning, krar and begena temperaments, creating purer intervals as well as more biting ones.

Tuning strings in a non-linear fashion, such as having large intervals between adjacent strings or, conversely, tuning adjacent strings to the same pitch, allowing for interesting melodic contours, ornaments and harmonic possibilities.  The krar has its highest and lowest pitches as strings 6 and 5 respectively, with strings 1, 2, 3, and 4 rising in pitch between these.

Musical Devices

Ornamentation such as trills, tremolos, filigree, glissandi, development of melody.

Melodic shapes similar to raga shapes in terms of contour defining the mode/meaning of piece.

Motifs/stock patterns which are repeated, sometimes very rapidly as with krar.

Universal connection

For each of these three artist-scholars, Hussein, Georgiou and Levy, attention is paid to the symbolism of the physical instruments themselves.  The krar’s pillars are associated with the pillar of a thatched hut (personal communication, Hussein, 2012) – home and survival itself – the 10 strings of the kinnor and the nevel asor are linked to the 10 Commandments, the 12 strings of the nevel reflect the 12 tribes of Israel (personal communication, Levy, 2013), the 7 strings of a lyre relate to the mystical number 7, the number of the Music of the Spheres, and according to Pythagoras “the perfect number”, while the older 4 stringed lyre represented the 4 turns of the year (solstices and equinoxes).  Many other symbolic meanings are attached to these powerful instruments, even their strings, according to Peter Pringle (personal communication via Michael Levy, 2012):

“Ancient string makers guarded their recipes with all the secrecy of modern industrialists. They added all sorts of things to their binders – powdered silver and gold, minerals like rock crystal, jade, lapis – in order to impart certain sonic properties to the finished product. Much of that was, I believe, based on the rather romantic, folkloric notion that the music would ultimately take on the metaphysical qualities of the substance used. With powdered pearls in your silk binders, the string would manifest the characteristics of the sea, a small amount of the dried and finely ground heart of tiger would make your music more powerful and compelling.  Interestingly, some of the substances they used (such as powdered metals) actually did change the acoustic properties of the string!”

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of these researcher-artists’ work is their ultimate goal of connection with the universal, however we choose to define that.  Each is driven by a profound mission towards wholeness.  As performers, we often hear the same type of comments regarding our harps’ music:

“Listen to the stark, haunting sounds of traditional Ethiopian music and you will be elevated to a place free from worries and strife. The wisdom and knowledge of centuries of culture are communicated by the nimble fingers and resonant voice of Temesgen.  Temesgen sings songs of life, of love and of devotion.  Deeply spiritual, with the simple truth of folk music, sanded and distilled by generations of musicians, these songs have evolved over the ages to shine with the pristine beauty of the very roots.” (review of Begena Bedtimes, Temesgen Hussein, 2006)

“It is beautiful and seems to sweep the listener away so vividly that it takes you back to Antiquity. The music flows through you like as ocean tide, it has a peaceful, almost philosophical cadence to it…This music will simultaneously calm and inspire the listener.  Nirvana, anyone?” (reviews of A Well Tuned Lyre, Michael Levy, 2012)

“The main objective…is to discover that unique resonance which helps us become more aware and perceive the resonance of the universe…that exists on all dimensions and was sought after for so long through the ages.” (prologue by K. Demetriou Rally to The Quest for the Resonance of the Universe, 2005)

These three inspiring artists, Hussein, Georgiou and Levy, preserve their musical legacies and expand our musical vocabulary as we harpists of today resonate alongside them.




Barnes, Albert. Barnes Notes on the Old and New Testaments. Baker Books, 1983.

Braun, Joachim. Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2002.

Georgiou, Michalis P. The Quest for the Resonance of the Universe. En Tipis Publications, 2005.

Haïk-Vantoura, Suzanne. The Music of the Bible Revealed. trans. Dennis Weber, ed. John   Wheeler, BIBAL Press, 1991

Hopkin, Michael. “Ethiopia is top choice for cradle of Homo sapiens”.  Nature,  February 2005.

Li, J. Z. et al. “Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation”. Science, 2008.

Manniche, Lise. Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt. Dover Publications, 1992.

Personal interviews:

Michalis Georgiou

Temesgen Hussein

Margaret Larkin, Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley

Michael Levy

Additional information:

Bill Taylor

Peter Pringle

John Wheeler

There is a PDF in file that Diana asks us to use as a reference for lay out.

Please use Diana’s bio & photo from the awards landing page.


Diana Rowan

An award-winning musical artist currently performing worldwide and recording both solo and in collaboration, Diana Rowan’s playing and compositions have unusual power and beauty derived from her ability to integrate the musical traditions of the many countries in which she has lived and traveled. Her forthcoming album As Above, So Below reflects recent travels throughout Asia, plus Diana’s PhD research in harp composition from ancient times to today.

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