Finding Authentic Tunings For An Ancient Lyre


What follows is a list of tunings which I have researched & used in all my albums of ancient lyre music. These tunings include ancient Middle Eastern scales derived from my experience as a Klezmer musician, and which according to the work of the late Suzanne Haik Vantoura, also appear in the original 3000 year old music of the Bible! The tunings also include the original ancient Greek modes, as described in the writings of Plato & Aristotle, some 2400 years ago...

I have used modes starting on E - this is the key which the Mid East Kinnor I used for most of my albums is naturally tuned to and also, which is the most logical key to use to describe the ancient modes, as there are only sharps entailed in raising the necessary pitches for each mode, instead of a confusing mixture of sharps & flats. Suzanne Haik Vantoura also used E as the tonic for the ancient Biblical modes she discovered, for the same reasons described.

For the Marini Made Davidic Harp, to avoid snapping strings, it is necessary to transpose these tunings from E to D - using the divisive chromatic scale starting on D

With the divisively tuned chromatic scale downloads kindly provided by John Wheeler (please see my other blog, "Ancient Tuning Methods") it is now possible to tune any evocation of the ancient Biblical lyre to the exact ratio of pitches once used in antiquity!


Regarding the tuning of the Kinnor, I have personally done much experimentation in both playing the Kinnor Lyre, & in attempting to find an "authentic" tuning; I have found that the ancient Jewish Chazzanut Modes (i.e.the modes used in cantorial singing in the synagogue) fit the 10 strings of the Kinnor perfectly. All the instrumental Klezmer modes are in turn derived mainly from Chazzanut modes, which are used in the cantorial singing in the synagogue.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume, that the ultimate origins of the modes used in the synagogue, must in turn, have been influenced, to at least some extent, by the ancestral, aural memory of the singing of the Levitical Choir in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Since it was primarily the Kinnor Lyres which accompanied these Levitical singers, I find it logical to infer, that a tuning derived from either the Chazzanut modes or the Klezmer modes found in all traditional Jewish music to the present day, would be a fairly "authentic" inference as to what some of the original tunings of the Biblical Kinnor might have sounded like.

Here are some details of the tunings I used in the creation of my albums, "King David's Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel" , "Lyre of the Levites" & "King David's Harp"...  



The most common Jewish scale heard in the performance of traditional instrumental Klezmer music, is known as the "Ahava Raba" Mode:

E F G# A B C D E

This scale was also known in ancient Greece, as the "Chromatic Dorian Mode"(& can be heard in the 2nd half of the 2nd century song,"Hymn of the Muse" by Mesomedes of Crete):




To play the Kinnor in the "Ahava Raba" Mode of traditional instrumental Jewish Klezmer music, I tune the 10 strings of the lyre as follows, bottom string to top:

D E(tonic) F G# A B C D E(tonic) F

I have tuned the Kinnor to the Ahava Raba mode, for my arrangements on my album "King David's Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel", of the following traditional instrumental Jewish Klezmer melodies: "Berdichiever Khosid", "Kandel's Hora", "Abu's Courtyard", "Bukovina Freylekhs" and "Der Heyser Bulgar" & "Araber Tantz" : 


There are also many traditional Jewish folk songs in the "Ahava Raba" mode, as can be heard in my arrangements of "Zemer Atik" and "Hava Nagila":

The "Ahava Raba" mode can also be heard in the Synagogue, as can be heard in my arrangements of "Kol Nidre", "Avinu Malcheinu" (both traditionally sung at Yom Kippur), and the traditional melody usually sang to the Shabbat hymn "Shalom Aleichem" (this wonderful, timeless melody was, in fact, composed by the American Rabbi, Israel Goldfarb in 1918).



This scale has been preserved from the depths of antiquity, and can be heard in almost every traditional, ancient Hebrew song:

E F# G A B C D E

As can also be heard in my videos of traditional Egyptian music which I have arranged for solo lyre (which can be found in this section of the website), the Natural Minor Scale also prevails - to me, this may suggests a very ancient root to the use of the Natural Minor Scale, throughout the Middle East?

To play my replica Kinnor in the Natural Minor Mode, I tune the 10 strings as follow, bass string to treble:

D E (tonic) F#G A B C D E (tonic) F#

Using a tuning of the Kinnor based around the Natural Minor Mode outlined above, this seems to work perfectly for the most famous of all Jewish melodies, "Hatikvah" (The Hope), which in 1948, became the National Anthem to the newly reborn State of Israel.

I have also used the same tuning in "King David's Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel", in my arrangements of "Havenu Shalom Aleichem", "Siman Tov", "Shalom Chavarim", "Hine Ma Tov", "Oh Hanukah", "Shabbat Shalom", "Ose Shalom" and "Yigdal". 

I also tune my Kinnor to the Natural Minor mode in my arraangement of "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" (as can be heard on my albums "Lyre of the Levites" & "King David's Harp"): 




A variation of the ancient Natural Minor mode, still often heard in instrumental Jewish Klezmer music today, is the basic natural minor scale, but with the addition of an augmented 4th and a whole tone between the 5th and 6th intervals of the scale:

E F# G A# B C# D E

In ancient Greece, this scale can be heard in a fragment called "Tecmessa's Lament", where this same scale was kown as "The Chromatic Phrgyian Mode" :



This is known in traditional Jewish Klezmer music today, as the "Misheberakh" mode, as can be heard in my arrangement of "Odessa Bulgar" - track 10 from my first album, "King David's Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel".







The names of musical modes in use today, (e.g. Dorian, Mixolydian etc) although having the same names as the original Greek musical modes, were actually misnamed during the Middle Ages! Apparently, the Greeks counted intervals from top to bottom.  When medieval ecclesiastical scholars tried to interpret the ancient texts, they counted from bottom to top, jumbling the information. The  misnamed medieval modes are only distinguished by the ancient Greek modes of the same name, by being labelled “Church Modes”. It was due to a misinterpretation of the Latin texts of Boethius, that medieval modes were given the wrong Greek names!

According to an article on Greece in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the original ancient Greek names for species of the octave included the following (on white keys):

B-B: Mixolydian
E-E: Dorian
A-A: Hypodorian
D-D: Phrygian
G-G: Hypophrygian
C-C: Lydian
F-F: Hypolydian


Full details can be found here:

For what Plato & Aristotle themselves had this to say about these ancient musical modes, please see this fascinating link:

Below  is a "live" video, featuring a spontaneous improvisation in the ancient Greek Dorian Mode, which according to the writings of Plato & Aristotle, either had the ability to improve concentration in slower pieces in this mode, or in faster pieces, it could even inspire bravery in battle. In the video, I have played the improvisation both slow at the start and fast at the end, to hopefully convey something of these effects on the emotions which Plato & Aristotle quite rightly said about this beautiful ancient musical mode:


Here is another improvisation in the ancient Greek Dorian Mode, this time performed on my archaic skin-membrane arched harp - almost tonally identical to the skin-membrane ancient Greek "Lyra" (the lyre with a resonator made out of a tortoise shell over which the skin membrane soundboard was stretched:


To tune my 10 string lyre to some of the main ancient Greek modes, I tune the lyre as follows, bottom bass string to top treble:

The Ancient Greek Dorian Mode:


The Ancient Greek Hypodorian Mode:


The Ancient Greek Phrygian Mode:


The Ancient Greek Hypophrygian Mode:


The Ancient Greek Lydian Mode:


The Ancient Greek Hypolydian Mode:


The Ancient Greek Mixolydian Mode:






Although the ancient Egyptians did not have a written form of musical notation, they did have a system of musical notation whereby specific hand gestures represented the changes of pitch in a melody. This ancient form of musical notation was used since the 4th Dynasty, and is known as "chironomy"...amazingly, chironomy still survives in Egypt today, preserved in the music of the the Coptic Church! The ancient art of chironomy is discussed at length in this fascinating article:

Below is a link to MIDI files of some of the actual ancient Egyptian  scales, as deciphered from ancient Egyptian chironomy, by the late Professor Hickmann of the Museum in Cairo:

Below is my improvisation on one of these ancient Egyptian minor pentatonic scale, as deciphered by the late Professor Hans Hickmann  of the Museum in Cairo:


I later recorded this improvisation for track 1 of my album, "King David's Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel" - I called this improvisation on an ancient Egyptian scale  "The Music of Moses", in my attempt to convey the ancient connections between the ancient Hebrews and ancient Egypt.


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