You’ve asked the genie for a wish, crossed the Sahara desert searching for ancient wisdom, but still the mysteries of Egyptian, Middle-Eastern, and Arabic music slip through your fingers like sand.
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing what we can†best approximate as ancient Egyptian music. What instruments, melodies and common themes makes a piece of music fit this genre?
Iconic Egyptian Themes
Ancient Egyptian music is one of those mysteries that even today, we aren’t quite sure what it sounded like. There’s not too much information beyond replicas of instruments, but the melodies and techniques of their use may never be discovered. Today, we definitely have traditional Arabic and Middle-Eastern folk tunes and melodies, and they can give us great insight as to what may have been passed on from thousands of years BC. But if you close your eyes and think, you might already have some good instincts as to what Ancient Egyptian music sounds like, thanks largely to Hollywood brainwashing! Harnessing those instincts can be an effective way to recreate music for your Egpytian theme puzzle or action game.
The use of triplets in a 4/4 time signatures is an iconic usage in Egyptian-themed music. On the fourth beat of your measure after five or six eighth-notes, throw in a triplet. Another good rhythm is to have the triplet start the measure, then a half note, then a quarter note. But the true brilliance is to mix up this triplet with a tempo rich with ritardandos and accelerandos. Start a measure fast, slow down in the middle, then speed up. Instead of a triplet, once in a while use four sixteenth notes at the climax of a phrase. This graceful push and pull is used heavily in Hollywood and helps reinforce a vast desert soundscape.
Instruments to puzzle over
Since we aren’t quite sure what the instruments sound like, we can be a bit loose. Desert scenes gain a lot from sustained cellos and doublebass strings, with a higher, movement-rich strings in octaves. For more of a mysterious temple or pharoh’s tomb feel, use music boxes and vibraphones for your melody. Pair that with detuned gamelan and you’re set. For a more exotic flare, find a good Duduk wind sample. A slow pitch bend on that sounds exquisite. Experiment with Middle-Eastern winds and strings over a classic orchestra.
The Key to the Music
The best way to bring out an Egyptian theme is in the use of key signatures. Scales with flat 2’s and 6’s (for example D-flat and A-flat in a C-major scale) are used in almost every Egyptian theme out there. While overdone and obvious, it’s for a reason. The trick is to not be so rigid with this scale. Flatting the 7 (B-flat) on the way down but keeping it natural (B-natural) on the way up really spices up your melody. A constant bass drone on your primary note (for example C for a C-major scale), moving to the flat 2 (D-flat in our example), back to C, down to flat 7 (B-flat, melody shifting to a B-flat minor key briefly), and back to C is a very good start to being thinking Egyptian style music.
Parting thoughts… as you seal yourself in your tomb of composing
Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no cookie cutter answer for crafting music for vast deserts, mysterious temples filled with mummies, or puzzling music boxes. Hopefully after this entry, the riddle of the sphinx’s theme music is a little easier to ponder!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.