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The Musical Producing Fingers

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The Musical Producing Fingers

Each finger has a different effect in playing a string instrument (a similar analogy is also applicable to wind instruments). The same note, produced on a different string, has a different color. Additionally, when the same string is pulled by the forefinger or the middle finger of the right hand, the sounds produced are characterized by a different timbre. The technique by which these variations in timbre and color are effected produces at least 26 varieties of the vibrato alone. As a consequence, a certain note took its name from the string plucked or deadened by this finger. As such, fingers have often been used to describe the technique of striking, among the expressions of instrumental playing.

In Ancient Egypt (like present-day), tones, strings, scales, and melodies are all related and are therefore expressed by a particular finger, asba (plural: asabi). In Egypt (Ancient and Baladi), this conventional “finger movement” mode has been all that is needed to identify the different modes. In the early years of the post-Islam era (after 640 CE), the Arabized countries used the same Egyptian finger expressions. After a few centuries, they began using an Arabic term, maqam, instead of the Egyptian term asba.

Fingers were also used to measure distances in Ancient Egypt. The main standard linear measure was the mh (cubit)—the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. One Egyptian cubit measures 1.72 feet (0.5236 m). The Egyptian cubit was further divided into seven hand-breadths/palms of four digits (finger breadth) each, or 28.

In the consistent and coherent Egyptian way of thinking, the four fingers (like a tetra-chord) produce sound and measurement.

Ancient Egyptian tombs and temples yield several series of choreographic, rhythmic and melodic hand signs that correspond to certain signs of chironomids. The tones are presented by different positions of the arms and fingers (forefinger against the thumb, the stretched out hand, etc.), resulting in an absolute correspondence between tonal steps of the Ancient Egyptian musical system and hand signs.

The chironomid presided over the musical ensemble and, by a range of gestures, determined the pitch and intervals on which the musicians based their performance. The details of this examination are reported in a special study [H. Hickmann, The Chironomy in Ancient Egypt, Magazine of Egyptian Language and the Antique 83, 2, 1958.].

Symphonic and polyphonic variations are depicted in musical scenes of Ancient Egyptian buildings from the Old Kingdom (4500 years ago), with a director guiding the total ensemble by means of visible gestures. One or more chironomids were depicted to signify the type of performance. It must be noted that depicting more than one chironomid for one instrument is symbolic of the action intended in Ancient Egyptian artistic representation.

Egyptian chironomids guided the musicians in basically three different ways, to provide single, double, and triple tonalities, as follows:

1. The chironomids are indicating identical hand signs; thus the musician(s) is/are playing in unison.

2. The chironomids are indicating different hand signs; thus the musicians are playing a chord. The following are two examples:

a. In the tomb of Ti [Saqqara, Old Kingdom], we have two illustrated chironomids giving different hand signals for a single instrument (harp), representing two different sounds; i.e. portraying an example of polyphony.

This depiction of two chironomids is indicative of double tonality—which could be either consecutive or simultaneous.

b. Playing a chord with three different tones is depicted [shown below] in Nencheftka’s tomb [5th Dynasty, Saqqara, now in Cairo Museum]. Three different hand signals are shown by the depicted chironomids.

Another example of polyphony composed of three different tones is presented in a musical scene from a relief from the tomb of Nekauhor [Saqqara, 5th Dynasty, presently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York].

[An excerpt from The Enduring Ancient Egyptian Musical System : Theory and Practice by Moustafa Gadalla]