The music of the Hebrews presents one of the most interesting subjects in musical history, although it has an unfortunate defect in common with so many kindred subjects, namely, that the most learned dissertation must invariably end with a question mark. When we read in Josephus that Solomon had 200,000 singers, 40,000 harpers, 40,000 sistrum players, and 200,000 trumpeters, we simply do not believe it. Then too there is lack of unanimity in the matter of the essential facts. One authority, describing the machol, says it is a stringed instrument resembling a modern viola; another describes it as a wind instrument somewhat like a bagpipe; still another says it is a metal ring with a bell attachment like an Egyptian sistrum; and finally an equally respected authority claims that the machol was not an instrument at all, but a dance. Similarly the maanim has been described as a trumpet, a kind of rattle box with metal clappers, and we even have a full account in which it figures as a violin.
The temple songs which we know have evidently been much changed by surrounding influences, just as in modern synagogues the architecture has not held fast to ancient Hebrew models but has been greatly influenced by different countries and peoples. David may be considered the founder of Hebrew music, and his reign has been well called an “idyllic episode in the otherwise rather grim history of Israel.”
Of the instruments named in the Scriptures, that called the harp in our English translation was probably the kinnor, a kind of lyre played by means of a plectrum, which was a small piece of metal, wood, or bone. The psaltery or nebel (which was of course derived from the Egyptian nabla, just as the kinnor probably was in some mysterious manner derived from the Chinese kin) was a kind of dulcimer or zither, an oblong box with strings which were struck by small hammers. The timbrel corresponds to our modern tambourine. The schofar and keren were horns. The former was the well-known ram’s horn which is still blown on the occasion of the Jewish New Year.
In the Talmud mention is made of an organ consisting of ten pipes which could give one hundred different sounds, each pipe being able to produce ten tones. This mysterious instrument was called magrepha, and although but one Levite (the Levites were the professional musicians among the Hebrews) was required to play it, and although it was only about three feet in length, its sound was so tremendous that it could be heard ten miles away. Hieronymus speaks of having heard it on the Mount of Olives when it was played in the Temple at Jerusalem. To add to the mystery surrounding this instrument, it has been proved by several learned authorities that it was merely a large drum; and, to cap the climax, other equally respected writers have declared that this instrument was simply a large shovel which, after being used for the sacrificial fire in the temple, was thrown to the ground with a great noise, to inform the people that the sacrifice was consummated.