Stringed Instruments – The Nebel And Nebel-Azor

THIS instrument will naturally present itself for our consideration after the kinnor, not only because it seems from all accounts to have been an instrument of a more elaborated character, and consequently of greater capabilities than the kinnor, both as to tone and pitch, but also because it appears in the Bible chronologically later. It is not mentioned until I Sam. x. 5. This fact seems to add weight to the opinion that it was of Phoenician origin, inasmuch as the intercourse between Phoenicia and Israel was not very close until about that period. It is called ” Sidonian ” by the poet quoted by Athenaeus, lib. iv., c. 77.

In the Psalms and Nehemiah it is translated by (” psaltery “), with the exception of Ps. 1xxi. 22, ” I will also praise thee with the psaltery, even thy truth, O my God,” where the word ; and also of Ps. lxxxi. 2, ” Take a psalm, bring hither the timbrel,” where the Greek. With regard to the other places in Holy Scripture where it is mentioned, the Septuagint generally has it as

As would be expected, the Latin forms are nablium, nablum, or nabla. In speaking of the kinnor, it was stated that that instrument was probably either a lyre or guitar ; and those who assumed that the kinnor was the lyre, would imagine the nebel was the harp. Hence certain writers, amongst them Jerome, Cassiodorus, Isidorus, have believed the nebel to be of that simple form of harps, describing a mere A shape, which were given in Figs. i to 8. But on the other hand it must not be overlooked that the harp, like every other musical instrument, was undoubtedly improved from time to time, and the very fact of the comparative lateness of the allusion to the nebel in the Bible would suggest that it was of a somewhat more highly developed construction than that hinted at above. As regards simple and early forms of harps, some writers have laid great stress on the fact that the hollow resonance-box was held uppermost, and have in this way drawn a contrast between the harp and the guitar family. But this resolves itself into the plain question of the position in which the ancients held their harps when playing. That it was often different from our mode there can be no doubt, as is shown by such a representation as Fig. 19, copied from a Greek vase in the royal collection at Munich, which represents a female playing on a harp, having the resonance-box leaning against her shoulder. See also Fig. 7, p. 15.

But the most noticeable distinction between ancient and modern harps seems to be the almost universal absence of a third side to the wooden framework of the former. This will be easily observed by glancing at the various illustrations of harps which have been and which will be given.

This third side forms a very important feature in more modern instruments, and not only adds to the strength of the instrument, but also allows the strings to be drawn to a greater tension than could otherwise be the case. In fact, it seems difficult to believe how the woodwork, when consisting only of two sides, could stand the strain upon it when the strings were tuned. To those who have not given attention to the subject this tension seems almost incredible. In the case of a grand pianoforte, which contains more strings than any other instrument in use, the tension, it is calculated, approaches thirty tons.

The third side of a harp is far from spoiling its appearance. The harp shown in Fig. 20 is an ancient Irish harp. One preserved in Trinity College, Dublin, is popularly believed to have belonged to the famous Brian Boiroimhe, who ascended his throne 1001 A.D. But this tradition has been ably controverted. The illustration on the next page was taken, by the kind permission of the authorities of the Victoria and Albert Museum, from the fine plaster cast in their possession, the missing parts of the instrument being restored.

The word nebel is by some traced to a root signifying a ” rounded vase,” or ” leather bottle.” If this derivation be correct, we can imagine that the instrument was conspicuous for the shape of one of its sides, if it had two sides ; or if it were curvilinear, from the form of the hollow framework. It is quite possible that it might have been like those delineated in Figs. 23, 24 and 25.

But it is nearly always dangerous to argue from the derivation of names of instruments. For instance, what could the musical historian of a thousand years hence gather of the construction of a harmonium, seraphine, accordion, or euphonium, from the derivation of their respective names ? Or,how much from the word ” pianoforte,” the ” soft-loud ! ” Some have carried this misguiding principle so far as to say that because nebel was derived from rounded vase ” or leather bottle,” it would therefore answer the description of a bagpipe ! This is, at least, an ingenious theory, but fortunately a well-defined title is given to the bagpipe (on the subject of which more will be said by-and-by), namely, symphonia, which renders this suggestion unworthy of consideration.

This is not the only theory as to the nature of a nebel which has been hazarded. Although it seems almost certain that it was a harp, some have suggested that it was a lute or guitar. But there is one very strong argument against this assumption that the nebel belonged to the family of guitars ; it is this, that whereas the nebel is not infrequently. mentioned in Roman and Greek authors, instruments with long necks seem to have been little recognized by them, or at most, to have been only known to them through actual specimens, or representations of them in sculpture, which had been captured and carried home.

There is, however, indisputable proof that the Egyptians possessed such instruments, and Fig. 21 shows two women dancing to their own performance on such long-necked instruments. The necks ” seem disproportionately prolonged in these examples, twice or three times the length of the body or resonance-box. But if Italian instruments of this class, the lutes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, be examined, it will be found that this relative proportion is not uncommon. The great importance of these Egyptian lutes or guitars, with reference to the progress of the science as well as the art of music, must be our excuse for a slight digression. It must have been known to the players on these ancient instruments that their fingers had always to squeeze down or ” stop ” the strings at some definite place, in order to produce certain intervals. These distances were no doubt measured, and compared with each other, and with the whole length of the string. Thus indeed would the first foundation of the science of acoustics be laid, with all its interesting and important bearing on the art of music. And in order that the choice of the position of the finger should be found by the performer with greater certainty, frets were invented. Frets were originally pieces of gut (in the Egyptian instruments of camel-gut), tied round the neck, and so forming ridges on the finger-board at those places where the pressure of the fingers would cut off so much of the strings as should allow the vibrating portions to produce the successive notes of the scale. Thus, no doubt, the primary object of using frets was to secure a true production of the scale then in use, and at the same time to shorten and simplify the labour of the young student. But later in their history, when made of ebony or ivory, they had another important function. If the fingers of a grown man be placed side by side on the strings of a guitar, it will usually happen that they cover more space than the strings, or in other words, that there is not room for them in a straight line, each finger on a string. But the ridge made by a fret enables the performer to draw his fingers a little behind each other and yet play such a chord in tune. This will be understood by noticing the position of the tips of the fingers in Fig. 22 (see page 36). Mr. Chappell states that the remains of frets were distinctly visible on some instruments found in an Egyptian tomb.

With regard to the possible relation of the kinnor to these Egyptian lutes or guitars, it may be said that if the kinnor assumed this form at all, it was probably less long in the neck, with a larger resonance-box (Plate IV.). The portability of the kinnor, to which its lengthened existence was greatly due, would certainly militate against the idea of its being constructed with three or four feet of fragile neck.

Assuming, then, that these interesting instruments were not identical with the kinnor, nor the nebel,—in the former case because of their fragile form, in the latter because they were unknown to nations who were familiar with the nebel,—we are led to the conclusion that the nebel itself was the veritable harp of the Hebrews. It could not have been large, because, as will be noticed later, it is so frequently mentioned in the Bible as being carried in processions.

The Egyptians and Assyrians had harps of moderate size, as shown in Figs. 23, 24, and 25.

Very probably the nebel had a form similar to the harp in Fig. 24, but with a somewhat more rapid curve. It would in this way be rendered more portable.

Before noticing some of the most important passages in the Bible in which nebels are mentioned, it is necessary to point out that the English translators render nebel (apparently without any special reason) by no less than four different words : (1) Psaltery, (2) Psalm, (3) Lute, (4) Viol. The first of these is by far the most common in the authorised version, and is no doubt the most correct translation if the word be understood in its true sense as a portable harp.

Nebels, like kinnors, were made of fir-wood, and afterwards of almug. Samuel told the newly-anointed king Saul that he would meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a nebel ” and other musical instruments. And after-wards ” David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of fir-wood, even on kinnors and on nebels,” &c. On the happy event of the fetching of the Ark from Kirjath-jearim, David and all Israel played before God with all their might ” on kinnors, nebels, and timbrels. In i Chron. xv. the names of the players on nebels are carefully recorded. It is evident that David himself was as proficient on the nebel as on the kinnor, and that he set aside special players for special instruments (i Chron. xxv. i, &c.). In the Book of Psalms frequent mention is made of the nebel (Ps. xxxiii. 2 ; lvii. 8 ; lxxi. 22 ;: lxxxi. 2 ; xcii. 3 ; cviii. 2 ; cxliv. g ; cl. 3). It was not restricted in its use to religious ceremonies : Isaiah complains, ” The kinnor, and the nebel, the tabret, and pipe, and wine are in their feasts ” (Isa. v. 12) ; and similarly Amos writes, ” Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs ; for I will not hear the melody of thy nebels ” (Amos v. 23), and he prophesies woe on them that ” lie on beds of ivory,” ” eat the lambs out of the flock,” “chant to the sound of the nebel,” and “drink wine in bowls ” (Amos vi. 4-6). In old English translations of Psalm lxxxi. 2 the nebel is called a ” viol.” But it must be under-stood that in these passages the translators used the word inadvertently, and not in the least wishing to suggest that the Hebrews had an instrument commonly played with a bow.

It is remarkable that the nebel is frequently mentioned in conjunction with some other musical instrument : for instance, with the loth (tambour), shophar (trumpet), &c. It may not be unfair to argue from this that its tones were deep and heavy, and were best adapted to form the groundwork of other combinations of various qualities and pitch.

The instrument shown in Fig. 26 seems to be a very early type of harp, and as such is interesting.

The negro harp, or nanga (Fig. 27), is probably of great antiquity, and to this day retains the same original form.

This remarkable instrument seems almost to suggest that all string-instruments may have been evolved from one type, namely, strings stretched across a bent stick, as originally suggested to our earliest forefathers by their hunting-bows. But of this we shall speak later on.

A very peculiar form of small harp is shown in Fig. 28, which is copied from an Assyrian stone in the British Museum. Carl Engel, whose opinions were nearly always most trustworthy, seems in this case to have somewhat ventured on a mere speculation when he named this the azor, a word about which we shall next speak. The plectrum in the player’s right hand is very evident ; and also the curious termination of one of the sides in the form of a hand, perhaps used for holding the music, as is a small brass lyre or other contrivance in our modern military instruments.

With nebel is often associated the word azor, which is traced to a root signifying ten, and which has therefore been rendered in the Septuagint by decem chordarum, or, in dechachordo psalterio in the Vulgate). In the Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic versions also are found words implying the existence of ten strings in the nebel-azor.

The word azor may therefore be considered as qualifying or describing the special kind of nebel to be used, much in the same way as we now speak of a trichord pianoforte. It is in our English version always rendered by the words ” ten-stringed.” In Ps. cxliv. 9 the associated word nebel is wrongly translated lute instead of harp in the Prayer-book version.


(1.) In ancient days the harp assumed two distinct forms : the typical Egyptian harp was bow-shaped and the typical Assyrian harp was triangular, both forms being without the front pillar, which is so important a feature in the modern European instrument. These two kinds of harp seem to have been used by the Hebrews. The earliest, as we should naturally expect, was the bow-shaped instrument of Egypt, so frequently depicted in the frescoes and especially connected with the religious worship of that country: for it was the instrument of Egypt par excellence, and is represented in the hands of their deities, like the transverse flute of the Hindoo Siva. Illustrations of it occur which date long before the Shepherd Invasion and the settlement of Semitic families in Egypt some 2,500 years before our era. In process of time this harp developed from the three-, four-, or seven-stringed instrument of early days, which could be carried shoulder-high by women (Fig. 26), to fine instruments with from eleven to twenty or more strings (Figs. 23, 24, 29, 30). I agree with Dr. Stainer that the nebel was probably a harp of this form, and that it shared its natural development. For at the outset, the Egyptian harp must have consisted merely of a bow with a gourd attached to give greater resonance to the string.

The gourd is the popular water-bottle of the East, and hence the name nebel, which in its original sense means ” a withered or dry thing “—therefore such a dry, empty thing as a gourd seed-vessel or ” bottle.” Nor does it cause us surprise to find that the Israelites, when in Egypt, did not employ the harp ; for their own religious scruples and the sanctity of the instrument in the eyes of the Egyptians would have prevented it. When, however, they had been settled for many years in their own land, its use was not only possible but natural, and it is instructive to observe that it is mentioned for the first time in connection with one of their own religious establishments, that of the prophets (i Samuel x. 5), and in its early portable form. Shortly afterwards it takes its place in the Temple worship.

In later Hebrew history there appears the other form of Oriental harp—the nebel-azor, an instrument with ten strings, as the suffix azor is said to imply. But the word in English should be spelt ” asor,” and, in my own opinion, it is quite likely that it is a dialectical or a mistaken corruption of the word ashor, for the Hebrew letter shin was anciently without distinction and used equally for sh ” and ” s,” whilst aleph (N) and ain (y), with which the two words respectively commence, were frequently interchanged. If so, the original name meant the Assyrian harp, of which we have an illustration in Fig. 25, and a model in the little wooden statuette, probably from Thebes, shown on Plate V. (Brit. Mus.).

To the Greeks and Romans the bow-shaped harp of Egypt was known as the nabla, and although, as mentioned by Dr. Stainer, a Sidonian origin was attributed to it, it probably arose from the simple fact that it was first introduced to them by Phoenician traders ; for, on the ribs of the nabla of which the poet Mustakos sings in the quotation given by Athenaeus (Book iv., ch. 77), the lotus flower of Egypt was painted in the same way as it is on the harps shown in the ancient Egyptian wall-pictures (Fig. 24). In a fresco found at Pompeii, now in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, a lady is seen tuning her lyre to the bow-shaped nabla by her side. In fact, the name nanga, still given to a very similar instrument in the region of the Upper Nile (Fig. 27), is probably only a nasalised corruption of the classical nabla and the Hebrew nebel.

(2.) The identification of the nebel with the harp is rendered easier if we dismiss from our minds the suggestion made both by Engel (Music of the most Ancient Nations) and Chappell (History of Music) that its name is a transliteration of the Egyptian word nefer which, from the shape of its hieroglyphic, is supposed to have been the name of the long-necked guitar shown in Fig. 21, though no actual application of the word in this connection is forthcoming. Modern Egyptologists, including Professor Flinders Petrie, consider that this hieroglyphic sign, which means ” good,” represents the heart and the tracheæ. It is not unlikely that the Egyptians believed that the wind-pipe (and therefore the power of speech) was connected with the heart, an idea common in ancient times and alluded to in the well-known words of the New Testament, ” Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things ” (Matt. xii. 34, 35). Mr. F. L. Griffith (Hieroglyphs, 1898) admits that the markings on the body of the sign for “good” are similar to those on that denoting the heart. Another detail, pointed out by Dr. Biernath (Die Guitarre, 1907) is that the one cross-bar (as in the earlier form of the hieroglyph), or the two cross-bars (as in the later), though they suggest to us the idea of tuning-pegs inserted in the side of the neck, have no counterpart in the Egyptian representations of the instrument itself. Neither in their drawings of guitar-players nor in an actual specimen of the instrument discovered at Thebes is there any trace of tuning-pegs: the two or three strings are wound round the top of the neck, the ends hanging loose, just as is still found in some of the more primitive guitars and lutes of Upper Africa. In these examples the strings are strained as tightly as possible before being wound round the neck, and closer tuning is effected by a loop of cord or leather, which slides up and down the fingerboard and binds the strings to it. It is more likely that the single cross-bar of the hieroglyph represents the mouth, and the double cross-bars the open lips.

Considering then that this ancient sign has nothing to do with a musical instrument, I may add that the long-necked guitar, for which so great an antiquity has been hitherto claimed in Egypt, was only introduced with other refinements of the East at the beginning of the New Empire (c. 158o B.C.), when even Babylonia was paying tribute to the Pharaohs and the Egyptian fleet was traversing the Indian Ocean : for the first illustrations of the instrument appear in the opening years of that powerful XVIIIth Dynasty. Are the Burmese indebted to the enterprise of that time or to the agency of later Arab traders for their unique little harp called soung, so like the bow-shaped harp of Egypt ? (Plate VI.)

That the Hebrews, however, should have remained unacquainted with this Oriental lute or guitar, pictured in the carvings of Assyria as early as 2500 B.C. (Plate I., B), and in Hittite sculpture before moo B.C. (Plate III.), appears most improbable, and there can be little doubt that the word shalishim (i Sam. xviii. 6) meaning three,” and translated in the margin of the Authorised Version “three-stringed instruments,” denotes this guitar, which was known to the Greeks as the pandoura and to the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean countries of today as the tanboura. Dr. Stainer’s contention (p. 182) that the passage, referred to above, requires that all the women of Israel should have been experts on the shalish is beyond the mark, though we shall agree with him that it was not a fiddle they played. Alike amongst the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Hittites, the tanboura was pre-eminently a Volk-instrument, as I myself recently had an opportunity of observing in modern Egypt and Palestine. Used by the women for song and dance, it is only natural that although the instrument found no place in the Ritual of the Temple, it was common enough in the Israelitish home, and frequently associated with the rhythmic beat of the small hand-drum (toph). The popularity of the long-necked guitar in the ordinary life of ancient Egypt is quaintly illustrated by some rude but spirited paintings executed by a much later hand on the walls of a pre-historic tomb at Hierakonpolis. The fine surface evidently afforded an excellent opportunity for practice, and, amongst the boats, wild creatures, and human forms here depicted at random, there are three musicians performing on the guitar, undoubtedly the instrument most familiar to the young artist. The paintings are reproduced in the Egyptian Research Account, 5th Memoir, ” Hierakonpolis,” Part II., Pl. 77, by Quibell & Green (London, 1902).

An interesting illustration of this long-necked lute or guitar has just been discovered on a sculptured slab, unearthed by Professor Hogarth, under the auspices of the British Museum, at Jerablus, in Syria, the site of the ancient Hittite city of Carchemish. The instrument is being played by an attendant in a sacrificial scene, and the date of the slab is said to be the 12th cent. B.C.

The Hebrew word minnim, which literally means ” divided out,” and is supposed to denote instruments with strings set out in an ordered row, like the harp, may, however, have a special reference to the frets or divisions on the neck of the shalish, if, as I conclude, it was identical with the tanboura of the present day.