Origins of Coptic Sacred Music

Coptic sacred music today consists mainly of chanted hymns using the quarter tones of the Arabic scale, although it is not identical to Arabic music. Coptic music was not written down but has always been transmitted through the oral tradition. Some hymns with Greek musical notation were found in Egypt; one, dated from the 3rd century, came from the late 19th / early 20th century excavations at Oxyrhynchus. This is the earliest example of written Christian hymn music and is likely to have been part of the Coptic repertoire. A papyrus found in Fayoum, Egypt shows a system of dots relating to letters of the text of a Greek hymn, which may be an early form of musical notation but no-one has yet deciphered it; two other papyri with similar notation are pre-Christian; a 5th or 6th century manuscript depicts circles of varying sizes and colours, which some think is a development from the system of dots as musical notation. In the early 20th century, some of the masses were transcribed in Western musical notation but other than this Coptic sacred music has not been studied in depth.

The exact sources of most hymns are unknown. The 1st century AD philosopher Philo of Alexandria reported that the Christians took melodies from the time of the Pharaohs and added Christian texts and the Oxyrhynchus papyri revealed many similarities between the early Christian liturgy and the ancient Egyptian cult of Isis. Scholars believe it is likely that many of the hymns used melodies with which the people were already familiar, so it is possible that music from the Pharaonic and Ptolemaic eras was adapted. Many hymns were believed to have been composed before the 4th century and some are attributed to the Alexandrians, St Clement and St Athanasius. By the end of the 5th century it is thought that the liturgies had been clearly defined with their respective psalms, hymns and canticles.

Scholars have noted that some of the masses have Jewish, Syrian and Byzantine elements, although in its turn the Coptic rites may also have influenced the Syrian church. Furthermore, the Coptic recitation of 12 psalms may be the basis of the 12-psalm series in the Gallic and Roman churches and there is a similarity of style, although not of melody. Cross-fertilisation of the Coptic and Byzantine and Roman churches came to an end after the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD, although contact with the Syrian church was maintained, with Coptic monks studying at a Syrian monastery during the 5th and 6th centuries. From the Arab Conquest of 642AD, Coptic rites were thought to have no further outside musical or textual influence, although incorporation of Greek hymns, written in the 9th century, must have occurred at some point. Other than this, Coptic sacred music seems to have remained largely unchanged from the early beginnings of Christianity into the 21st century. As such, the Coptic sacred music sung today could be one of the most authentic representations of early Christian music.