(shir, shirah): Besides the great collection of sacred songs contained in the Psalter, as well as the lyric outbursts, marked by strong religious feeling, on great national occasions, it is natural to believe, and we have evidence to show, that the Hebrews possessed a large number of popular songs of a secular kind. Song of Songs (which see) of itself proves this. Probably the very oldest song or fragment of song in the Old Testament is that "To the well" (Nu 21:17).
W. R. Smith (Religions of the Semites, 167) regards this invocation of the waters to rise as in its origin hardly a mere poetic figure. He compares what Cazwini 1, 189, records of the well of Ilabistan: "When the water failed, a feast was held at its source with music and dancing, to induce it to flow again." If, however, the song had its origin in an early form of religious belief, it must have been secularized later.
But it is in the headings of the Psalms that we find the most numerous traces of the popular songs of the Hebrews. Here there are a number of words and phrases which are now believed to be the names or initial words of such lyrics. In the King James Version they are prefaced with the prep. "on," in the Revised Version (British and American) with "set to," i.e. "to the tune of." We give a list: (1) Aijeleth Shahar the King James Version, the Revised Version (British and American) Aijeleth hash-shahar, 'ayyeleth ha-shachar. The title means (Revised Version, margin) "The hind of the morning," but whether the original song so named was a hunting song or a morning serenade it is useless to conjecture. See HIND OF THE MORNING. (2) Al-taschith (the King James Version), Al-tashheth (Revised Version), 'al-tashcheth, i.e. "Destroy not," Ps 57:1-11 through Ps 59:1-17; 75:1-10, is apparently quoted in Isa 65:8, and in that case must refer to a vintage song. (3) Jonah elem rehokim or Yonath'elem rechoqim (Ps 56:1-13), the Revised Version margin "The silent dove of them that are afar off," or--with a slightly different reading--"The dove of the distant terebinths." (4) Machalath (Ps 53:1-6) and Machalath le`annoth (Ps 88:1-18). Machalath may mean "sickness," and be the first word of a song. It might mean, on the other hand, a minor mode or rhythm. It has also been held to designate a musical instrument. (5) Muthlabben (Ps 9:1-20) has given rise to many conjectures. Literally, it may mean "Die for the son," or "Death of the son." An ancient tradition referred the words to Goliath (death at the hand of the son [?]), and they have been applied to the fate of Absalom. Such guesses need only be quoted to show their worthlessness. (6) Lastly, we have Shoshannim = "Lilies" (Ps 45:1-17; 69:1-36), Shushan `Edhuth = "The lily of testimony" (Ps 60:1-12); and Shoshannim `Edhuth = "Lilies, a testimony" (Ps 80:1-19), probably to be explained like the others.
The music to which these songs were sung is irretrievably lost, but it was, no doubt, very similar in character to that of the Arabs at the present day. While the music of the temple was probably much more elaborate, and of wider range, both in notes and expression of feeling, the popular song was almost certainly limited in compass to a very few notes repeated over and over in long recitations or ballads. This is characteristic of the performances of Arab minstrels of today. The melodies are plaintive, in spite of the majority of them being in major keys, owing to the 7th being flattened, as in genuine Scottish music. Arabic music, further, is marked by great variety and emphasis of rhythm, the various kinds of which have special names.
See SPIRITUAL SONGS.