Musical Instruments of the Bible—Psalm 150

Musical instruments appear in Scripture from the earliest times, but few actual examples have survived. Scholars nowadays know what some of the instruments were and have a good idea about others. They examine ancient drawings and written records in both Israel and the immediately surrounding nations and with some help from the Targums. Bible translations often use different words for the same instrument, so we will employ the Hebrew word first, followed by the assumed English counterpart. Below are the main instruments in the Bible.

Kinnor (lyre)

Despite the long-held idea of David playing a “harp” (1 Sam. 16:16, etc.), available evidence does not support any kind of harp in ancient Israel or immediately surrounding nations. Instead, David played on a kinnor, the first instrument mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 4:21), and the predominant instrument in the book of Psalms. A kinnor is a lyre with no more than eight strings (see drawing), plucked with the fingers or strummed with a pick, and is both a solo and group instrument.

Nevel (lyre with more strings than a kinnor)

The nevel may be a larger lyre with as many as 13 strings, most likely lower-pitched, and used in groups of instruments. Psalm 144:9 is the only instance in Scripture in which the nevel is employed as a solo instrument. It was played similar to the kinnor. In a few instances, the Bible calls the nevel a nevel asor, the 10-stringed lyre (Ps. 33:2, etc.). Since lyres could have varying numbers of strings and probably changed through the centuries, it does not mean the nevel always had ten strings.

Ugav (pipe)

Along with the kinnor in Genesis 4:21, we find the ugav, thought to be a flute or reed woodwind instrument. It appears again in Psalm 150:4 and Job 21:12; 30:31 sometimes translated “pipe.”

Chalil (flute)

The third instrument in the list in 1 Samuel 10:5 is a pipe/flute, possibly a loud double-reed instrument. Most likely, it is the double pipes sometimes seen in ancient drawings in which the musician holds a pipe in each hand (see drawing [The drawing of the instrument needed here is called in Greek an aulos]).

Tof (hand-drum or tambourine)

Genesis 31:27 is the first reference to what is sometimes translated as “tabret” or “timbrel.” Tof is a small hand-held drum. Ancient drawings show nothing that would make a jingling sound. People did fasten two strings inside the hollow of the drum and may have attached there something that struck the strings when the drum was beaten. Miriam played a tof (Exod. 15). (See drawing)

Chatsotserot (trumpet)

Numbers 10 describes the making of the chatsotserot, the two silver trumpets (always in the plural). The chatsotserot were used in ways similar to those of the shofar, but only the priests could blow the silver ones. Both chatsotserot and shofar are translated with only one Greek word, making it difficult to know what the NT is referring to.

New Testament references to instruments are sparse. We see trumpets (either shofars or chatsotserot), pipes/flutes, and cymbals. In Revelation 5:8, the 24 elders each hold a Greek lyre.

Music of the Prophets

In 1 Samuel 10:5, the band of prophets play the nevel (lyre), tof (hand-drum), chalil (flute), and kinnor (lyre).

David’s Processional Band

When David first tried to take the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6:5, the musicians played kinnors, nevels, tofs, mena’anas (only time used—probably a kind of rattle) and tseltsels (cymbals). First Chronicles 15:16-28 describes the successful transfer of the ark to Jerusalem. Now the musicians had eight nevels (verse 20), six kinnors (verse 21), seven chatsotserot (verse 24), three metsiltayim (bronze cymbals—verse 19), and at least one shofar.

Temple Music

Second Chronicles 5:12-14 gives an idea of what temple music may have been like. Singers also played metsiltayim (bronze cymbals), nevels, and kinnors. One hundred and twenty priests each had chatsotserot.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Band

Written in Aramaic ca. 600 BC, Daniel 3:5, 7, 10, 15 mentions several Babylonian instruments, one omitted in verse 7. They are thought to be animal horn, flute/whistle, lyre, bow-harp, a different type of lyre, and a “symphony” of other instruments left unnamed.


Montagu, Musical Instruments of the Bible.

Midgley, Musical Instruments of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by the Diagram Group.

The Montagu collection, printed in the book Musical Instruments of the Bible, by Jeremy Montagu, Scarecrow Press.