Ancient Greek Music

Imagine what it would be like to experience some of the very same melodies that filled the ancient world - sounds that would have been familiar to the people who lived their lives in classical Greece. Well, although we can never know exactly what their ears heard, we do have some idea of what kinds of music were an everyday part of their world.

About 50 pieces of music survive from ancient Greece, ranging in time from 500 BC to 300 AD. Much about this music is unfamiliar to our modern ears - musical intervals that are even smaller than the space between two keys on our piano, strange rhythms and time meters - yet the same basic types of songs seem to transcend time. These include:

  • dance songs (Hyporchema)
  • sad songs (Threnos)
  • drinking songs (Skolion)
  • hymns (Hymnos or Dythyrambs)

There were a large variety of instruments commonly used to produce Greek music. And since music was seen as having a great power over people, certain instruments became linked to certain gods:

  • Aulos - a wind instrument, like a recorder; associated with Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy.
  • Kithara - a stringed instrument, an early form of the guitar; associated with Apollo, the god of the Sun and reason.

Other Greek instruments include the tympanon (drum), Kymbala (cymbals), and the Syrinx or Pandean pipes (panpipes), a very ancient instrument.

Instruments were sometimes used mainly as an accompaniment, placing most of the importance on the singer's voice. However, there were also instrumental numbers, some of which survive to this day. Dance was often closely tied to the music.

Pythagoras of Samos, in the 6th - 5th centuries BC, was a very important figure in the evolution of Greek music. He discovered mathematical ratios for various musical intervals, and his followers further developed his system. Music came to be considered as not only an art, but also as a branch of mathematics. This view continued throughout the classical world.

Even with the few surviving pieces of music that remain to us, most of what we know about Greek music is a result of literary references. These references are plentiful and are found throughout various Greek works. With all of our sources of information, the music of the ancient Greeks becomes a little more alive to us.

If you are interested in ancient Greek music, also see this post about a new classics doctorate that encompasses ancient Greek and Roman music as part of the degree.

No comments:

Post a Comment