Ancient Greek Music


Much of what defines western culture in philosophy, science, and the arts has origins in the ancient Greek culture. The word music comes from the muses, the daughters of Zeus and patron goddesses of creative and intellectual endeavours. Music played an integral role in the lives of ancient Greeks and was almost universally used in society, from marriages and funerals to religious ceremonies, staged dramas, folk music and ballad-like reciting of epic poetry. Archaeological remains reveal an abundance of depictions on ceramics of music being performed, and there are a many literary references to ancient Greek music, as well as a few significant fragments of actual Greek musical notation.  From these, we can reasonably surmise what ancient Greek music sounded like, the general role of music in society, the economics of music, the importance of a professional caste of musicians, etc.  Music was heard in public at Olympic events, religious festivals, and in Greek drama.


Ancient Greek Musical Concepts Passed on to Western Culture

- Tuning system developed by Pythagoras using mathematically-precise octaves, fourths and fifths, which lasted until the late 15th century.

- System of consonance and dissonance (8ve, 5th, 4ths) that lasted well into the 14th century.

- Octave modal scale systems of seven pitches in whole-step and half-step increments.

- Musical terms such as scale, diatonic, chromatic, enharmonic, which are still used today.


Music as Science, Mathematics and Philosophy

- Music of the Spheres: It is important to note that the Greeks perceived music as a quantitative science—not an art.  The entire study of music by the Greeks was less a formula for the production of playable music than it was a mathematical and philosophical description of how the universe was perceived to be constructed—the stars, the sun, the planets, all vibrating and moving in proportional harmony.  If mankind is to be at one with the universe, we too must employ an ethical, proportional music system.


- Music and Mathematics: The famous mathematician Pythagoras (and his followers) laid the foundations of our knowledge of tuning and the study of harmonics—how strings and columns of air vibrate, how they produce intervals and overtones, how the overtones are related arithmetically to one another, etc.


- Ethical Power of Music: Greek philosophers believed that music was not only a pleasant amusement, but it could also elicit specific human behavior.  They developed a complex system of modes relating to particular emotional and spiritual characteristics. The names for the various modes derived from the names of Greek tribes and peoples, the temperament and emotions of which were said to be characterized by the unique sound of each mode. The most esteemed mode was Dorian (D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D), which was associated with Apollo.


- The Philosophy of Music: The philosopher Plato talks about the proper use of various modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.), and later wrote this complaint about the modern music of his time: "Our music was once divided into its proper forms...There were no whistles, unmusical mob-noises, or clapping for applause. The rule was to listen silently and learn; boys, teachers, and the crowd were kept in order by threat of the stick. . . . But later, an unmusical anarchy was led by poets who had natural talent, but were ignorant of the laws of music...Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave."


- Musical instruments: Both Plato and Aristotle perceived instrumental music as inferior to music by the human voice. Still, the Greeks used a variety of percussion instruments (similar to timpani, snare drum, tambourine and cymbals), wind instruments (such as the reeded aulos and a the Pan pipes), and a variety of plucked stringed instruments (such as the psaltery, the harp, the lyre, and the kithara—though fretted/stopped string instruments were rare).  Instruments were often associated with a particular ethos (Lyre= Apollo/enlightenment; Aulos=Dionysus/raucousness).


- Musical notation: most Greek music was monophonic and transmitted by oral tradition, but some 50 fragmentary examples still survive today.  Greek notation is very different from our modern notation of clefs, staves, notes, etc.  At first, the Greeks divided the octave into many more than 12 pitches, and gave a different symbol to each possible pitch (no repeats at the octave; vocal and instrumental pitches had different symbols).  Later, they developed a system of consonance and dissonance focusing on octaves, fifths and fourths derived by dividing the octave into seven-pitch scales of whole-steps and half-steps.