Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Ancient Greek Music

Archaeological evidence and written accounts, both historical and literary, show that music was vital to ancient Greek culture. Choruses in the Greek plays were sung, and music was central to religious and state ceremonies and to social rituals such as weddings, funerals, banquets, etc. The Homeric epics were probably “sung to formulaic melodies” (Bonds 4). But memorization was key to performance, not written notation, so only about 45 pieces of music, mostly fragments, survive from the time in bits of papyri and marble, and in documents copied in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Plato defined song (melos) as the fusion of word, rhythm, and melody; so Greek music seems to have been monophonic. Indeed “‘Ode’ and ‘song’ were virtually synonymous in the Greek world” (Bond 4). Vocal music was more respected than instrumental because of notions like Aristotle’s that voices are found only in creatures with souls.

The kinds of instruments used by the ancient Greeks have been identified primarily from illustrations on pottery: various types of lyres (stringed instruments, some played with a “plectrum” or pick), the aulos (a double-reed instrument consisting of a pair of pipes), the syrinx (a single-reed pipe or panpipe), various kinds of horns (made of metal or animal horn), drums and percussion instruments such as the krotala (hollow wood castanets) and kumbala (finger cymbals).

The music system for the Greeks involved interlocking tetrachords — four-notes successions each spanning the interval of a perfect fourth. (Don’t be confused by the term: as with the later medieval “hexachords,” no “chords” or harmonies as we know them are involved.) Diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic tetrachords are distinguishable by the intervalic placement of thirds, whole-tones, half-tones, and microtones. Additionally, to extend the available range beyond the mere fourth, two-octave spans of interlocking tetrachords made up the Greater Perfect System, and “Melodies were organized according to the characteristics of one of several tonoi (singular tonos)” (Bond 4) — similar to scales, or modes. Names of the tonoi came from regions: Ionian, Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, etc. (These are not to be confused with the later medieval modes bearing the same names.)

Probably the most famous bit of music from ancient Greece to survive is the “Epitaph of Seikilos” — an inscription on a pair of 1st-century c.e. gravestone columns discovered in Turkey and now residing in the National Museum of Denmark. The inscription begins, “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance” (qtd. in Bond 5). The song itself follows:

Ho-son dzes pahi-nou, [As long as you live, be happy;]
me-den ho-los sy ly-pou. [do not grieve at all.]
Pros o-li-gon es-ti to dzen, [Life’s span is short;]
to te-los ho chro-nos ap-ai-tei. [time exacts the final reckoning.]

Hieroglyphs between the lines of text indicate melody and even the length of the pitches. The tune is exotic sounding and effectively catchy. Technically, it’s Phrygian, “equivalent to the D-octave on the white keys of a piano” (Pilasca 2), with prominence given to the mese or central note, a. Although the owner of the columns some time between 1883 and 1922 removed a slice from the bottom of one to make the two even, an earlier scholar had made a rubbing of the entire inscription.

Some fragments by Euripides (c. 480-c. 406 b.c.e.) also survive in a third century b.c.e. papyrus from the chorus of one of his plays, Orestes — an invocation to a goddess on behalf of Agamemnon’s son. As filled in by modern musicologists and performed with some interpretive conjecture (only forty-two notes survive), the piece sounds as if it’s in 3/4 time with an exotic line and some plucked and percussive punctuations.

You wild goddesses who dart across the skies seeking vengeance for murder,
we implore you to free Agamemnon’s son from his raging fury….
We grieve for this boy.
Happiness is brief among mortals.
Sorrow and anguish sweep down on it
like a swift gust of wind on a sloop
and it sinks under tossing seas.

More material survives regarding music theory than actual music. Pythagoras supposedly discovered the connection between music and mathematics — that the intervals of octave, fifth, and fourth are “perfect consonances” because they can be expressed (and replicated) by the ratios 2:1, 3:2, and 4:3, respectively. Later Pythagoreans credited him also with the notion of the “music of the spheres” — the idea that the rotation of the planetary spheres creates an inaudible harmony. Music was part of the quadrivium in the liberal arts, primarily because, along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, music’s mathematical nature could be emphasized. “Practicing musicians, although widely admired for their performances, were not considered among the intellectual elite: they could entertain, but they could not edify their audiences” (Bond 12).

The belief that music could govern the human soul and had power over behavior is illustrated in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in the story of Odysseus and the Sirens, and elsewhere. This “doctine of ethos” — the “belief that music has the power to elevate or debase the soul” (Bond 10) — led Aristotle to note the moods created by various modes and Plato to recommend restrictions to certain modes of music on the part of youths. Music in the Dorian mode bolstered courage and in the Phrygian mode fostered thoughtfulness (an early form of Mozart for infants). Plato even warned about the politically subversive potential of music (and he was right — look what happened with the jitterbug).

Works Consulted

Bonds, Mark Evan. A History of Music in Western Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Musique de la Grèce Antique. Atrium Musicae de Madrid. CD. Arles: Harmonia Mundi, 1979. HMA 190101015.

Palisca, Claude V., ed. Norton Anthology of Western Music, Volume I: Ancient to Baroque. 4th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2001.