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An Analysis Of Music In Ancient Greek Culture

A look at the Instruments, Philosophies and Daily Life

Dalton Robison Ancient Civilizations December 9, 2014

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In the study of ancient civilizations, there are several great societies that have had major impacts

upon the world. Historians have gathered tremendous amounts of data on them, especially when you

consider that they are thousands of years old. Yet it never seems like there is enough because these are

areas that have seen continual use, housing the rise and fall of culture after culture. In some cases,

people left massive monuments such as the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and the

Colosseum of Rome. These monuments are great testaments to the ingenuity of their respective

civilizations but, often do not provide a great deal of insight into other aspects of their culture. And so,

to find any sort of writing or pottery pertaining to this can take years of digging and searching, but

when found they provide invaluable insight into the people of that civilization. This enables historians

to learn about the religions, languages, and the daily lives of the people. That is a vital part of

understanding their societies as a whole. But something that has proved elusive for most of these

cultures is their music.

We know that music played a role in everyday life in many civilizations, from the American

Indian tribes to the Greeks. This knowledge has been based on what we have found, as well as (in some

cases) traditions that were passed down, but due to either a lack of notation, an obvious lack of

recordings, and the very nature of music means that it is very difficult to know what it sounded like.

Not only is it very difficult but, in some cases it is often impossible. Over the centuries music has been

an almost purely oral and aural tradition. In the days of nomadic tribes, and before there were dedicated

musicians, the whole tribe would be a part of the music because it was used in important ceremonies.

And so when a child came of age, their parents or the elders would teach them any rhythms, melodies

or lyrics necessary. This meant that everyone had the knowledge already and therefore it wasn't

necessary to write them down. It wasn't until centuries later that the practice of writing down music, or

notation, became standard. The only other way to know what it could have sounded like is through the

analysis of vases and other artifacts that depict music. This is the most common type of evidence that

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historians find. Fortunately the Greeks, one of the most influential founding civilizations, have some of

the most information collected. This allows thorough analysis of the impact that their music had on not

only the daily life of their civilization but the theories of modern western music as well. To do so one

must look at all aspects of their music, from the instruments used, to the grand philosophies behind

their view on music and the cosmos, and lastly the surviving examples of music itself.

However, before analyzing the music, it is necessary not only to learn how the music fits in the

context of society but, also what instruments were used. The discussion of what instruments were used

is where the various artifacts found provide the most insight. One of the earliest examples is a small

statue that dates all the way back to 2800-2700 B.C. placing this example in the Cycladic period during

the Early Bronze Age. It depicts a man playing a type of harp while seated on a high-back chair. 1 While

there is not much detail in the harp itself, much attention was paid to the arms and hands of the

musician. His arms are bent and articulated while his hands are in playing position and his right thumb

is even outstretched to play a note. This means that this man could have been a dedicated musician and

also that there was enough emphasis on music in their culture to warrant a statue like this to be made.

In later Greek civilizations from the Classical or Hellenic period (480-323 B.C.), this would be the time

period referred to from here on out as “Ancient Greece” for simplicity as it is thought of as such in

popular culture, traditional hymns and writing suggest that music was an integral part of daily life.

M.L. West in his book Ancient Greek Music, states “Music, song, and dance were seen as being,

together with orderly sacrifices to the gods and athletic facilities for men, the most characteristic

manifestations of a civilized community in peacetime.” 2 He also goes on to state that words like

'lyreless' are used to describe war and other miseries. This by itself is a measure for just how important

music was to their society. And so, although good music could be used to convey sadness or longing, it

  • 1 "Statuette of a seated harp player [Cycladic; Grotta-Pelos culture] (47.100.1)". (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/47.100.1

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was most importantly a public worship of the god and celebration. Music was centerpiece for many

festivals. Musicians would play in a central location, performing as a main feature, and during the

sacrifices to the gods as well. The most popular instruments for these types of performances were lyres.

This only serves to reinforce the significance of the string family as a founding, primary instrument

with the feature of the harp and the lyre.

The lyre was one of the most popular instruments of ancient civilizations and specifically,

Greek culture. It served as an instrument for accompaniment of both others or oneself. It is featured on

many pieces of pottery and in particular, vases. Fortunately vases are some of the most plentiful

artifacts from Greek culture and they often depict musicians wielding their respective instruments.

They do so in such detail that scholars have been able to make distinctions between the different types

of lyres and harps. This is a detail that most people overlook but, can be equally important as it adds to

the complexity of their music. For instance, one of the most common misconceptions is the difference

between a lyre and a kithara. On the most basic level, it comes down to a difference in size. The lyre

was a smaller, more hand held instrument with less strings while the kithara was larger. The kithara was

also more complex and detailed, meaning that it would have been more difficult to construct and used

in a more professional setting. It often is depicted with seven strings, but could by some accounts have

up to twelve that were of equal length. 3 These were tied at the top and bottom of the instrument with

the bottom acting as an anchor with a bridge and also constructed as a sounding box or a rectangular

shape. 4 Therefore not only would it have been more difficult to play, it would have projected better and

thus been better suited to larger audiences. The regular lyre on the other hand, was constructed out of a

simple bowl traditionally made of a tortoise shell. They also featured seven strings but some depictions

show at the crudest level, only two. The instrument itself can be traced back into their mythology when,

  • 3 West, M. L. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Pg 49

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according to legend, Hermes invented the lyre by using the resources around him as a herdsman. His

lyre was fashioned out of a tortoise shell, cane, hide, and lastly sheep-guts for strings. 5

Once the physical instrumentation has been established, the notation and more importantly the

philosophies and theories provide key insight. Besides the archeological findings of pictures which

often leave more questions than answers, especially when one moves outside of the string family, the

key concepts of Greek music have been found in the writings of famous philosophers. These writings

focus on a purely conceptual level, looking to the cosmos and fundamentally, numbers. The person

attributed with the first theory of what became know as “The Music of the Spheres”, was Pythagoras. It

must be first stated that historians have found nothing that was written by Pythagoras himself. All of

the works attributed to him were written by his followers, the so-called “Pythagoreans”. The man

himself has become almost as much a legendary figure as he was a human due to a large number of

stories and little evidence. One such legend is that he first discovered the relationship between music

and mathematical ratios while walking past a blacksmith's shop. 6 In the story he concluded that the

weight of the hammer used to strike the piece of iron determined the harmony of the tones. For

example, two hammers weighing six and twelve pounds respectively produce an octave because of

their 1:2 ratio. The concept that ratios determine the interval of two notes is true, but can only be

applied to stringed instruments, not weight.

To fully understand Pythagoras' ratio and their significance, one has to first have a basic concept

of Western tonality and theory. All music is built upon notes that are grouped into scales. The most

basic of these is the major scale. Western music is written using the first seven characters of the

alphabet to designate the notes that one hears. And so a major scale in the key of C consists, in order, of

C D E F G A B C. The distance between two of these notes is referred to as an interval. The stretch of

  • 5 West, M. L. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Pg 56

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the first C to the last C is an 8 th or octave. And so, what Pythagoras discovered was that the ratio of 1:2

produces an octave because it is a doubling. In this same line of thought, he discovered that 2:3 is a

fifth and 3:4 is a fourth. These are proved using an instrument called the monochord. The monochord is

an extremely simple instrument that uses a moveable bridge to physically demonstrate ratios. Figure 1

illustrates this in a way simpler than words.

Robison 6 the first C to the last C is an 8 or octave. And so,

Figure 1 7

Pythagoras also took his theories a step further and applied them to the cosmos, stating that the ratio

can also be found in the distance between the planets. 8 And because they have the same ratios, a

musician that plucks a lyre also resonates with the universe. Aristotle stated, “[the Pythagoreans] saw

that the

...

ratios of musical scales were expressible in numbers [and that]

...

all things seemed to be

modeled on numbers, and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed

the elements of number to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and

a number.” 9 The last aspect of this resonance is the connection between the soul and the body. The

same concept applies in that the soul resonates with both the body and the universe. A classic story,

attributed to Socrates, illustrating the uses of this is a follows:

A young man from Taormina had been up all might partying with friends and listening to songs in the Phrygian mode, a key well known for its ability to incite violence. When the aggravated lad saw the girl he loved sneaking away in the wee hours of the morning from the home of his

  • 7 "Monochord." Shared Discoveries. November 12, 2013. https://shareddiscoveries.wordpress.com/category/musical- instruments/.

  • 8 James, Jamie. The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe. (New York: Grove Press, 1993). Pg 40

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rival, he determined to go burn her house down. Pythagoras happened to be late himself, star- gazing, and walked in on this violent scene. He convinced the piper to change his tune from the Phrygian mode to song in spondees, a tranquilizing meter. The young man's madness instantly cooled, and he was restored to reason. Although he had stupidly insulted the great philosopher just hours before, he now addressed him mildly and went home in an orderly fashion. 10

Plato and Aristotle were the next philosophers to take this concept a step further. Pythagoras and

his followers used numbers as the source of everything while, Plato and Aristotle took these concepts

and made them poetic. Aristotle in his Politics stated, “Melodies contain in themselves imitations of the

ethoses; and this is manifest, for even in the nature of the harmoniai there are differences, so that

people when hearing them are affected differently and have not the same feelings in regard to each of

them

...

11 When he refers to the harmoniai, this was the term that they used to talk about the resonance

and unification of parts in the orderly whole. 12 Ethos is one of the three founding principles of Greek

philosophy and is the origin for the modern term ethics. It is defined simply as one's character and way

of being. And so, it was natural for all three of the aforementioned philosophers to associate music with

ethos and therefore resonate with the soul. This would give music all kinds of various properties as

previously mentioned in the story of Pythagoras and the man from Taormina. However, it did not

originate from Pythagoras as these powers are also closely associated with the mythical figure of

Orpheus. In his mythology, Orpheus, who was a musician and poet, used his lyre to renew life into his

wife who was taken by Hades. His music also had the power to produce harmony of the soul in all

things around him, including animals and stones. 13 And so, Plato and Aristotle applied these concepts to

everyday life by attributing the modes of music with emotions and related activities.

A mode is a type of scale that has a specific set of characteristics and melodic qualities. They at

  • 10 James, Jamie. The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe. (New York: Grove Press, 1993). Pg 32

  • 11 Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). Pg. 14

  • 12 Ibid Pg. 13

  • 13 James, Jamie. The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe. (New York: Grove Press, 1993). Pg 56

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the time did not use the term “mode” but instead, referred to them as scales that are part of the

harmoniai calling them, tonoi. 14 For purposes of clarity however, they will be referred to by the modern

term modes. They began naming the various modes based on the areas that personified the emotions of

the notes. For example, he Phrygian mode was one of the two primary modes that Plato endorsed

stating that it fostered temperance. 15 16 If one recalls though, this was the mode that in the story of

Pythagoras that incited the young man to violence. Here lies one of the major problems with writings of

this level of antiquity. It is possible that over the 200 years that spanned between Pythagoras and Pluto

that the meaning of the Phrygian mode changed, but the more likely answer seems to be interpretation

error by the authors that expanded upon Platonic theory such as Iamblichus who came 700 years after

Plato himself. 17 A second mode that Plato made use of, was the Dorian. It was said to have bolstered

courage during physical activities such as gymnastics. Throughout all of this, Plato maintained that the

music should not be changed as it could promote lawlessness and anarchy in the society as a whole. 18 In

fact in his Laws, Plato stated,

“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

So our theaters, once silent, grew vocal, and

the criterion was not music, but a

... aristocracy of music gave way to a pernicious theocracy

... reputation for promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking.” 19

Aristotle however was more lenient in his attitude towards performance. He believed that music should

of course be used for enjoyment but, that it also could be applied to the purging of pity and fear.

The last important piece to the puzzle that is Ancient Greek music is the actual notation itself.

  • 14 Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). Pg. 18

  • 15 Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). Pg. 15

  • 16 James, Jamie. The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe. (New York: Grove Press, 1993). Pg 57

  • 17 Ibid Pg 57

  • 18 Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). Pg. 15

  • 19 Wellesz, Egon. The New Oxford History of Music: Volume I: Ancient and Oriental Music. Vol. I. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957). Pg 395

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Once again, due to the age of the civilization it has been difficult to find, and even when it is found it is

often fragmented. And so, in total there are only around 45 pieces of the music itself. 20 Out of these

gathered works, very few are truly from the period. The most notable of these is a fragment of Chorus

from “Orestes” by Euripides. However it is so incomplete that only a verse has been found and it is

questioned whether or not Euripides actually wrote the music to it. Therefore although it is not

technically in the correct period, the best music to look at are the two Delphic hymns that were written

in the second century BCE. The first hymn, if written by the same composer as the second one, would

be the first example of notated music by a named composer. They were believed to be written for a

festival that was held every ten years by an Athenian named Limenios, son of Thoinos. 21 It is known for

certain that he wrote the second hymn but, the first one is still debated. The translation of these pieces

into western notation has been an ongoing task but, much progress has been made allowing historians

to know what the first hymn may have sounded like.

And so through all of this, historians can surmise the importance of music in the culture of the

Ancient Greeks. It was an important aspect of daily life, and was featured in not only festivals and

special occasions, but athletic activities as well. Paintings on pieces of pottery and tombs provide

depictions of what the instruments themselves were like to a fair degree of accuracy. The philosophies

of famous thinkers such as Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle also give key insight into the theories behind

why it was so important and to Western music theory as well. And lastly, the little notation that

archeologists have found allows historians to recreate what the music may have sounded like.

  • 20 Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. 8th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). Pg. 18

  • 21 Pöhlmann, Egert, and M.L. West. Documents of Ancient Greek Music. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001). Pg 71

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