An Introduction to Ancient Greek Music

by Alex_the_Bold

The ancient Greek civilisation was closely related to music throughout its history. From Homeric singers to Hellenistic ceremonies, music was an indispensable, albeit unknown part of it. Notes, harmonies and rhythms, each expressed ancient Greek morals and virtues.

Ancient Greek musical instruments were widely used in many aspects of everyday life: in religious ceremonies, both public and private, in entertainment, and in education. For instance, the Pythagorian philosophers used music as a means of psychotherapy and during the classical period a man who was completely ignorant of music was considered undereducated.

In festivals, such as the Dionysiac orgies very loud music was used to bring people celebrating in a state of ecstasy, of course along with large quantities of alcohol. These festivals continued to exist in Roman times, dedicated to Bacchus instead of Dionysus.

There were also musical contests during the ancient Greek games. The first contests of this kind were reported in the Pythia games, while such competitions also took place in the Athenian festivity of Panathenea and, most importantly, in the Olympic games since the beginning of the fifth century BC.

The ancient Greek musical instruments are divided in three categories: the stringed instruments, the blown instruments and those which were struck in order to produce sound.

The stringed instruments consisted of several strings, usually made from animal intestines, and were played either with bare fingers or with a special tool called plektron. This category included: the lyre, the phorminx (ancient guitar-like instrument) and various harps.

The blown instruments fell into three categories: those blown directly, such as the aulos, those blown by means of a small clap, such as the flute, and the ceremonial ones, such as the trumpet.

Finally, the percussion instruments (ancestors of modern-day drums) were of relatively limited use as compared to the other instruments. This category includes instruments such as the crotala and small bells, along with the tympanon (drum). These instruments were only used in religious ceremonies, or in war when the hoplites were marching, with the exception of Spartans, who marched under the horrific sound of flutes.

The ancient Greek music influenced Roman music and, to an extent, Byzantine ecclesiastical music. In addition, some famous composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century used ancient Greek musical forms in their masterpieces.

Unfortunately, only a few samples of written ancient Greek music have been found, the best-preserved being the inscription of Seicilos, created in the second century BC and found by W.M.Ramsey in Minor Asia in 1883. Thirty-seven notes and the lyrics of a short in length song can be found on this inscription. This inscription is housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen.

Some links for further listening:
A Bacchic song
A hymn to the Muse of music