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ancient Greek music

1. History and function, 2. Instruments, 3. Music theory, 4. Extant melos

musical aristoxenus

The Greek mousikē refers to any art over which the Muses preside, but, in the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods, particularly to music. Music played a central role in the civic and religious life of the people as well as providing relaxation and entertainment; it was also the object of scientific and philosophical inquiry.

1. History and function

The pure phenomena of music attracted the interest of various early philosophical schools, especially the Pythagoreans, who primarily viewed it as a paradigm for important truths found in its harmonious reflection of number—for them, the ultimate reality. The use of a harmonious structure in actual individual pieces was of secondary interest, though they were concerned with its mimetic characteristics, which gave music its power in human life. Plato followed the Pythagorean tradition in using music as a cosmological paradigm in his Timaeus, but he was also aware of its influence on behaviour and concerned himself in the Republic and Laws with such practical issues as the types of music to be allowed in an enlightened civilization.

Aristotle , too, was interested in the educational function of music and its role in the development of character, though his positions, which are most fully developed in book 8 of the Politics, differed somewhat from those of Plato . Within Aristotle's scientific tradition, his disciple Aristoxenus developed a highly sophisticated system for analysing musical phenomena in a treatise transmitted under the title Harmonic Elements. By the 2nd century bc , the practical, scientific, and philosophical traditions of music were waning. Nevertheless, authors in the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic empires continued to write treatments of the subject in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. In the West, however, the music and its theory began to be forgotten after the time of Boethius and Cassiodorus , leaving only imperfect traces in later treatises.

The music of the ancient Greeks cannot be reconstructed in full, but a broad range of source material exists from which a reasonably clear picture can be formed. Four principal types of source pertain to the subject: literature, works of graphic or plastic art, archaeological remains, and notated pieces of music. None of these alone presents a complete picture, but as a complex they begin to reveal the richness of mousikē.

In the modern sense, a history of ancient Greek music cannot be written. Citation or paraphrase in Pseudo-Plutarch's On Music of works with historical or biographical titles by such authors as Alexander , Aristoxenus , Glaucus of Rhegium , and Heraclides Ponticus are tantalizing, but as the treatises themselves do not survive, it is impossible to know whether they would have addressed precisely matters of chronology, biography, attribution, and factual detail necessary for a modern historical treatment. Other literary sources, while providing information about musical matters, tend to be technical, antiquarian, or museographic rather than historical. Thus, the picture of ancient Greek music and musical life reconstructed from the surviving sources remains chronologically and historically ambiguous.

The Greeks used specific musical forms for a wide range of occasions. The settings for these compositions are lost (with the exception of the musical fragments), but the texts themselves provide evidence about form, structure, and rhythm, and in some cases describe music-making itself. Forms were typified by subject matter, rhythm and metre, large-scale structure, and so on. Plato (Laws 3.700a8–e4) observes that the types were once distinct: a hymn would not be confused with a dirge, dithyramb, or paean—implying that this distinction was beginning to be lost in his day. Fuller typologies are found in Athenaeus' Sophists at Dinner and Photius' Bibliotheca, which preserves a summary of Proclus' Useful Knowledge. Proclus sets up three classifications and lists the types associated with each:

  1. for the gods—hymn, prosodion, paean, dithyramb, nomos, adonidia, iobakchos, and hyporcheme;
  2. for humans—encomion, epinikion, skolion, erotica, epithalamia, hymenaios, sillos, threnos, and epikedeion;
  3. for the gods and humans—partheneion, daphnephorika, tripodephorika, oschophorika, and eutika

. Whether or not this typology would have been shared by earlier Greek writers such as Plato, it is clear that the Greeks were conscious of specific musical types and their distinctions.

Such pieces of music were called melos, which in its perfect form (teleion melos) comprised not only the melody and the text (including its elements of rhythm and diction) but also stylized dance movement. Melic and rhythmic composition (respectively, melopoiïa and rhuthmopoiïa) were the processes of selecting and applying the various components of melos and rhythm to create a complete work. The compositions of the first classification played important roles in religious and civic life, with the nomos becoming the particular vehicle for musical innovation and the development of the virtuoso. The epinikion provided a form in which important personal and human victories could be memorialized to inspire future generations. In the dithyramb, partheneion, and hyporcheme, the relationship of dance and music was especially prominent; but the most complete union of music, text, movement, and costume was developed in the drama which formed a centrepiece of the civic and religious festivals of the Greeks. Similarly, everyday social life was supported by compositions of the third classification: wedding and funeral music, love songs, work songs, banquet songs, and so on. In each piece, musicians drew on a wealth of tradition, an innately sonorous language, and virtually limitless combinations of rhythms, metres, tonoi, inflections of melodic scale, gesture, and dance, some of which are described in the technical treatises.

Music-making already plays an important role in the Iliad and the Odyssey, whether or not they were sung or recited, and beginning at least as early as the 7th century, extended solo and choral musical forms existed, with and without instrumental accompaniment, as did pure instrumental music. Virtuosity and innovation became prominent in 6th-century instrumental music, which encouraged complexity in the other musical forms, in spite of the objection of conservative poets and philosophers. In Plato's Republic (4.424b5–c6), for example, Socrates deplores innovations in music because they threaten the fundamental structure of the state: ‘One must be cautious about changing to a new type of music as this risks a change in the whole. The modes (tropoi) of music are never moved without movement of the greatest constitutional laws’. This passage emphasizes the larger Greek concept of mousikē: music occupied a prominent place in everyday life not only because it was amusing and socially valuable but also because it embodied larger universal principles and was a vehicle for higher understanding.

2. Instruments

Although fundamentally vocal and literary in character, ancient Greek music also used a considerable array of musical instruments from the four traditional Hornbostel–Sachs classifications: idiophones, membranophones, aerophones, and chordophones. The authors of various lexicographic works provide detailed classifications of musical instruments, many of which are also portrayed on red- and black-figure vases, in terracotta statuary, and on gemstones and bas-reliefs. A number of instruments survive as archaeological artefacts, and reconstructions of individual instruments have led to various conclusions about timbre, pitch, tuning, and performance practice.

The primary idiophones and membranophones are the krotala, kroupezai or kroupala, kumbala or krembala, sistrum (seistron), rhombos, tumpana, and bells (kōdōn), all of which were associated to some extent with the cults of Dionysus and Cybele . Each instrument had certain specific uses, but any might be used to articulate rhythmic and metric patterns. In at least some cases, they must have coordinated performers by marking time.

The primary aerophones of the Greeks were the aulos, syrinx (panpipes), hydraulis, salpinx, and horn (keras); they, too, were associated with the cults of Dionysus and Cybele. The aulos was the most important, and literary sources contain substantial detail about its origin, history, and construction; archaeological remains and iconographic representations provide specific examples, allowing almost complete reconstructions to be made. The aulos is a reed instrument (not a flute, as the term is still quite frequently translated) and, as such, consists of two distinct parts: a mouthpiece and a resonator, both of which are extensively described in Greek technical treatises. Auloi came in various shapes and sizes and were normally played in pairs; whether the pipes played in unison or in some other manner is uncertain. The aulete commonly made use of the phorbeia, a kind of mouth-band, to provide a tight seal round both mouthpieces. With its unique sound and flexibility of pitch and dynamics, the aulos was capable of playing the subtly inflected scales described in the treatises, in low or high registers, outdoors in the theatre or processions, or indoors at symposia or private occasions.

The chordophones can be separated into two major classes: lyres and psalteria. Instruments of the first class have freely resonating strings strummed with a plectrum; those of the second were plucked by the fingers. Phorminx and kitharis are early terms associated with instruments of the first class, joined later by lyra, chelys or chelus, barbiton (or barbitos), and kithara. Iconography suggests that the chelys lyre was the small instrument constructed on a tortoise (chelys) shell used in music lessons and for private music-making; the phorminx, an instrument of moderate size with a rounded bottom and perhaps a fuller tone; the barbiton, associated with Dionysian ceremonies, a chelys lyre with long arms and probably a low and resonant tone; and the kithara, commonly associated with Apollo , the large concert instrument used in contests, the theatre, and festivals. The second class includes the psaltērion itself; the epigoneion and simikion, instruments of as many as 40 strings, perhaps rather like the modern zither; the magadis, pēktis, and phoenix, instruments with strings tuned in pairs, not unlike the modern dulcimer; and the sambukē and the trigōnon, which were held aloft, like the modern Irish harp, and—especially in the case of the trigōnon—played primarily by women in the home.

3. Music theory

A significant body of Greek literature can properly be considered music theory. Like other literary sources, these extend over a wide period from the 4th century bc to the 4th century ad , or even later, if works written in late antiquity and the Middle Ages in Latin, Greek, and Arabic are included. Of the earlier treatises, some are technical manuals that provide valuable detail about the Greeks' musical system, including notation, the function and placement of notes in a scale, characteristics of consonance and dissonance, rhythm, and types of musical composition. This group includes the Division of a Canon (sometimes erroneously attributed to Euclid); Cleonides , Harmonic Introduction; Nicomachus of Gerasa , Manual of Harmonics; Theon of Smyrna , On Mathematics Useful for the Understanding of Plato; Gaudentius , Harmonic Introduction; Alypius , Introduction to Music; Bacchius , Introduction to the Art of Music; and others. By contrast, the Harmonic Elements of Aristoxenus , On Music by Aristides Quintilianus , and the Harmonics by Claudius Ptolemy are elaborate books showing the way in which mousikē, by revealing universal patterns of order, leads to the highest levels of knowledge and understanding. Beyond the evidence it supplies about the Greeks' own music, the theory is also significant as an intellectual monument that exerted a profound influence on later Latin, Byzantine, and Arabic musical writings.

Three traditions emerge in the corpus of ancient Greek music theory: a Pythagorean tradition (including manifestations in Platonism and Neoplatonism) concerned with number theory, the relationships between music and the cosmos, and the influence of music on behaviour; a scientific tradition of harmonics associated with a group known as ‘Harmonicists’; and an Aristoxenian tradition based on Aristotelian principles. Although the characteristics of each tradition can be generalized, no single treatise provides a comprehensive treatment of any of the traditions.

The side of Pythagoreanism concerned with musical science is primarily known through the Division of a Canon and the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch (including the treatise On Music attributed to Pseudo-Plutarch ), Nicomachus of Gerasa, Theon of Smyrna, Claudius Ptolemy, and (as later merged with Neoplatonism) Porphyry , Aristides Quintilianus , Iamblichus , and subsequent writers. Plato's Timaeus, for example, presents a model for the creation of the universe embodying characteristic Pythagorean ratios and means and producing a kind of musical shape (Fig. 1). As a series of ratios, the numbers on the left represent such musical intervals as the octave (2:1), double octave (4:1), and triple octave (8:1), while the numbers on the right represent the octave and a 5th (3:1), the triple octave and a tone (9:1), and the quadruple octave and a major 6th (27:1).

Following an introduction defining the physical basis of sound as a series of motions, the Division of a Canon uses some of these same ratios and applies them to such musical topics as consonance, the magnitudes of certain consonant intervals, the location of movable notes in an enharmonic tetrachord, and the location of the notes of the Immutable System on a monochord. Since pitches of notes can be related to the number of motions of a string and therefore consist of certain numbers of parts, they can be described and compared in numerical terms and ratios, such as multiple, superparticular, and superpartient. Consonant notes (i.e. those spanning the 4th, 5th, octave, 12th, and 15th) are found in a multiple or a superparticular ratio (i.e. 4:3, 3:2, 2:1, 3:1, and 4:1) formed only of the numbers of the tetraktus of the decad (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, the sum of which is 10).

Pythagoreans were also concerned with intervals smaller than the 4th, which they identified through mathematical processes. The tone, for instance, was shown to be the difference (9:8) between the 5th and the 4th, and various sizes of ‘semitones’ were identified, such as 256:243 (the ‘leimma’), 2187:2048 (the ‘apotome’), and ‘semitones’ that could be created by proportioning the ratio 9:8 to create any number of small subdivisions (e.g. 18:17:16 or 36:35:34:33:32 and so on). The size of the semitone and the addition of tones and semitones to create 4ths, 5ths, and octaves became a subject of controversy between the Pythagoreans, who insisted on a fundamentally arithmetic approach, and the Aristoxenians, who adopted a geometric approach to the measurement of musical space.

The Harmonicists, known primarily through Aristoxenus' negative assessment of them, based their theory on the sequence of pitches in the range of an octave, which they represented in a series of diagrams; they were also preoccupied with the characteristics of the aulos and musical notation, both of which Aristoxenus dismisses as useless for scientific investigation. Although the precise nature of their diagrams cannot be determined, they may have been something like those that form the final two sections of the Division of a Canon or the monochord division of Thrasyllus preserved in Theon of Smyrna's On Mathematics Useful for the Understanding of Plato. According to Aristoxenus, the Harmonicist Eratocles (fl 5th century bc ) was primarily interested in the seven possible cyclic orderings of the intervals in an octave. Aristoxenus derides this apparently typical Harmonicist approach because it fails to take into account the various musical syntheses (including possible species of the 5th and 4th) that would produce many more than seven species. Aristoxenus further objected that the Harmonicists' identification of a series of tonoi separated by some small interval resulted simply in a closely packed diagram rather than in any useful understanding of musical phenomena.

The most systematic discussion of musical phenomena is found in the fragmentary Harmonic Elements of Aristoxenus and later treatises based on its principles (especially the Aristoxenian epitome by Cleonides and parts of the treatises of Gaudentius , Bacchius , Ptolemy , and Aristides Quintilianus ). Aristoxenus was concerned with the philosophical definitions and categories necessary to establish a complete and correct view of the musical reality of scales and tonoi, two primary elements of musical composition, and in the first part of his treatise he introduces and discusses such subjects as motion of the voice, pitch, compass, intervals, consonance and dissonance, scales, melos, continuity and consecution, genera, synthesis, mixing of genera, notes, and position of the voice. From these, he develops a set of seven categories (genera, intervals, notes, scales, tonoi, modulation, and melic composition), framed by two additional categories: first, hearing and intellect, and last, comprehension. As the later authors did not share Aristoxenus' broader philosophical interests, the framing categories and much of the subtlety of language and argument largely disappeared, while the seven ‘technical’ categories (especially the first three) were rearranged and expanded to include additional technical details—such as the names of the individual notes—that Aristoxenus took for granted.

4. Extant melos

Music notated with symbols from the tables of Alypius has been preserved on stone, on papyrus, and in manuscripts. Egert Pöhlmann identified 40 pieces (including five he regarded as forgeries) in his edition, which is still the only reasonably comprehensive study of the music itself; current scholarship recognizes about 45 pieces, the approximation arising from differences of opinion about the proper characterization of a ‘piece’. The most important of these are (on stone) the Delphic hymns ( c. 127 bc ), originally installed on the walls of the Athenian Treasury at Delphi, one of which (perhaps by a certain Athenaeus) is notated in vocal notation, the other (by Limenius) in instrumental notation; the Epitaph of Seikilos (1st century ad ), inscribed on a tombstone and consisting of a brief heading (including the name of Seikilos) and a complete epigram meticulously notated in vocal and rhythmic notation; two fragments (on papyrus) from tragedies by Euripides , Iphigenia in Aulis, 1499 1509 and 784 92 , and Orestes, 338 44 ; and a group of hymns (in manuscript) addressed to the Muses, the sun, and Nemesis, commonly attributed to Mesomedes.

Bibliography and More Information about ancient Greek music

  • E. Pöhlmann , Denkmäler altgriechischer Musik (Nuremberg, 1970)
  • T. J. Mathiesen , Apollo's Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Lincoln, NE, 1999)

Thomas Mathiesen

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