Scanning Through How Ancient Greeks Made Music

ancient Greek music

Wilfrid Perrett, the musicologist, in 1932, reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London. He said, “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.” Certainly, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma. Yet music was universal in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from around 750 BC to 350 BC.  Homer, Sappho and many other songs were composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance.

The details about the notes, scales, effects and instruments are specifically provided by the literary texts in abundance. The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so as to sound like two powerful oboes played in concert. Regardless of all wealth of information, the sense and sound of ancient Greek music have proved incredibly vague. The reason for this is that, there are complicated and unfamiliar terms and notions found in ancient sources, mode, enharmonic and so on, whereas notated music exists, and it can be reliably interpreted as it is fragmentary and scarce.

What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing. So ancient Greek music had been said by many that it’s a lost art. However, the recent developments have excitingly overturned this gloomy assessment. It has generated stunning insights into how Ancient Greeks made music.

This situation has changed widely, as over the past couple of years, some very well-preserved auloi have been recreated by expert technicians such as Robin Howell and researchers associated with the European Music Archaeology Project. The experienced pipers, Callum Armstrong and Barnaby Brown, provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the pitches and tunings of the instruments.

The main attraction to the ancient song was its rhythms, and this can be derived from the meters of the poetry. These were based strictly on the duration of syllables of words, which create patterns of long and short elements. Since, there are no tempo indications for ancient songs, it is often clear whether a metre should be sung fast or slow. If the music is to sound right, then setting an appropriate tempo is essential.