Friday, February 11, 2011

Music of Antiquity

A very special guest, Ms. Karen Slagle (she holds a Masters of Music specializing in Education), the beta who caught the musical-inaccuracy in my manuscript (thankfully it was tiny and easily fixed) is here today to school us all on the music of the ancient world! Check out her website and give her a warm Good to Begin Well welcome! (Yeah, yeah, I know I complained about Italics just yesterday on Twitter, but that was in FICTION, not blogposts! SHHH. Also, for the record, the blog name of Frozen Socks was totally my idea.)

Pompeii - Musician with Harp and Cithara - MAN
fresco from Pompeii
While we have an overwhelming amount of leftover art, literature, history, government and even architecture from the Greek and Roman eras, ancient Greek music, by it’s very nature, has proved a difficult subject to seriously research and authentically reproduce.  While we have plenty of descriptions of music being played, extensive instruction as to how to play and compose it, and countless depictions of people playing the common instruments of the day, there are only about 40 surviving songs and fragments of songs that have been found amongst other Greek artifacts.  Despite this, because of writings by people like Pythagorus, Aristotle and Plato, we have a pretty good grasp of what it sounded like and how people thought about and practiced the art in their every day lives.
Music played an important if not crucial role in the ancient Greek life.  According to Plato's Republic, during a young boy’s education, the two most important subjects to be taught were music and gymnastics.  Boys learned music to discipline their minds and gymnastics to discipline their bodies.  However, the subjects had to be taught in exact equal amounts because too much music would cause effeminate behavior and too much gymnastics would cause aggression.  (This probably also explains Aristotle’s aversion, discussed in Politics, to the growing popularity of professional musicians and even some of the first documented virtuosos that arose during his lifetime.)

The type of music also contributed to a boy’s scholastic development because certain types of music would foster different characteristics.  For example, someone being trained to govern would be encouraged to listen to melodies in the Dorian or Phrygian mode because they encouraged a calm demeanor and temperance.  They would be discouraged from listening to anything in the Mixolydian mode, however, because it was considered sad and depressing.  (The modes are not something I am going to explain in this post, but STAY TUNED because I might satisfy your curiosity in a future entry, either here or on my own blog, Frozen Socks.  Suffice to say, the musical modes are something that were adopted by musicians in the early Christian church and survive in almost all Western Music still being composed to this day.)

But music’s influence was not limited to the education of ancient Greek children.  Music could cure the sick, purify the body, work miracles, control the relationships between people and even explain the movement of planets in space.  Even literature in ancient Greece was considered a form of music.  In fact, the ancient Greek language had no single word for a poem or prose that would be performed without a musical accompaniment.  Why is this?  How could something so nebulous, so fleeting have such an important and material influence on this society, particularly since they apparently did not bother to record it as they did their dramas and epic poetry?

That will have to wait for another day!  In the meantime, enjoy this chorus from Euripides’ Orestes that was found on a scrap of parchment dated from 408 B.C.E.


  1. I would love to go back in time to hear ancient music, but I suppose we're lucky we have surviving images of musical instruments from places like ancient Egypt and Rome.

    Really, I just need a time machine for a lot of reasons!

  2. The music is so stately and somber. Formal. At my kids' school for international day, the seventh graders represented Ancient Greece and did a dance to this kind of music. Sort of a slow-moving portrait more than a dance. Very interesting!!

  3. This is terrific stuff!

    I suspect there's a certain amount of extrapolation in that music sample, even granted that the modal system makes it possible to guess how the rest ran.

    Every ancient music sample I've ever heard goes for something sombre, yet based on random comments from ancient sources, most Greek music must have been bouncy for dancing. This is the highbrow stuff, like the ancient equivalent of opera!

  4. Raw music and vocal. Damn those Kings had one hell of a time!!!


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