Greek music: Ancient Greek Music

Ancient Greek Music

The music of ancient Greece was inseparable from poetry and dancing. It was entirely monodic, there being no harmony as the term is commonly understood. The earliest music is virtually unknown, but in the Homeric era a national musical culture existed that was looked upon by later generations as a “golden age.” The chief instrument was the phorminx, a lyre used to accompany poet-singers who composed melodies from nomoi, short traditional phrases that were repeated. The earliest known musician was Terpander of Lesbos (7th cent. b.c.). The lyric art of Archilochus, Sappho, and Anacreon was also musical in nature.

In the 6th cent. b.c., choral music was used in the drama, for which Pindar developed the classical ode. The main instruments at this time were the aulos, a type of oboe associated with the cult of Dionysus, and the kithara, a type of lyre associated with Apollo and restricted to religious and hymnic use. This classical style of composition decayed in the last quarter of the 5th cent. b.c.

After the fall of Athens in 404 b.c., an anti-intellectual reaction took place against the classical art, and by about 320 b.c. it was almost forgotten. The new style, which resulted in the rise of professional musicians, was marked by subjective expression, free forms, more elaborate melody and rhythms, and chromaticism. The chief musical figures were Phrynis of Mitylene (c.450 b.c.), his pupil Timotheus of Miletus, and the dramatist Euripides. Finally, ancient Greek music lost its vitality and dwindled to insignificance under the Roman domination.

There were two systems of musical notation, a vocal and an instrumental, both of which are, though still problematic. They are decipherable largely because of the Introduction to Music written by Alypius (c.a.d. 360). In spite of the prominent position of music in the cultural life of ancient Greece, only 15 musical fragments are extant, all which date from the postclassical period. Early in its history, Greek music benefited from the discovery, usually attributed to Pythagoras of Samos, of the numerical relations of tones to divisions of a stretched string. The temperament, or Pythagorean tuning, derived from this series of ratios has been important throughout subsequent music history.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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