Ancient Greek Music is an indispensable part of modern music, despite the many unknown parts and elements. Music played a very important part in almost every aspect of life for the ancient Greeks. It was heard at their public gatherings and at their private dinner-parties, at their ceremonies, both joyful and sad; it was heard at every act of worship, whenever people called upon, or prayed to, or gave thanks to the gods. Ancient Greek Music was heard in their theatres, whenever tragedies or comedies were staged, and on their sports grounds as the athletes competed. It was heard in their schools, on board their warships, and even on the battlefield. If ever a people had a just claim to be called music-lovers, it was the Greeks.
Instruments used in Ancient Greek Music
In reviewing their various musical activities, it will be necessary to make frequent mention of some of the instruments which were in general use. A detailed account of all the important instruments is hard to be explained fully, but it will suffice to describe three of them very briefly:
1) The kithara was a large wooden stringed instrument, played with a plectrum. It was supported by the left arm high in front of the player, who normally played standing. The instrument called phorminx by Homer and by some of the later poets was a forerunner of the kithara, similar in sound and function, but a bit smaller.
2) The aulos (avlos in Greek) was a pair of pipes, with vibrating reeds in their mouthpieces, held out in front of the player.
3) The lyre was a smaller stringed instrument, played in the same way as a kithara, but often held lower down—on the player’s lap if he was seated.
Ancient Greek Music was never far away from the great religious festivals. The two most important Athenian music festivals in Ancient Greece, the Panathenaia and the Great Dionysia, were reorganized and expanded in the latter part of the sixth century BC, and in their developed form involved a great deal of music.
By far the greater part of Greek music — as of ethnic music overall — consisted of song, either solo or choral. Instruments were sometimes played on their own, but mostly they served to accompany the human voice. There normally was such accompaniment (except when someone was singing to entertain himself while doing some- thing else), but its role was subordinate.
Elements and Specimens of the Ancient Greek Music
It is conventional, in writing about ancient Greek music, to voice a lament that ‘the music itself’ is almost entirely lost. So far as its melodic lines are concerned, this is true: we have only a few dozen specimens to represent a thousand years’ a line complete, and nearly all are from compositions of post-music.
Of all the great quantity of music composed over the centuries between (say) 600 BC and AD 400, of which a significant fraction might have been written down at some time or other, we have only a miserably small collection of scores, ranging in length from the second Delphic Paian, which may have lasted about 15 minutes in performance, to some minute fragments containing less than a dozen words, and less than the full complement of notes.
Moreover, apart from two small fragments which may have been composed by Euripides we have no remains of the sixth or fifth centuries BC—the great periods of lyric poetry, tragedy and comedy. The two Delphic paians are the earliest substantial pieces that we have, and they date from late in the second century BC.
There is much doubt and dispute about how many musical scores were actually written out in antiquity. The plays of the fifth-century dramatists seem to have been available to the public in written form fairly soon after the original production.
It is as well to remember that these texts were copied out laboriously by hand; apparently an editor would read out from a master text, and a group of copyists would take it down from his dictation; it must have been a very tedious and lengthy process.
These texts are very unlikely to have contained musical notation, since only a very small minority of professional musicians would have wanted it, or been able to use it, and only the composer and a few of the musicians would have been able to write it.
However, music experts today find the roots of the Byzantine music and some genres of modern Greek Music in the Ancient Greek music, giving us hints on how the overall sound and rhythm of Ancient Greek music would sound like.