What did the Ancient Greeks sing? We have the words in the love poetry of Sappho, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” of Homer and the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, among others, sung as they were to the sound of lyres, pipes, and drums.
Music was a major part of ancient Greek entertainment, occurring at the theater and in halls and dining chambers as actors and bards sung tales either ancient and dark or comedic. It was television, the Internet, and the movies all in one in a pre electricity age.
But how did the music sound? It was thought that the music of the ancient Greeks had been lost forever. Not so suggests a recent article for the BBC.
“The rhythms – perhaps the most important aspect of music – are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.
“The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.
“And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.
“The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.
“The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch: letter A at the top of the scale, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can be worked out from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.”
IO9 has an article that includes a recording of what a snippet of ancient Greek music might have sounded like, performed by Newcastle University’s David Creese on an instrument known as a “canon” an eight string instrument resembling a modern zither with a moveable bridge.
Ancient Greek music was different than modern music, more resembling folk music from the Middle East and India, with differently tuned instruments and different approaches to pitch, with it increasing on some syllables, decreasing on others. Homer, the most famous ancient Greek singer of them all, accompanied himself on a four string lyre tuned to just four notes. The music of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” as reconstructed by scholars is said to be quite monotonous, which led to a tradition of the two works being recited with accompaniment.
Euripides, on the other hand, is said to be avant-garde in his approach to music, almost modern to the 21st Century ear. It abandoned the idea of word pitch, but embraced the idea of cadence, slow and mournful or quick and spritely as the occasion called for it.
Scholars continue to reconstruct ancient Greek music. Perhaps, one day, we shall hear “The Trojan Women” as it was first heard in Athens, 25 centuries ago.