NeoClassical Theory & Criticism
From marriages, religious ceremonies, to theatre, folk music, or the ballad-like reciting of poetry, music in Ancient Greece was vital in their ever growing cultural society. Interestingly enough, the way we incorporate music in our daily lives is extremely similar to how the Greeks used music in their society. Music theory and the use of mathematics in musical notation, the ethical power of music, and also the philosophy of music are some of the most important pieces we gain from the Ancient Greeks. Much of what defines western culture in philosophy, science, and the arts has origins from Ancient Greek culture; music being one of them.
There are many Ancient Greek musical concepts that have been passed on to Western Culture. For example, our turning system was developed by Pythagoras who used math to form precise octaves, fourths and fifths, which lasted until the late 15th century. According to Neil Bibby, from Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, he explains, “In Ancient Greek times it was recognized that consonant musical sounds relate to simple number ratios. In using this insight to construct a scale of notes for tuning an instrument, problems arise.” This solution to this problem was discovered in European music from centuries ago where they used mathematics to create an equal-tempered scale. Along with this, musical notation can notably be traced back to the Ancient Greek alphabet. Several compositions and fragments of compositions using this ancient notation survive. The notation consists of symbols placed above text syllable, and an important example of this is the Epitaph of Seikilos which has been dated between the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. It is notoriously the oldest known complete song, and is found with lyrics and music notation carved on a tombstone in what is now on display in a museum in Denmark. Musicologists find that it is written in a scale on A in the Mixolydian mode, which was quite common in the musical theory of Ancient Greece. There are fifty-two surviving pieces of Greek music, but sadly they are in fragmentary form. A musical excerpt from Euripides’ play Orestes survives, as does an inscription of music from the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. In addition to all of this, our system of consonance and dissonance lasted well into the fourteenth century. The octave modal scale systems of seven pitches in whole-step and half-step increments was another huge contribution. Musical terms such as scale, diatonic, chromatic, enharmonic, were also derived from the Greeks and is still widely used today. In modern day music theory, we use these terms when regarding music.
Many Greek philosophers believed that music was a delightful amusement. However, some also believed it could contribute to specific human behavior. One of the many unique contributions the Ancient Greeks made to the history and development of music is how music can have a moral and emotional effect on the listener’s soul. Thus, music has an ethical role in society. After acknowledging this, a system of modes that related to particular emotional or spiritual characteristics was developed. The names for these various modes were established from the names of important Greek tribes and peoples. The temperament and emotions were said to be characterized by the unique sound of each mode. Some argue that the most respected mode was Dorian, and was known to be associated with Apollo. The Ethical View of Music in Ancient Greece explains, “Music is both a cure and a cause of the disturbance, for if it does not produce it altogether, it certainly brings about an intensification. The resultant cure, accordingly, is homeopathic rather than allopathic; the final calm, or exhaustion, is the the outcome of soothing music but of catharsis or emotional discharge.” Thus, Ancient Greeks believed music has a huge impact on emotions and actions, which collided with how religious figures accepted music as an art rather than using music as a way to connect to or praise a higher power.
In Ancient Greece, music was a commodity during a symposium or all-male drinking party. After the meal and drinks were finished, the men would often sing a song, known as a skolia with an aulos, lyre, or barbiton providing backing music to what was being sung. Often, they would sing satirical songs known as silloi. Finally, at the end of the evening, it was common for the group to take to the streets as a komos, or a band of revellers. They would sing and dance along the ancient streets of Greece. Mark Cartwright, who wrote Ancient Greek Music, explains “Women could also enjoy music in the privacy of their homes. Usually women played stringed instruments and recited poetry to music. In addition, household chores such as weaving and baking were done to music. Children too sang songs (agermos) at people’s doors to receive small-change and sweets just as carol-singers do today”. How music was used in celebrations and festivities could seem similar to how music is widely used in Western Culture. Therefore, how we celebrate our connection to music could be considered to be passed down from the Greeks. Not only was music used for pleasure, it was also used in education. This is super interesting because in today’s society we have various music based Universities where students can study music theory, music therapy, music composition and much more. The way we celebrate music can be traced back to the Greeks; weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, other religious ceremonies, and throughout Church and other religious prayers music can be used in festivities just like the Greeks did. That is a huge connection to how similar we celebrate music thanks to the Greeks.
“Plato informs us that the first schools dedicated to musical education were created by the Cretans. However, the heyday of music in the classroom was during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE when schools of music were established in Athens where pupils aged between thirteen and sixteen were taught to play the lyre and kithara and to sing, accompanied by their teacher on the aulos. Music taught discipline and order and allowed the educated to better appreciate musical performance. Athletics and other sporting activities, another major element of the Greek education, were also done accompanied to music, particularly in order to increase synchronization.”
The philosophy behind music in Ancient Greece also has an interesting correlation to how we think of music in modern society. The notorious philosopher named Plato discusses the proper use of various modes including Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and others. Interestingly enough, Plato banned instruments capable of producing all of the scales. Over-complicated rhythms and music with a fast tempo were considered morally dangerous in the great philosopher’s ideal republic.
He later wrote a complaint about the modern music of his time explaining that,
“Our music was once divided into its proper forms. There were no whistles, unmusical mob-noises, or clapping for applause. The rule was to listen silently and learn; boys, teachers, and the crowd were kept in order by threat of the stick. . . . But later, an unmusical anarchy was led by poets who had natural talent, but were ignorant of the laws of music…Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave.”
This can be relatable to our modern society because many religions such as Islam, Mormonism, and Orthodox Jews believe that the type of music you listen to can alter your spirit or moral behavior. In Judaism, they believe heavily on this philosophy by only letting Orthodox and Chabad Jews listen to religious music only. They believe that trap, R&B, rap, and pop music are not sacred and is therefore perceived as a sin. Listening to music other than for religious purposes is not allowed in that sect of the religion.
In conclusion, the way we incorporate music today is analogous of how the Greeks used music in the past. The Greeks provided us with many significant contributions to our music such as our turning system, a moral and ethical effect upon the listener, how we use music during celebrations, and the belief that music changes your attitude. The Greeks were immensely influential to music in our society and without them, music would be unrecognizable.
Fauvel, John., Raymond. Flood, and Robin J. Wilson. Music and Mathematics : From Pythagoras to Fractals. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Lippman, Edward A. “The Sources and Development of the Ethical View of Music in Ancient Greece.” The Musical Quarterly 49, no. 2 (1963): 188-209. http://www.jstor.org/stable/740645.
Landels, John G. Music in Ancient Greece and Rome. London: Routledge, 2007.
University of Western Michigan College of Music. University of Western Michigan. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://www.wmich.edu/mus-gened/mus170/AncientGreekMusic.html.
Mark Cartwright. “Ancient Greek Music,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 05, 2013. http://www.ancient.eu /Greek_Music/.