A musician playing an instrument called the aulos. Credit: Public Domain
Music was ubiquitous in ancient Greece, but somewhere along the line, the way in which it was composed and sounded during its time was tragically lost, leaving its undoubted beauties a mystery to us today.
The question of what ancient Greek music must have sounded like is an enigma that has haunted many scholars for centuries.
Armand D’Angour, a classical musician and professor of history at the University of Oxford, has brought ancient Greek music back to life. Speaking of his research to the BBC, he said: “Suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of the Beatles songs were a few of the lyrics, and all that remained of Mozart and Verdi’s operas were the words and not the music.
“Imagine if we could then reconstruct the music, rediscover the instruments that played them, and hear the words once again in their proper setting, how exciting that would be. This is about to happen with the classic texts of ancient Greece.”
Music was omnipresent in antiquity
It is well documented that the poetry in ancient Greece from 750 BC to 350 BC was created alongside the songs of Homer, Sappho and others, and was sung as music, sometimes accompanied by dance.
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Also, researchers have long known what instruments were popular in ancient Greece, such as the lyre, along with the aulos. However, how all of this came together to make music was a puzzle that no one could seem to put together.
The problem researchers faced is that the music composed in ancient Greece had unique and unfamiliar terms and notations found in ancient sources, such as mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on.
Whenever there was an attempt to reconstruct the ancient music based on the limited understanding of the symbols, it produced a strange-sounding compilation; therefore, many considered the music of ancient Greece to be a lost art.
Recreating ancient Greek music
New discoveries have helped link some of the missing pieces of the puzzle, however. The source of this new information helping uncover ancient Greek music and its sound is the plethora of texts saved from that era.
Dating back to around 450 BC, the texts are engraved with a phonetic notation and consist of alphabetical letters and signs placed over the vowels of the Greek words.
Professor D’Angour explains that the music tempo can be found in the words and syllables of these ancient writings, while depictions of various musical instruments in paintings and archaeological findings allow researchers to reproduce the depth and range of sounds that they produced.
“While the documents, found etched in stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, have long been known to classicists — some were published as early as 1581 — in recent decades they have been augmented by new finds. Dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, these fragments offer us a clearer view than ever before of the music of ancient Greece,” says Professor D’Angour.
Are you curious as to how ancient Greek music sounded? Check out the video below.