Greece always reserved a special place for music. Its philosophical and mythological narratives were delivered musically. Marriages, theatre, folk display and poetry performances featured enough music to make it an indispensable aspect of ancient Greek life. Epitaph of Seikilos is an example of the oldest, complete musical composition.
The instruments used to create this music were discovered from archaeological remains — wall paintings and representations on pottery and sculptures. Other components of music were also gleaned from these remains, and re-creations were endeavoured. This music has a haunting quality, and the silence between sounds seems to provide an access to something more universally powerful. Philosophers Aristotle and Plato’s observations on the effects of musical modes (a set of musical notes or a minor scale) on moods highlighted that the Dorian mode increased courage and the Phrygian mode fostered thoughtfulness in people. Since the influence of music on people has remained strong, Greek’s ancient music is now a subject of research.
Armand D’Angour, who teaches Classics at Jesus College, Oxford, with a specialisation in the culture of ancient Greece, is trying to re-create Greek music. He shared some of his observations: “The latest Greek musical texts from the second and third centuries AD resemble early Church plainchant, the ancestors of Western music. But the music and the earliest texts, which may date from the fifth century BC, sound less Western and more oriental. The way melodic conventions were applied is comparable to Indian ragas in some cases.”
Drawing from his study, D’Angour said that “a great deal of Greek music was used during religious occasions and rituals, but a section of texts were set to music that accompanied erotic and political songs. Such songs were sung in adult male gatherings called symposia to the accompaniment of the lyre or the pipes — the two main families of instruments played then.”
Interestingly, a large concert lyre was called the ‘kithara’, a name that underlies ‘guitar’. The pipes were played in pairs, as they are played now in the island of Sardinia. “Listening to modern players gives us an indication of how the pipes sounded in ancient times,” the classical scholar said.
D’Angour embarked on this project “because scholarships now allow us to hear the music in authentic ways.” As a former professional musician, it is something he felt he should do “to make sure the music can be properly understood and brought to life. I will be trying to get closer to ancient Greek music, even if it doesn’t appeal as much to the modern listener.”