Armand D'Angour, Associate Professor of Classics at Oxford and a musician, recently put together this lovely write-up of the evolution of understanding ancient Hellenic music. I found it to be very educational and I hope you will enjoy it as well. For the full article, go here.

"Music was as central to Greek life as it is to ours. Greeks believed that music had the power to captivate and enchant. In the fifth century BC, the music of Athenian theatre was enjoyed by tens of thousands of listeners. Top performers were treated like pop stars.

We know that music—singing, playing instruments, and dancing—was a significant part of ancient Greek life, from the time of Homer in the 8th century BC for hundreds of years. It was used in religious worship, formal and informal entertainment and banquets, ceremonial occasions such as weddings and victory celebrations, and even in work settings where the aulos (double-pipe) was said to provide a rhythm for workers. Above all, however, we know that the surviving texts of most ancient poetry were sung to music.

The principal components of Greek music—as of all music—were the voice, instruments, rhythms, and melodies. The instruments are well known from ancient paintings and surviving relics, some in excellent condition. Two main kinds of instrument, the double-pipe (aulos) and the lyre, were used to accompany song. 

Until recently, people thought we knew nothing of ancient tunes, but scholarship has now accurately deciphered marks on stone and papyrus that reveal songs and scraps of tunes, some of which haven’t been heard for 2000 years. The extraction of melody from the markings was allowed thanks to a comprehensive set of tables preserved from around the 5th century AD, by an otherwise unknown author called Alypius. Alypius listed the notations used to indicate vocal and instrumental melody, informing us what modes different marks could refer to and explaining the relative intervals.

A later author, the mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, who also wrote about music in the 2nd century AD, gives us very precise details of the tuning of the seven- or eight-stringed lyres. He constructed an 8-stringed ‘octachord’ with moveable bridges, and measured the proportions of the strings in order to specify their pitch. As a result, we are able to reconstruct stringed instruments and tune them exactly as they would have been tuned in his time.

Scraps of papyrus with musical notation began to appear as early as the 16th century, and Florentine musicians were excited to try and rediscover the music of ancient Greece. However, they found that the indications were too slight for them to make good sense of the music, and they went their own way in creating opera and oratorio.

Over the past few hundred years, however, more papyri have come to light, as well as stone inscriptions with large amounts of musical notation. From them we are able to reconstruct the sounds of music that would have been sung and played. There are around two dozen melodies that have been transcribed and are able to be performed along with texts which provide the intrinsic rhythm—Greek words consisted of long and short syllables."