Music of Ancient Greece

Music of Ancient Greece

Overview of Greek music – The music of Greece developed with strong influence from the Egyptian, Phoenician, and Asian cultures. There is evidence of music in every aspect of Greek culture.  The word “music” comes from the Muses, who were the daughters of Zeus.

The Greeks believed that Apollo and Dionysus together created music.  Apollo was god of the sun, order, clarity, and the mind.  Apollo’s intstrument was the kithara (lyre), a string instrument.  Dionysus was the god of wine, parties, frivolity, and emotion.  Dionysus’ instrument was the aulos, which is a reed woodwind instrument.

We have extensive knowledge of the music theory and musical philosophy of Ancient Greece, but there is very little surviving music.  We have two full pieces and a few fragments.  Most of ancient Greek music was notated on fragile media.  The medieval church was responsible for maintaining the information and history about Greece in general.

A tetrachord consists of four pitches.  Greek tetrachords serve as the basis for our modern scales.  There were three types of tetrachords (genera) in ancient Greece, the diatonic, the chromatic, and and the enharmonic.  The outer two tones of all the genera are the interval of a perfect fourth.  Two tetrachords were combined to produce the scale.  They could be connected with a pitch in common (conjunct) or without a pitch in common (disjunct).  Our modern scale is the result of alternating conjunct and disjunct tetrachords.  The ancient Greek modes were formed utiziling these tetrachords.

Ancient Greek language is believed to have been intoned.  The language itself was musical.  The tetrachords arose from these various intonations.  It is believed that the text of ancient Greek drama was sung, rather than spoken.

Mese was the name of the tonal center in the Greek scale.

Proslambanomenos – The added note — The Greek modes combine conjunct and disjunct tetrachords.  Proslambanomenos is the note that completes the mode.

The Doctrine of Ethos:  The Ancient Greeks believed that each of the modes has a certain character, or should be performed in a certain environment.  A mode might signify love, while another might signify war.  His his writings, Plato discusses the appropriateness or inappropriateness of certain modes in certain settings.  This is akin to the ragas of India.

Plato believed that the study of music was an essential part of education.

Pythagoras studied the  relationship between pitches.  He found that the unison, 1:1, the octave, 2:1, the fifth, 3:2, and the fourth, 4:3  He produced documents about this subject.  The relationships he found were accurate.

The Epitaph of Seikilos one of the extant pieces of music that is complete.

The Myth of Pan – Pan is the god of nature, half man, half goat.  Pan was very scary.  God of fertility. Pan is in love with Syrinx.  Syrinx is afraid of Pan.  She goes to Zeus, who disguises Syrinx as reeds in a river.   Pan is angered and cuts the reeds with a knife.  The then puts the reeds together into a musical instrument called Panpipes, or The Syrinx.

The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – Orpheus is a wonderful singer.  He marries Eurydice, but she is bitten by a snake and dies.  She enters the underworld.  Orpheus goes to Hades to ask that Eurydice be released to the earth again.  She is released with the condition that she follow Orpheus back to earth and that he doesn’t look back.  He looks back too soon, and Eurydice returns to the underworld forever.  Orpheus is later beset by gnome-like creatures who tear him apart.  His head floats on a raft to the Mediterranean, still singing.  His head is rescued and buried on an island in the Mediterranean.


1.  Define Dionysian and Apollonian.

2.  What were the three types of tetrachords?

3 Define conjunct and disjunct tetrachords.

4. Discuss the work of Pythagoras as to how it pertains to our study of music.

5.  Define the Doctrine of Ethos.

6.  Discuss either the myth of Pan or the myth of Orpheus.

7.  Define Proslambanomenos.