What did ancient Greek music sound like?

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Artistic Licence: What did ancient Greek music sound like?

Laura Spence

It's a question many people thought would be impossible to answer: what did ancient Greek music sound like? Too much time had passed, and the evidence necessary to recreate and experience the sounds that the ancient Greeks heard was thought not to exist.

Professor Armand D'Angour of Oxford's Faculty of Classics thought otherwise.

It has long been taught that Hebrew liturgical music underpinned the ninth-century Gregorian plainchant that lies at the root of the history of Western music. However, Professor D'Angour's groundbreaking research has now shown that elements of the West's musical idioms may be traced much further back in time, indicating that our music has a clear basis in much earlier European practices.

Although ancient Greek music has been investigated intensively since the 16th century, for 500 years it seemed impossible to get a sense of what it would have sounded like. Now, sounds not heard for 2,000 years can be experienced thanks to collaborative research in reconstructing the melodies, instruments and rhythms. Over the past five years, accurate replicas of ancient Greek instruments have been created and have been used in performing scored texts of ancient works surviving on papyrus and stone. Auloi (double pipes played using circular breathing techniques) have been reconstructed, including one from an original second-century instrument now on display in the Louvre. The kithara (a stringed instrument that was used as a large concert lyre) has been remodelled with reference to images found on ancient vases. The integration of these instruments into this research gives an authentic feel to the sounds that we hear.

The texts of ancient Greek poetry were intended to be sung or spoken along with music. The earliest music that may be speculatively recreated is that of Homer, who composed his epics around 700 BC to the accompaniment of a four-stringed lyre. The sound of epic song has been recreated (following work by the late Professor Martin West) using the four notes that would have been available to Homer, and improvised on the basis of the pitch inflections of ancient Greek (in which the syllables of words went up and down in pitch at specified places).

In other cases, fragments of the melody and rhythms have survived to give a more complete sense of the original piece. The most valuable of these is a papyrus fragment with the music from a tragedy, Euripides' Orestes, originally produced in 408 BC. Another source, a stone tablet from Delphi, shows the melodic notation of Athenaeus' Paean from 127 BC. Professor D'Angour has worked to fill in the gaps, and the performance of these pieces provides a thrilling insight into what the ancient Greeks would have heard.

So what's next? Currently, Professor D'Angour is working with around 30 further documents of ancient music to continue to recreate the works that were played and sung. The aspiration is to put on, for the first time since antiquity, an ancient tragedy accompanied by the kind of music that it would originally have been accompanied by, perhaps in one of the great theatres that survive from the ancient world.