Euripides wrote musicals, not plays

People perform the works of Euripides today as a play (without music) often unaware that they were written as musicals.

If you’ve ever seen the famous Orestes by Euripides, composed in 408 BC, you probably saw a stage play with no music and no singing.

But this fragment, written 125 years after Orestes was composed, actually shows the melody, and proves it was a musical.

In Euripides’s Greece, according to the “Greater Perfect System”, each octave is divided into exactly 21 notes, and each note is assigned a letter of the alphabet. You can indicate which octave the note belongs to by turning the letter on its side, inverting it, or amending it. In this way, the Ancient Greeks wrote music with letters instead of drawing music as dots. We do this today (a melody line can be written E4, A4, B4, C5) but our octave is limited to twelve notes.

This fragment shows six well-known lines from Orestes, with the musical notes above them indicating which notes to sing, and rhythm marks indicating the timing.

It’s fortunate we know all the lyrics for Orestes, but sad this is all we know of its music.