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The Ancient Greek aulos

The aulos is a double-reeded pipe, like an oboe (though it’s sometimes played with a single reed, like a clarinet) made out of bamboo and bone. This 1st century AD mosaic from the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii shows a piper playing two auli at once, surrounded by actors in goatskin dresses and theatrical masks.

Traditionally, you play two auli at once. This allows you to harmonize with yourself, and anyhow each aulos has only 1/2 of the notes in a scale, so you need two auli to play a complete scale.

While the lyre is associated with Apollo, the aulos is associated with Dionysus.

Here is a 2-minute aulos performance by Prof. Stefan Hagel.

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Song Of Seikilos

2,000 years ago Seikilos wrote a song for Euterpe, and carved it into her tombstone. Today it’s the oldest surviving complete song in the world.

Here’s an English translation of the song’s lyrics:

While you live, shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
and Time demands his due.

The lyrics give us the song’s time signature. The notes above the lyrics indicate what pitches to sing, and how long to sing them for. Here’s what it would look like if you stretched it out flat:

Here’s what it looks like transcribed into modern letters on a clean background:

Here’s one way to annotate it in modern musical notation:

And here’s a 3-minute performance of the piece.

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Fresco of Actor & Lyre Player

This 1st century AD fresco from Pompeii shows a singer/actor with his theatrical mask on the top of his head, and a lyre player playing a 9-string lyre.

Homer’s Iliad is traditionally performed by two such people. Indeed, at the time, the Iliad was the most popular show in Ancient Rome. Each line in the Iliad is played to six beats, and sung to notes on the lyre tuned to the enharmonic genus, playing notes in the ancient dorian scale.

So, we know the musical chords Homer composed for the Iliad. We know the drum beats. We know the lyrics. We just don’t know the melody.

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Ancient Greek poetry is musical theater

The oldest known Greek poet was Homer. His poetry was set to music and sung out loud in public theaters like this one, built in Epidaurus in the 4th century BC.

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The Ancient Greek hydraulis

The hydraulis is a hand-powered organ. Just like a pipe organ in a modern church, the hydraulis makes sound by blowing air through pipes, and is played by pressing keys on a keyboard. This 2-minute video demonstrates what a Roman replica sounds like.

The word “hydraulis” literally means “water-pipe” because water (“hydra”) is used to deliver steady air pressure to a pipe (“aulos”).

This 2-minute video shows a hydraulis performance with a closer look at how the organ works.

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What Ancient Greek Music looks like

This shows the first and second verses of the First Delphic Hymn to Apollo, carved in marble for the Athenian Pythaides festival in 128 BC in Delphi. The composer’s name is Athenaios Athenaiou (Athenaios, son of Athenaios).

The melody is written above the lyrics, and shows which notes to sing (according to the Greater Perfect System).

The rhythm is inherent in the poetics of the verse. For example, we see cretics (instead of, say, iambs or dactyls) so we know the time signature is 5/8.

Here is a performance of the hymn.

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The Ancient Greek kithara

The Ancient Greek kithara gives us the word “guitar”.

This 5-minute video shows Professor Stefan Hagel explaining some basics of Ancient Greek music, followed by a nice performance demonstrating what the kithara sounds like in the diatonic genus.

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What Ancient Greek music sounds like

This 16-minute video is an interesting attempt to recreate authentic Ancient Greek music.

They cover some fundamental instruments like the kithara and the aulos. They play a jazzy version of Homer. It finishes with a really cool semi-authentic performance of the actual music Euripides composed for Orestes, which was a musical, not a play.

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The Greater Perfect System

For some 500 years in Ancient Greece, the standard music system was called the “Greater Perfect System”. This diagram here shows all of the notes in the diatonic genus of the Hypolydian tonos (or tropos). The full system includes 21 notes per octave, so the genus (whether diatonic, chromatic, or enharmonic) limits each octave to a more manageable 7-note “scale”. The full system also includes 15 different “keys”, so the tonos defines the scale’s lowest bass note (or proslambenomenos), here at around 110Hz. In other words, Aristoxenus would say these notes make up the diatonic genus in the Hypolydian tonos, and Mozart would say they make up a minor scale in the key of A.

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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.