The Ancients’ Greatest Hits – The Music Of Ghosts: The Greeks

Music as an art form has existed for millennia. But music as an idea, just noise with a pattern, that pre-dates, well, dates.

It has been used by cultures long past, as today, to try and understand the world around them, to worship the forces they cannot see, and to be the magic carpet on which the epics are told.Msic is a cognitive recognition of the primitive elements in all of us, the exact same primitive elements that have existed all through our evolution, love, greed, loss, jealousy, hate. These have been a staple part of what makes us as a species just that little bit extra special. It is true that in the animal kingdom music is used to communicate, to attract the opposite sex, and to display affection and fear. But mankind has truly harnessed it’s power, and uses it to spectacular effect. It draws people worldwide together, a simple chord or a melody can transform strangers to friends.

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Through the study of archaeomusicology (glorious title isn’t it?) we can now attempt to discover whether these elements were the same through early history and thanks to the knights of experimental archaeology building the instruments of yesteryear,  those voices can be dragged from the depths of the unknown once more, and fill our ears with a cacophony long since lost to the unrelenting sands of time.

Archaeomusicology as a contextual entity is huge, covering wide areas and is the final product of a synergy of many disciplines. In this piece I will concentrate on the music of Ancient Greece, not a specific era, but the all encompassing umbrella applied to ‘Classical Greece’. I cannot alas, cover everything, but I have attempted to highlight specific areas and will write follow-ups to try to broaden the picture of the music and it’s cultural standing in Ancient Greece.

In this piece I will focus primarily on the mathematics and the minds associated with it’s growth and perception. This is due to the fact that Greece was and is enormously important in our understanding in the evolution of music in the ancient world. It really is a great place to start, because the word ‘music’ is derived from the Greek ‘mousikos’ which means ‘of the muses'(1).

To help plunge into this wonderful world there are numerous sources from which we can draw from. Mainly being illustrations on ceramics of musicians and instruments, and the archaeological record has been invaluable as ever in the understanding of the literary sources to link the practical and the theoretical. Furthermore we even have examples of sheet music from the later era. So without further ado, music maestro please…

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The music is everywhere, in everything….

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.’- Plato (2)

To say music was important to the Greeks would be a gross understatement, not unlike today it was present in all parts of society ranging from religious festivals to the theatre and other events, such as marriages and funerals, and of course the ancient party scene like banquets and the reciting of poetry. However more importance was attached to the music in society than today(3)  Inasmuch as the ability to play music was the definitive sign of a gentleman that could, at the drop of a hat pick up an instrument and play with perfect fluidity and grace.

In effect it was the ultimate sign of the highest education and the feeding from the breast of cultural nourishment. Much like throughout the Middle Ages and the famous age of the Renaissance in the 18th century. It was less the sign of expression, and more to appreciate the skill and the knowledge of the science and the application of it’s modes. It was generally felt that it gave the men of Greece a certain edge in life, it could change who you were, to put it in the words of Aristotle:

“Music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young.”- Aristotle

As with everything, there were rules devised to keep music in check and much stress was put upon the three principal modes of music in Greece, these were:

1)  The Dorian Mode: The lowest in pitch and mostly used for dances and martial songs.

2)  The Phrygian Mode: Known for it’s wild sounding notes (which today are all the white notes on a piano D to D)

3)  The Lydian Mode: This was the music mostly utilised for romantic, sweeping melodies. And condemned mostly for it’s over-sensuality(3)

These were the basic rules and processes applied to all music, think of it as you would have dance music in a club atmosphere, classical music for the high brow events etc. These were strict and had to be adhered to.

Yes it is the Greeks we’re talking about here, and they can’t get anything done without dragging mathematics and philosophy into the mix….

Take it from the top in the key of Pythagoras…(you know him, the triangle guy)

The great philosophers throughout this period were very serious on the mathematical processes involved with music and felt that music should be kept with a uniformed rigidity that adhered within these specific laws.

As the title suggests I will tell you the story of Pythagoras of Samos (died around 495 BC) (5)  and the discovery of the ratio laws of harmonics and intervals. Musicians today tip their hats to him because although music as an entity was around for a long time before him, he is credited to be the first to devote a lot of time to the research undertaken to understand music and the relationship between mathematics and the notes played. I ask you faithful reader to bear with me on this, it is integral to the growth and evolution of music as an entity and vital to the story of Greek music, but being musical theory it is a little boring….

When Pythagoras actually did this is not known but the story goes a little something like this….

One day in our man Pythagoras was walking along casually being a genius the same as he did everyday when he happened upon a blacksmith hammering away in his shed (I presume it was a shed) Anyway, something struck Pythagoras. The noises that were being produced by the smith hitting his hammer on the anvil were different, yet it was like the notes were talking to one another. Obviously being the great mind he was Pythagoras’ first instinct was to wonder as to the mathematical processes this consonance could be attributed to and pinned down by. So he just had to investigate and ventured into the blacksmiths’ shed to see for himself the root of it.

What he discovered upon gazing at the tools the blacksmith was using was thus; the sizes of the hammers were all different, such as one was half the weight of another, and then an equal proportional ratio larger and smaller and so on. And each when separately hitting the anvil he noticed that a large hammer would make the same note as a small hammer…..producing a harmony an octave higher or lower. Suffice to say  Pythagoras was beside himself, called his assistant and rushed home to write this all down, his mouth watering at the impending mathematical conundrum he was going to solve…..

I’m going to stop there. Yes it is a wonderful story but alas, it’s almost certainly not true. The ‘Ratio Theory’ works does indeed work with perfect harmony (pun certainly intended)…but not with hammers or weight. Without getting too technical, where this theory is perfect is in regards to string length applied with equal tension and the intervals applied are all down to the ratio of string length. So we can now reasonably summarise that Pythagoras must have discovered this with strings, not different sized bells and hammers as the legend tells us.  In doing so, he is credited now with this story and the mathematical relationship in the discovery of a primitive whole tone five note minor scale that is still taught and used today.

Albeit it is not hugely popular as it somewhat restrictive with it’s whole tone structure and was to prove a headache in the Middle Ages with the advent of more adventurous music. For example, the ‘Happy Birthday’ tune is based around this system, but if you tried to play something a little more complex and deep, the scale would somewhat let you down in terms of variety and the broader spectrum of innovation.(The term for this is Pythagoras’ Comma) But in Greece at the time, this theory of mathematical application was to have a profound effect.

Phew…okay I promise we’re done with the musical theory part. The point is is that Pythagoras relatively early on discovered the science of harmonics and intervals and crucially this was to provide the Greek world with a musical revolution that would really give poor old Plato a headache and give birth to what could best be described as the first punk and rock and roll movement….

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Paddy Lambert
Paddy Lambert
Paddy Lambert is a student of archaeology and a regular contributor to Heritage Daily. Paddy has excavated sites within the UK and France where he supervises and teaches archaeology to the general public as part of an outreach project to raise awareness of the discipline.

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