MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Score to Ancient Greece

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Oxford Classics scholar Armand D’Angour describes how researchers are on the verge of a breakthrough in being able to “reconstruct” the music that was known to have accompanied such seminal texts as the Homeric epics, the great tragedies, and Sappho’s lyric poetry:

The rhythms – perhaps the most important aspect of music – are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.

The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

He asks what Greek music would have sounded like:

Homer tells us that bards of his period sang to a four-stringed lyre, called a “phorminx”. Those strings will probably have been tuned to the four notes that survived at the core of the later Greek scale systems.

Professor Martin West of Oxford has reconstructed the singing of Homer on that basis. The result is a fairly monotonous tune, which probably explains why the tradition of Homeric recitation without melody emerged from what was originally a sung composition.

Filed under: classical literature, musical research

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Jonathan Bellman at Dial ‘M’ for Musicology rolled his eyes entertainingly at the press reports on Greek music on the grounds that what is being reported is not new:

    I love Dial M; Jonathan and Phil Ford are both extremely smart and interesting musicologists and writers.

  2. Thomas May says:

    Thanks for the comment, Lisa. Dial M looks like a great blog. Yes, no doubt classicists are bemused whenever something like this (briefly, of course) becomes a news meme. They’re absolutely right there’s nothing new here, just as I’m sure English linguists must be amazed by the mileage Benjamin Bagby gets each time he does his musical reconstructions of ‘Beowulf.’ I just thought it was interesting to show that the topic of music in antiquity is still inspiring people today – and also the irony of the distance between old romantic notions of music of the spheres and how limited the actual musical component appears to have been (basically just recit).


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