Haunting Voices of the Past: Ancient Greek Music Reconstructed

Delphi: ApollEver wonder what Greek music sounded like circa 450 BC? Well, a bunch of smart people came together and figured out vocal notation on Greek pottery. Voila. The ghosts of the ancient world sing again.

via Open Culture via BBC:

[Ancient Greek] 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.

The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch.

David Cleese, a classicist from the University of Newcastle, brings this notation to life through this recording. Listen here: What Ancient Greek Music Sounded Like

If you like this sort of thing, be sure to check out Hear the Epic of Gilgamesh Read in the Original Akkadian, where the sounds of ancient Mesopotamia reach out from the past, and speak to us again.


Jeremy D. Johnson

Jeremy is a writer of short stories and essays, a blogger, rogue academic and new media scholar. He received his MA from Goddard in Consciousness Studies and a BA from Fordham in Sociology. Exploring the interstices of myth, media and religious experience, his writing attempts to outline the direction of our interconnected age and an integral culture.

8 Comments on "Haunting Voices of the Past: Ancient Greek Music Reconstructed"

  1. kowalityjesus | Oct 31, 2013 at 10:39 pm |

    Interesting… Dorian, and the only discernible difference from modern tuning is the raised 7. That is what I would guess makes it sound “middle eastern.” I recorded a minstrel this summer who played troubadour music from 1200s south France singing in Tuscan. “It sounds like Arabic music” is the first comment my brother made when listening to it. Maybe Arabic music just sounds like “old” music, and we can thank pioneering European musicians of the last 500 years that we are no longer listening to it everywhere.

    • Marcus Cross | Nov 1, 2013 at 4:06 pm |

      It’s called “The Epitaph of Seikilos,” and was inscribed on a tombstone dating from 1st century AD that was found in what is now southwestern Turkey near the modern city of Aydin. That’s likely why one can hear Middle-Eastern influence in it. It’s the earliest known transcription of music in the entire world. and has no similarities to modern notation. It only worked out the way it did when they applied the vocal notation system mentioned in the article – that was devised a full 300-some years after the inscription was made. Cool, yes?

    • InfvoCuernos | Nov 1, 2013 at 10:02 pm |

      It wouldn’t be the first Greek thing the Arabs preserved while Europe was in the Mosh they call the Dark Ages.

    • Thanks for that information! Yes it’s interesting to ponder that. Adds some perspective to what we musically take for granted as “Western,” might in fact be quite novel to the rest of the world.

  2. Tchoutoye | Nov 1, 2013 at 6:02 am |

    The track linked to on Soundcloud is the Epitaph of Seikilos from the 1st century AD. It’s the most well known piece of ancient Greek music to have survived. The first modern day recording of it (and still the best) is by Atrium Musicae de Madrid in 1979. De Organographia, Petros Tabouris and Christodoulos Halaris have also recorded it.

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