What Ancient Greek Music Sounded Like: Hear a Reconstruction That is ‘100% Accurate’

in History, Music | October 30th, 2013

1what_greek_music_sounded_like

Between 750 BC and 400 BC, the Ancient Greeks composed songs meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and various percussion instruments. More than 2,000 years later, modern scholars have finally figured out how to reconstruct and perform these songs with (it’s claimed) 100% accuracy.

Writing on the BBC web site, Armand D’Angour,  a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University, notes:

[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.

So what did Greek music sound like? Below you can listen to David Creese, a classicist from the University of Newcastle, playing “an ancient Greek song taken from stone inscriptions constructed on an eight-string ‘canon’ (a zither-like instrument) with movable bridges. “The tune is credited to Seikilos,” says Archaeology Magazine.

For more information on all of this, read D’Angour’s article over at the BBC.

via BoingBoing

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Comments (89)

  1. ThornyBleeder says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 10:18 am

    very cool. kinda’ sounds like Black Eyed Dog by Nick Drake.

  2. Dellu says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 11:05 am

    is this instrument similar to the Nubians/Ethiopians kissar?

  3. Bruno Coon says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 11:15 pm

    Well, it’s worth mentioning that there is a modern instrument, the kanun or qanun which is a zither with movable bridges and is the name is the arabic version of the “canon”n, or “the law” in music

  4. Alan says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 11:23 am

    Sounds like the soundtrack to Coraline.

  5. Lara says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 12:23 pm

    sorry, but the singing voice has a foreign accent, not an ancient Greek accent. Other than that thanks for the upload.

  6. psmurph says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 9:16 pm

    Picky, picky!nSome of us weren’t there and don’t care about ‘accents’.

  7. durr says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 11:33 pm

    some of us weren’t there and want to hear the “100% accurate” music.

  8. Kaddy says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 6:15 am

    How in the world do you know what an ancient Greek accent was like? I’m not being facetious, I’d really like to know.

  9. Niman says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 7:56 am

    The ‘t’s are pronounced in an English way which is very different from the ‘t’ in greek. Thats probably where the complaint is based

  10. Kaddy says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 8:29 am

    I understand that this accent may not match modern Greek. My question is, how do we know what ANCIENT Greek sounded like? English today bears little resemblance to Old English and all attempts to suggest what Old, or even Middle, English sounded like are conjecture. Would this not also be true for ancient Greek?

  11. AliG says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 1:49 pm

    I’m no expert on the subject but was born bilingual to these languages.. Despite your well founded ‘conjecture’, on the balance of probabilities the pronunciation of TA would be similar to modern Greek, faaarrr farr more so than modern English.
    Search ‘Katharevousa’ this was the most recent reform of our language.

    Happy reading.

    Peace & Love!

  12. Kat says . . .
    November 3, 2013 / 2:09 pm

    wait, why are you reading an article about what ancient music sounded like if you don’t even believe we know what ancient accents sounded like? they’re based on the same basic principle.

  13. Kaddy says . . .
    November 3, 2013 / 2:27 pm

    No they’re not. I’m a musician and I understand notation and scales. Language, although closely related to music in the development of humankind appears to have evolved somewhat differently, if I understand what I have read recently from various sources. nnnI didn’t say we didn’t know what ancient accents sounded like, I ASKED how we know, in order to learn. It dossn’t make a lot of sense to read articles about what I already know if I want to learn new things, does it?

  14. Kaddy says . . .
    November 3, 2013 / 2:34 pm

    Further, through discussion and a series of questions, I now have a better understanding of how linguists determine these sounds. Which means, thanks to the very knowledgeable people who took time to explain, I know more now than I did before I asked questions.You, on the other hand, only questioned my right to be inquisitive.

  15. Dana says . . .
    November 4, 2013 / 9:27 am

    Ancient accents didn’t come with notation.nnnThat said, this question was answered elsewhere, and much better.

  16. leoboiko says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 3:43 pm

    There are ways. You start from the modern language, then compare all dialects and variations, and compare that to the sounds of Greek loans into other languages, and analyze the ortographic “errors” of people from various ages and other philological data, and compare with the descriptions of the ancients of how they pronounced sounds, and fit all that into what is known about sound-changing tendencies in natural languagesu2026nnIf you’re curious about this topic I recommend this book as an introduction: http://www.amazon.com/The-Horse-Wheel-Language-Bronze-Age/dp/069114818XnIt describes in plain language how linguists can infer, with reasonable certainty, the sounds of a language even older than Ancient Greek, and worse, without written records: The ancestor to most European and Hindi languages, Proto-Indo-European.

  17. leoboiko says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 3:43 pm

    There are ways. You start from the modern language, then compare all dialects and variations, and compare that to the sounds of Greek loans into other languages, and analyze the ortographic “errors” of people from various ages and other philological data, and compare with the descriptions of the ancients of how they pronounced sounds, and fit all that into what is known about sound-changing tendencies in natural languagesu2026nnIf you’re curious about this topic I recommend this book as an introduction: http://www.amazon.com/The-Horse-Wheel-Language-Bronze-Age/dp/069114818XnIt describes in plain language how linguists can infer, with reasonable certainty, the sounds of a language even older than Ancient Greek, and worse, without written records: The ancestor to most European and Hindi languages, Proto-Indo-European.

  18. Kaddy says . . .
    November 1, 2013 / 6:16 am

    Thank you very much. I am fascinated by language and how they evolved u2013 indeed, in the very origins of language. I will definitely look into this book.

  19. Dana says . . .
    November 4, 2013 / 9:26 am

    Right, because we have a ready supply of native Ancient Greek speakers to choose from.

  20. GTFOofNOLA says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 12:35 pm

    Reminds me of Rush – 2112 iii Discovery

  21. psmurph says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 9:16 pm

    …leaves me wanting more.

  22. James says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 10:12 pm

    I’m sceptical of the tuning (this after taking graduate-level classes on ancient Greek music theory). Also, this recording doesn’t reflect a recent, dramatic discovery. This is the Seikilos Epitaph which has been in the Norton Anthology of Western Music for decades. It is written on a tombstone. Music for Greek dramas was not written on stone so very few fragments survive. Though Greek music notation was precise about notes and rhythms, you never know exactly how it would have sounded, and that’s kind of meaningless anyway.

  23. balthasar999 says . . .
    October 30, 2013 / 11:29 pm

    No wonder they kept referring to it as “sweet.” I would totally sip wine and speculate about the existence of atoms to this.

  24. Ba Smi says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 2:38 am

    Between 750 BC and 400 BC, the Ancient Greeks composed songs meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and various percussion instruments. Yet we hear a ‘canon’

  25. Lilly says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 4:08 am

    Ancient greek accent and pronounciation are pure theory, and a best, a wild guess. Its a dead language – there is no one alive who knows what it sounds like, and hasnt been for thousands of years. Secondly, the mathematics in how the music is made is correct in terms of notes etc, but there is zero indication on how this may have actually sounded. We also dont know how the instruments were tuned. Clearly these researchers are trying to scam some more funding from those who dont know any better. what a joke of an article.

  26. Sonia B. Kaminsky says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 8:25 am

    Peaceful … :-)

  27. Toffer99 says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 9:07 am

    Needs more cowbell.

  28. Tom says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 10:15 am

    Very interesting bit of information. I am always stunned, however, at how the simplest things will propagate such carelessly negative comments. Of course, the 100% Accurate claim is a stretch, but doesn’t justify the bile. Oh, and Lara, the researcher is English, so I’d expect he’d have what we Americans would call an “accent.”

  29. Jen says . . .
    November 3, 2013 / 7:26 am

    What you said, Tom. : )

  30. Mara Tzanaki says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 1:58 pm
  31. Mara Tzanaki says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 2:00 pm

    Here is a nice recording from Lyre ‘n Rhapsody female band, on this songnnnhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Vkcolt-nmU

  32. Mark Regensburger says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 4:47 pm

    Thank you, Mara. Difference between a classicist recreating tonal patterns and musicians breathing life into real music. nn u201cMusic gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.u201d Plato

  33. Adam P says . . .
    November 1, 2013 / 7:49 am

    Plato didn’t say that. He wouldn’t have said anything of the kind. It’s from the 19th C apparently. I get it often on fb.

  34. HumanBeeing says . . .
    November 4, 2013 / 11:38 pm
  35. William says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 3:24 pm

    That’s fascinating; much nicer than Dudman.nnnCheersnWilliam

  36. Justin Thomas Squires says . . .
    October 31, 2013 / 8:41 pm

    Not enough blast beats.

  37. Greco says . . .
    November 1, 2013 / 4:52 am

    Ancient Greek is still a living language in some places. Google Romeyka or Romeika and you’ll be amazed…

  38. Marianne Poulos says . . .
    November 2, 2013 / 11:08 pm

    Really? Are talking about maybe a rare dialect still spoken, like Alvanitika or something?

  39. Antonios Alex. says . . .
    August 28, 2014 / 5:26 am

    My dear Marianne, why do you have to comment when you don’t have the slightest idea of what you are talking about? The dialect is called Arvanitika and it is an Albanian dialect that was widely spoken in mainland Greece until recently. This is a widely acknowledged fact.

  40. zsvdkhnorc says . . .
    December 1, 2013 / 9:57 am

    It is no more Ancient Greek than Modern Greek is. It is unique in that it preserved the infinitive in a way that no other modern Hellenic language has.

  41. Greco says . . .
    November 1, 2013 / 5:02 am

    In some places in Turkey the ancient Greek language is still alive as Romeyka or Romeika.nnhttp://youtu.be/UcAYP4irSyQ

  42. Fabio Paolo Barbieri says . . .
    November 1, 2013 / 8:59 am

    Now set it to music. Joking apart, I can’t believe that the turbulent Greek nation, that created the theatre and gave us the very idea of drama, would play music so po-facedly.

  43. Patrick James Bayham says . . .
    November 1, 2013 / 11:05 am

    sounds like a ancient cheese shop…

  44. tiosolteiro says . . .
    November 2, 2013 / 6:24 am

    Where’s the drop?

  45. MGoldstein says . . .
    November 2, 2013 / 9:59 am

    This is fascinating. Now that they’ve established the timbres and pitches, do they have any information on the duration of notes and system of stresses (meter and/or rhythm)? They seem to be assuming that the songs used the stresses and pauses of spoken language.

  46. Ben says . . .
    November 3, 2013 / 5:48 am

    I didn’t know that the greeks had an english accent in those times.

  47. Dr Mike Parker says . . .
    November 4, 2013 / 10:35 am

    They are completely ignoring the effect and affect of stringing material, gauge, twist and pitch… this is about as fraudulent as it gets….

  48. HumanBeeing says . . .
    November 4, 2013 / 11:32 pm

    I don’t know. I think they might have misinterpreted what they found. They couldn’t have had that bad of taste in music back then. Like languages (root words, similarly spelled and sounding words, etc.), they should be able to more or less figure out more closely what they really had music-wise by looking at known historical music on the same and similar instruments, and other instruments, and finding similar common threads that can be interpreted to come close to what was what.

  49. Urukagina says . . .
    November 7, 2013 / 5:30 pm

    This is like saying you have read about Mona Lisa now this is how the painting looks like. I think not.

  50. jimbo = moron says . . .
    November 24, 2013 / 5:15 pm

    Actually, no it isn’t.

  51. grant says . . .
    November 11, 2013 / 6:26 am

    Pretty poor quality commenting. I think that one needs to overlook the interpretation,I don’t know anyone who shreds on functionally extinct instruments. Also, its not the same tuning system as we use commonly in north america. We use a descendant of Pythagorean tuning but we attempted to make the space between notes all the same size. Not so in many other living and dead musical traditions. On the other hand it turned this article into a fascinating look at ethnocentrism.

  52. jimbo says . . .
    November 15, 2013 / 11:18 am

    dunno how necessary it was for a classicist to sing this. he doesnt have a great voice or even make any effort to integrate any understanding of phonetics into his pronunciation. all this bickering in the comment section is only further evidence that the Ancient Greeks are no subject for those with superficial or popular taste

  53. jimbo = moron says . . .
    November 24, 2013 / 5:15 pm

    Let’s hear you do better.

  54. jimbo = moron says . . .
    November 24, 2013 / 5:16 pm

    Wow, everyone here’s so DUMB. :(

  55. Charles Hedges says . . .
    November 30, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    Stefan Hagel of Vienna published a book on this topic with Cambridge in 2009, with reconstructions, of how the music MAY have sounded. reinventing the wheel is easy.

  56. The_Batmaaaaan says . . .
    December 19, 2013 / 2:50 am

    *waits for inception “BRAAAHHHHM**

  57. Jack Gabel says . . .
    December 29, 2013 / 2:12 am

    full recording based on solid research here – http://www.northpacificmusic.com/Greeks.html

  58. armand says . . .
    January 17, 2014 / 7:59 am

    thank you

  59. bubble butt says . . .
    March 19, 2014 / 10:25 am

    wwwwooooowwww very helpful

  60. Andreas G says . . .
    May 12, 2014 / 12:30 am

    Sounds like Harry Partch to me.

  61. Vicky says . . .
    May 12, 2014 / 4:40 am

    100% accuracy?…..This “promising” headline is funny… and the result of such an attempt obviously rather poor.

  62. Yoda says . . .
    July 7, 2014 / 4:09 pm

    As a Greek and regarding the pronunciation issue:

    Do you know how Hindu people speak English with a peculiar accent, like Peter Sellers in “The Party”? The same effect is evident in every language spoken by foreigners. An Italian speaking English has an accent, and a Greek speaking Arabic has an accent. If you are native to a language, you recognize this pretty easily.
    So, in this case, unfortunately the singer has a distinct “English” accent. Not to say that the clip isn’t amazing, but it’s not “100% accurate”.

    How do we know how Ancient Greek was pronounced, you ask. Well for one, it’s quite sure that it wasn’t pronounced (to Greek speakers) like modern English ;) But, more importantly, Ancient Greek isn’t exactly dead, it exists today in many words that are still in use today in modern Greek. Also, the alphabet is the same, as well as basic accentuation symbols (though many were scrapped in the 80’s to simplify the language). So there is a continuity.
    I say we might have a guess as to what Ancient Greek sounds like. Surely this could have been made better.

  63. Louis M (@LouisAMDG) says . . .
    July 9, 2014 / 3:50 am

    Interesting. I immediately recognized some portions of the “Quo Vadis” soundtrack (1951) composed by Dr. Miklos Rosza! The scene where Nero sings for the crowd has some borrowed (melodic) lines from THAT song: listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBIswXv28GI I am convinced many will agree. Now, I had read that Mr. Rosza used material from ancient music along with gregorian influences to create his soundtracks for epic movies such as Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and El Cid (where he uses entire portions of the medieval “Llibre Vermell de Montserrat” for his main theme. As a younger man, I had my doubts about the veracity of those claims since 1950s’ Hollywood’s standards of authenticity were…”lame”? ;) However, hearing this re-creation of ancient greek music brought back those memories, and I must pay tribute to Miklos Rosza for his use of genuine ancient music as an inspiration for his brilliant work. I thought it was worth mentioning ;)

  64. Antonios Alex. says . . .
    August 28, 2014 / 5:33 am

    You are ABSOLUTELY false. Romeyka is a Greek dialect almost identical to Pontian Greek. Pontian Greek just like Cretan Greek kept some Archaic elements in their grammar and vocabulary due to their isolation from the center. This is entirely different from saying that their language is ancient Greek, that claim is ridiculous. Read some basic linguistics and stop spamming with your non-sense.

  65. anonymous says . . .
    September 22, 2014 / 10:51 am

    nope

  66. This is so gay says . . .
    October 6, 2014 / 5:28 am

    …GAY…

  67. barthomew says . . .
    January 16, 2015 / 12:12 pm

    resemblances in spelling and construction

    cithara Latin for harp, the stringed instrument associated with King David, the psalms, and angels.

    zither as if one takes a harp and puts it on one’s arm and strokes it with one hand

    guitar as if one takes the zither, adds a cord and with a pick or fingers strums its two parts with each hand

    sitar like a harp or guitar laid out flat for stroking

    harpsichord like a harp or sitar suspended flat on a platform with hammers as keys for stroking particular strings

    piano like a harp or sitar suspended flat on a platform with hammers as keys for stroking particular strings

    organ like a harpsichord or piano suspended flat on a platform with hammers as keys for activating particular pipes that function as strings did

  68. Christopher Newman says . . .
    February 16, 2015 / 10:03 pm

    Oh the nostalgia! Coming down through the ages. The years. Of a people now gone, whose bones have turned to dust. Of a culture long since gone. Fascinating…

  69. Adam Clark says . . .
    August 4, 2015 / 9:08 pm

    Man, this music sucks.

  70. Laura says . . .
    October 12, 2015 / 2:06 pm

    Totally!!

  71. Laura says . . .
    October 12, 2015 / 2:09 pm

    Whoops–My “Totally!!” was in response to Alan’s comment on
    October 30, 2013 “Sounds like the soundtrack to Coraline.”

  72. Toad says . . .
    January 29, 2016 / 4:30 pm

    In order to decide how seriously to take this, it would be necessary to become expert in the field(s) oneself. Short of that, there’s no way to respond to this, except stupidly.

  73. Kemetan God says . . .
    January 30, 2016 / 3:27 pm

    I can already see it: “Greeks steal Nubian instrument. Greek culture is a lie!”

  74. Pavlos says . . .
    January 30, 2016 / 6:00 pm

    on the subject of pronunciation, there was an Ancient Greek text found that had described (written down) what sounds animals make. The example that put to rest any notion that Ancient Greek sounded anything similar to modern Greek is the sound a sheep makes. The ancient spelling of the sound was “βή,” which today’s Greek would pronounce “vee.” Unless sheep changed the way they “baaaa” in the past 2000 years, we know that the Greeks of Ancient Greece spoke nothing like what they speak today.

  75. WinonasHairyBeaver says . . .
    January 30, 2016 / 6:53 pm

    imagine if you played the greeks some fuckin’ SLAYER

  76. Chris says . . .
    January 30, 2016 / 7:15 pm

    What exactly is a ‘foreign accent’? Haha… yikes

  77. test says . . .
    January 30, 2016 / 9:15 pm

    oh wow what a cool thing to see “>

  78. daniella says . . .
    January 31, 2016 / 1:38 pm

    totally or even the beatles norwegian wood and others around that time

  79. Luca says . . .
    January 31, 2016 / 6:09 pm

    Imagining Alcaeus or lovely Sappho singing along with that is enough to break my heart. How horrid.

  80. h says . . .
    January 31, 2016 / 9:13 pm

    Well, considering no one has one, or even knows what an ancient greek accent sounded like. I think foreign is the best anyone can do.

  81. Rybar says . . .
    January 31, 2016 / 11:47 pm

    Everyone seems to be so focused on the vocals of this song. However, the article is about the time signatures and the instruments themselves. Stop trying to be a know it all and actually READ the damn article. That applies to just about every comment.

  82. J says . . .
    February 1, 2016 / 1:19 am

    Very interesting. I have no problem with the English accent or the university scholar singing voice (I’m a professional musician and voice trainer). I’m wondering why there are two different tuning systems going on in this recording – the obviously well-researched instrumental tuning and the modern day vocal tuning. Why didn’t the singer use the same tuning as the instrument? Surely they can’t both be 100% accurate?

  83. Mike says . . .
    February 1, 2016 / 8:12 pm

    agreed, that would have been nice. The instrument he’s playing has a few strings that are a bit out of tune also. Was that impossible to avoid? Were the instruments so sloppily made that they could not be tuned properly?

  84. Dan Gellert says . . .
    February 2, 2016 / 5:49 pm

    No joking about it! Even if the scales and rhythms were “100% accurate” (which I very much doubt), there isn’t a speck of energy or passion in the performance. It simply doesn’t qualify as music, and it is doubly laughable to suggest that the ancient Greeks (of all people!) ever expressed themselves with that kind of vacuity.

  85. Bill says . . .
    February 3, 2016 / 7:44 am

    How did you deal with the tuning variabilities within the tetrachords? It was my understanding that the mode determined placement of the 2nd and 3rd tone in the Ancient Greek music system was the reason we could never know the exact sound/tuning.

  86. Tom says . . .
    February 6, 2016 / 12:04 am

    You need to mention that it’s all in natural tune A=432Hz ! Music nowadays is mostly A=440Hz which is unnatural and probably noxious, but what we hear here is 432Hz (according to my tuner app).

  87. James says . . .
    February 22, 2016 / 1:45 am

    No, we don’t, but there are some clues. For example, onomatopoeia (appropriately for Greek!). Aristophanes had sheep saying “βῆ”, but beta in modern Greek has a “v” sound.

  88. Olga says . . .
    August 14, 2016 / 2:00 pm

    The ancient Greek language is not a dead language, has evolved in the new Greek.

  89. xtraa says . . .
    October 16, 2016 / 10:08 am

    Nice try but this one here is already from 850 BC.: http://www.oeaw.ac.at/kal/sh/index.htm

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