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

ancient greek music

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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by | Permalink | Comments (63) |

  • ThornyBleeder

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

  • Dellu

    is this instrument similar to the Nubians/Ethiopians kissar?

  • Alan

    Sounds like the soundtrack to Coraline.

  • Lara

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

  • GTFOofNOLA

    Reminds me of Rush – 2112 iii Discovery

  • psmurph

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

  • psmurph

    …leaves me wanting more.

  • James

    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.

  • Bruno Coon

    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

  • balthasar999

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

  • durr

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

  • Ba Smi

    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’

  • Lilly

    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.

  • Kaddy

    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.

  • Niman

    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

  • Sonia B. Kaminsky

    Peaceful … :-)

  • Kaddy

    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?

  • Toffer99

    Needs more cowbell.

  • Tom

    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.”

  • AliG

    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!

  • Mara Tzanaki
  • Mara Tzanaki

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

  • William

    That’s fascinating; much nicer than Dudman.nnnCheersnWilliam

  • leoboiko

    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.

  • leoboiko

    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.

  • Mark Regensburger

    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

  • Justin Thomas Squires

    Not enough blast beats.

  • Greco

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

  • Greco

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

  • Kaddy

    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.

  • Adam P

    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.

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    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.

  • Patrick James Bayham

    sounds like a ancient cheese shop…

  • tiosolteiro

    Where’s the drop?

  • MGoldstein

    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.

  • Marianne Poulos

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

  • Ben

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

  • Jen

    What you said, Tom. : )

  • Kat

    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.

  • Kaddy

    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?

  • Kaddy

    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.

  • Dana

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

  • Dana

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

  • Dr Mike Parker

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

  • HumanBeeing

    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.

  • HumanBeeing
  • Urukagina

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

  • grant

    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.

  • jimbo

    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

  • jimbo = moron

    Let’s hear you do better.

  • jimbo = moron

    Actually, no it isn’t.

  • jimbo = moron

    Wow, everyone here’s so DUMB. :(

  • Charles Hedges

    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.

  • zsvdkhnorc

    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.

  • The_Batmaaaaan

    *waits for inception “BRAAAHHHHM**

  • Jack Gabel

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

  • armand

    thank you

  • bubble butt

    wwwwooooowwww very helpful

  • Andreas G

    Sounds like Harry Partch to me.

  • Vicky

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

  • Yoda

    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.

  • Louis M (@LouisAMDG)

    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 ;)

  • Poo Head

    sounds fuckin gay

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