What Did Ancient Greek Music Sound Like?: Listen to a Reconstruction That’s ‘100% Accurate’


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 fig­ured out–at long last–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 hear David Creese, a clas­si­cist from the Uni­ver­si­ty of New­cas­tle, play “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.

Note: This post first appeared on our site in 2013.

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