Music History The Greeks

The musical history of the Greeks may be divided into two great periods, the historical, and the mythological. The mythological period covers the entire range of traditions and legends, up to the time of the Olympiads, the date of the first Olympiad being 776 B.C. From 776 B.C. to 161 A.

D. is the historical period. To the mythological period belong the stories of Eurydice and Orpheus. Perhaps the noblest and most beautiful of all the fairy tales of art, the building of Thebes and Cadmea by Amphion, who by his playing supposedly caused the stones and rocks to move spontaneously.

The contest between the myth of the Sirens, Apollo and Marsyas, and numberless other stories and traditions with which the Hellenic mind loved to surround, as with many garlands, the art of music. The poet Homer, provides us with a link between the traditional and historical periods, and in the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are to be found both legend and exact information. Coming to the historical period proper of Greek music, we cannot fail to be impressed with the broadly moral significance which music possessed for the Greeks. Among the Assyrians, it is to be imagined, music was more or less emotional in character. Among the Egyptians, it apparently shared of the nature of an occult philosophy.

Among the Israelites, music was primarily an act of worship; and it is, therefore, to the Greeks that the credit of being the first to recognise that music was highly valuable as an educational resource. Although not yet an independent art, music probably gained very nearly as much as it lost in this respect, by being made an essential part of the literary and dramatic genius of Greece. Thus, the Greek play resembled more an opera than a play, however, with the music strictly subdued in favour of more dramatic interest.

Perhaps the simplest way of making clear the musical aspect of the Greek drama would be to say that a Greek play was like an opera of which the composer wrote the libretto and the librettist wrote the music. Sometimes the Greek dramatist, as in the case of GEschylus, composed the music to his own life. Sophocles also accompanied the performance of one of his plays upon the cithara (an instrument of the harp kind). Other than fragments of musical work, which it would be difficult to absolutely accept as authentic, there are no musical compositions of the ancient Greeks now known to be in existence. There has been preserved, however, a considerable amount of Greek literature about music, including the theoretical writings of Aristoxenus (B.C.

300), Euclid (B.C. 277), Nicho-machus (A.D.

60), Alypius (A.D. 115), Bacchius (A.D. 140), Aristides Quintilianus (A.D.

no), and others. Of these Aristoxenus wrote upon the Elements of Harmonics, Euclid wrote an Introduction, to Harmonics, Nichomachus an Introduction to Harmony, Alypius a work on musical notation, Bacchius, supposed to have been tutor to the Emperor Antoninus, was the author of a short Introduction to Music, in dialogue form. Aristides Quintilianus wrote a treatise, "De Musica," in three books.

These writers, and others, have perpetuated the theoretical systems of the Greeks. Although they give us little or no hint of the practical application of the same, and it is upon their works that the earliest theorists of Europe based their further efforts towards the construction of a musical system at once logical, scientific, and capable of allowing the emotional side of man's musical nature free play.

Michael David Shaw is a musician and music teacher. He plays piano, organ and keyboard. You can find lots of music related items including tuition books, sheet music and e-Books on his websites. For more info visit and

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