Music Theory

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Music Theory

Overview of Sources.

The study of ancient Greek and Roman music depends on a wide variety of sources: iconographic, literary, and archaeological. Musical scenes, depicted in vase-paintings and frescos, in sculptural decoration and figurines, and on coins and gems, provide one piece of the puzzle. An iconographic image may show the placement of a musician's hands or mouth on an instrument, and the number of strings on a lyre, or holes in a pipe; the relative size of an instrument and the material used to construct it may, in some cases, be reasonably determined by examining an image; a guess—but no more than that—can then be made regarding pitch, tone, and volume. Images may show which instruments are played in ensemble, by whom, and on what occasion. Ancient poets, historians, lexicographers, philosophers, and theorists—most of them Greek—add much more to modern understanding of the scientific principles of music and the role that music played in society and culture. The archaeological discovery of actual musical compositions, carved into stone or written on papyrus manuscripts, and bonafide musical instruments recovered from excavated settlements and graves can confirm or contradict what has been deduced from written and iconographical sources. Finally, comparative studies of the musical traditions of other cultures that either influenced or were influenced by Greece and Rome have contributed much to the overall understanding of ancient Greek and Roman music.


introduction: Aristoxenus criticized earlier authors, whom he called Harmonikoi (Harmonicists), for paying too much attention to mathematical ratios in their determination of scales and intervals; he argued that these should be judged by sense-perception. The trained ear, he claimed, detects the unique functional quality of sounds; in his view, the dynamic context of music must be judged empirically, not by measuring sizes of intervals or naming notes.

The essence and order of harmony depend not upon any of the properties of instruments … neither the auloi nor any other instrument will supply a foundation for the principles of harmony. There is a certain marvellous order which belongs to the nature of harmony in general; in this order every instrument, to the best of its ability, participates under the direction of that faculty of sense-perception on which they, as well as everything else in music, finally depend. To suppose, because one sees day by day the finger-holes the same and the strings at the same tension, that one will find in these harmony with its permanence and eternally immutable order—this is sheer folly. For as there is no harmony in the strings save that which the cunning of the hand confers upon them, so is there none in the finger-holes save what has been introduced by the same agency. That no instrument is self-tuned, and that the harmonizing of it is the prerogative of the sense-perception is obvious, and requires no proof.

source: Aristoxenus, The Harmonics of Aristoxenus. Trans. H. S. Macran (Oxford: Clarendon, 1902): 187–198. Reprinted in Source Readings in Music History: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Ed. Oliver Strunk (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965): 31–32.

Written Sources.

The earliest written sources on music are descriptions of musical instruments, performances, and musical forms in the epics of Homer (eighth century b.c.e.); in the poetry of Sappho, Alcaeus, Alcman, Pindar, and others (seventh–fifth centuries b.c.e.); and in Athenian tragedy and comedy composed during the fifth century b.c.e. by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Historians, mythographers, and scholars writing after the fifth century ascribed the invention of musical instruments and melodic forms to divinities or to innovative musicians, composers, and singers. During the late sixth–early fourth centuries, the philosophical schools of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle were established; they influenced all later scientific and theoretical thought about music. The best application of Aristotelian science to music is the work of Aristoxenus. Born in Calabria, Italy, around 370 b.c.e., Aristoxenus studied in Athens with the Pythagorean school and was the star pupil of Aristotle. Aristoxenus is said to have written 453 essays on various subjects, but the majority of his writing has survived only in bits and pieces quoted by other authors. Two substantial theoretical works on music by Aristoxenus—Harmonika and Rhythmika—highly influenced later theorists. The mathematical approach to harmony of the Pythagoreans is best preserved in a fourth-century b.c.e. anonymous treatise sometimes (erroneously) attributed to Euclid, known as the Sectio canonis ("Division of the Kanon"). The title referred to the Pythagorean method of using a kanon ("ruler") to mathematically measure pitches of notes based on string length. The Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy supported this approach to acoustics in his Harmonika. In the first century c.e., the Roman architect Vitruvius contributed to acoustical science by applying the principle of sound waves to the design of a theater auditorium. Vitruvius translated the Harmonika of Aristoxenus into Latin, apologizing to his readers for the lack of Latin equivalents for many of the Greek technical terms used in music theory. Much information about musical life is also found in many non-theoretical works: Athenaeus of Crete (c. 200 c.e.) wrote a dialogue on the Greek symposium called the Deipnosophistai, in which he named, described, and defined 25 skolia (drinking songs), along with their performance techniques; his contemporary, a lexicographer named Pollux, compiled technical terms, discussed the species of aulos (reed pipe) and types of horn (especially the salpinx), and described the Greek theater and structure of comedy in his lexicon, the Onomasticon.

Aristoxenus and His Followers.

The Harmonika and Rhythmika of Aristoxenus were two of the most influential treatises on music. Especially important were his discussions and explanations of intervals, tetrachords, and the systems of harmoniai. He identified elements of melody and the three genera of tetrachord: diatonic, enharmonic, and chromatic. A number of important philosophical, theoretical, and historical works composed between the second and the fifth centuries c.e. restate and expand on the work of Aristoxenus, including Cleonides' Harmonica introductio, Ps.-Plutarch's De musica, Gaudentius' Harmonika, Alypius' Introductio musica, and Aristides Quintilianus' De musica. These works provide valuable explanations of the Greek musical system, including notation, melody, rhythm, scales, modulation, consonance and dissonance, and scientific problems of acoustics. Later, during the Byzantine Period (tenth–twelfth centuries c.e.), material on music based on the earlier work of Aristoxenus and Aristides was transmitted in manuscripts. One important such collection is the so-called Anonymus Bellermanni, published by F. Bellermann in 1841 c.e., which contains the sole surviving description of rhythmic notation.

Scale and Tuning.

As early as the seventh century b.c.e. accomplished kitharodes and aulodes (musicians who sing while playing their instruments) were teaching others to play and sing; they must have developed a vocabulary of terms to explain technique, and demonstrated techniques on their instruments. Their students learned by imitation and practice. From the fifth century b.c.e. to the fourth century c.e. (and even later), the Greeks used the term harmonikoi to designate the teachers, scientists, and philosophers whom they considered knowledgeable about music theory; the study of the basic building blocks of music (notes, intervals, scales, genera, tonoi, modulation, melodic patterns) was known as "Harmonics." The word harmonia was originally used in Homeric poetry to mean "joint, connection," so the modern word "harmony" is literally a "fitting together" of notes. The earliest use of harmonia as a specific musical term occurs in a poetic fragment of Lasus of Hermione, an innovative kitharode (a singer-lyre-player) working as a professional composer in Athens in the late sixth–early fifth centuries b.c.e. The line reads: "I sing of Demeter and of Kore, wife of Klymenos, intoning the sweet hymn on the low-roaring Aeolian harmonia." By the time of Lasus, a harmonia came to represent an entire complex, including text, rhythm and meter, tuning, scale, and melody, associated with a specific geographical region: Aeolian, Phrygian, Dorian, Lydian, Ionian.


introduction: In Books VII and VIII of the Politics Aristotle considered the construction of the ideal state with special focus on education and the arts. He argued Plato's notion that music is more than amusement; it affects the soul. Since young people (and mankind, generally) are encouraged to imitate what they see and hear, the character and quality of all melodies and musical styles must be carefully examined before they are selected for educational purposes.

There is the natural distinction between the modes, which cause different reactions in the hearers, who are not all moved in the same way with respect to each. For example, men are inclined to be mournful and solemn when they listen to that which is called Mixo-Lydian; but they are in a more relaxed frame of mind when they listen to others, for example the looser modes. A particularly equable feeling, midway between these, is produced, I think, only by the Dorian mode, while the Phrygian puts men into a frenzy of excitement.

…Music has indeed the power to induce a certain character of soul, and if it can do that, then clearly it must be applied to education, and the young must be educated in it.

source: Aristotle, The Politics. Trans. T. A. Sinclair (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1981): 466.

Character of Harmoniai.

The precise nature of the regional (or tribal) harmonia is not known. Plato, in the Republic, defines the character of two varieties of the Lydian harmonia as "mournful," the Ionian and Lydian generally as "good for drinking parties," the Dorian as "manly," and the Phrygian as "inspiring enthusiasm." In the Politics, Aristotle—who was sometimes at odds with his teacher Plato on the character of the various harmoniai—agreed that the Dorian was the "most grave, and most suitable for education"; he described the Lydian as "suitable for young children," but was of the opinion that the Phrygian harmonia, played on the aulos during the ecstatic worship of Dionysus, was too emotional for use in school. Certain harmonia, such as the so-called "tense Lydian," were more suitable for women, while the "slack" Ionian and Lydian were softer and easier to sing. The Greek poets sometimes expressed a preference for one or the other of the harmonia. The fifth-century poet Pindar praised the Dorian as being the most dignified, and


introduction: The musical notation used for the fifteen transposition scales, or tonoi (literally "position of the voice"), are preserved in the notational tables included by the theorist Alypius in his Introductio musicae (fourth–fifth century c.e.). It was his intention to represent the fifteen tonoi extending over the range of three octaves and a tone, complete with vocal and instrumental notation in each of the three genera of scale: diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic. In the composite table below, the ethnic names of the tonoi are listed along the left side, in low and high forms. At the top, are the names of the notes, and their tetrachord position. The musical staff represents the conventional approximation of the pitches in each scale.

source: K. von Jan, Musici Scriptores Graeci: Aristoteles, Euclides, Nicomachus, Bacchius, Gaudentius, Alypius, et Melodiarum Veterum Quidquid, Exstat. Anexae sunt Tabulae. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1895).

used the Lydian in several of his epinikian odes (praising athletes). Composers of the dithyramb (choral dance), such as Alcman, employed the Phrygian. The Mixolydian and Dorian were used in tragedy. Perhaps the clearest definition of the harmoniai is to be found in the third–fourth century c.e. work De musica, by theorist Aristides Quintilianus. He listed the notes of six harmoniai, adding that there were other tetrachordal divisions used by "the most ancient people" (likely referring to the fifth century b.c.e.): 'Tense' Lydian and Ionian (spanning less than an octave); Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian (spanning an octave); and Dorian (spanning an octave and a tone). He explained that each of these harmoniai had its own particular set of intervallic relationships, forming the so-called "Octave Species."

The Perfect Systems.

The tetrachord—four contiguous notes forming a perfect fourth—was the basic building block of the ancient Greek musical scale. A connected series of conjunct or disjunct tetrachords formed the so-called systema teleion ("perfect system"), first mentioned by Aristoxenus, but defined and explained in the handbooks of Aristides Quintilianus, Cleonides, and other theorists. A conjunct tetrachord is formed when the last note of one tetrachord coincides with the first note of the next; disjunction occurs when two tetrachords are separated by the interval of a tone. Two conjunct tetrachords constitute the heptachordon (seven-note system). Since a fourth plus a tone equalled a fifth, a pair of disjunct tetrachords was, in effect, a fourth and a fifth, making up an octave. A pair of conjunct tetrachords, with an additional tone at either top or bottom, likewise made up an octave (a fourth plus a fifth, or vice versa). The steps within the tetrachords were all either larger or smaller than a tone. The names of the eight notes of the octave refer to the seven strings on the lyre, plus one—the lowest—added later: hypate ("the principal") was the farthest from the player's body, parhypate ("next to hypate "), lichanos ("touched by the index finger"), mese (the "middle"), paramese ("next to mese "), trite (the "third" from the highest), paranete ("next to nete "), and nete (the "last").

The Greater and Lesser Perfect Systems.

Two "perfect systems" were described by the theorists. According to Aristides, the systema teleion elatton ("lesser perfect system") consisted of three conjunct tetrachords plus the proslambanomenos, an "added lowest tone" before the hypate. Four conjunct tetrachords separated by a tone of disjunction, plus the proslambanomenos, constituted the systema teleion meizon ("greater perfect system"). Played together in succession, the two perfect systems were called the systema teleion ametabolon ("perfect immutable system"). Despite a number of theoretical treatises and handbooks that describe and explain the theory of these systems, their application in performance and the sound of the music resulting from their use remains unclear.

Transposition Keys.

Aristoxenus used the terms tonoi to refer to "positions of the voice." Later, Cleonides defined tonos or tropos as note, an interval, a position of the voice, and pitch. Difficulties arise because writers did not always distinguish tonos from harmonia; Aristoxenus said that the harmonikoi were already associating the "octave-species" with the harmoniai, and Ptolemy applied the term tonoi to the "octave species," which were explained as "transposition keys" used to solve the problem of different vocal ranges in choral groups. Cleonides attributed thirteen tonoi to Aristoxenus; Aristides Quintilianus observed that the "younger theorists" added two additional tonoi, for a total of fifteen, which were preserved in the notational tables of Alypius. The tonoi were manifested in three genera: diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic; each tonos began on a pitch that was a semitone apart from the next, and was built using a series of tetrachords (four contiguous notes forming a perfect fourth). The five middle tonoi carried the same regional names as the harmoniai: Lydian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Iastian, and Dorian. The highest five tonoi carried the prefix hyper (e.g. Hyperlydian), the five lower, hypo (e.g. Hypodorian).

Meter and Rhythm.

In English, meter (or accentuation) is determined by the stress placed on a syllable. In the tongue-twister "Péter píper pícked a péck of píckled péppers" correct pronunciation requires that the stress be placed on the first syllable of every word; this stress dictates the rhythm of the line, and any deviation would ruin the beat. Ancient Greek meter was not based on stress, but on pitch; a rise in the musical pitch of the voice determined the meter. Ancient scholars devised a system of written accents to explain the pronunciation: the oxytone ("acute") accent signified the raising of a pitch, the barytone ("grave") marked a lowered or canceled pitch (used exclusively at the end of a word), and the perispomenon ("circumflex") indicated a combination of up and down pitches on one syllable. The metrical patterns of Greek and Latin song and speech were based on long and short syllables. The ancient metricians explained that the value of one long syllable (–) equaled two shorts (⋃ ⋃). In many poetic meters these two quantities were interchangeable. Aristotle, Aristoxenus, and other writers on rhythm assigned proportional ratios of long and short syllables to each unit (called a "foot"):–⋃ ⋃ (dactyl) = 1:1;––(spondee) = 1:1; ⋃–(iambus) = 1:2;–⋃ ⋃ ⋃ (paeon) = 2:3; and so forth. The 2:1 ratio predominated, and variations were few. Time was kept by tapping the foot: "up" or "lift" was denoted by the word arsis, while "down" or "step" was called thesis. Each measure (or "foot") of poetry was divided into "up" and "down" segments. Ancient songwriters were bound to the metrical types available to them, and until the middle of the fifth century, the meter simply dictated the rhythm of the verse. From the time of Timotheus of Miletus (c. 450–360 b.c.e.) was the elegiac couplet, a stanza composed of a dactylic hexameter followed by–⋃⋃–⋃⋃–|–⋃⋃–⋃⋃–∥. Iambic (⋃–) was generally combined into the so-called metron ⋃–⋃–seen in many variants. A common pattern was the iambic trimeter ⋃–⋃–⋃–⋃–⋃–⋃–; the first iambic formed the thesis (down-beat), and the second, the arsis (up-beat). Many variations on this rhythm existed, and it was popular in spoken verse as well as lyric poetry, tragedy, and comedy. If the first two note-values of the metron were transposed (–⋃⋃–), a so-called choriamb was created. The opposite of iambic is the "tripping" rhythm trochaic (–⋃–⋃) which, when played in sequence, always ended its metron with a rest (–⋃–×). The paeonic rhythms (–⋃–or–⋃⋃⋃ or ⋃⋃⋃⋃⋃)—also called Cretic—played in quintuple time, were used in serious hymns and war chants, as well as light music of dances; they were favored by certain lyric poets and tragedians. The comic playwright Aristophanes frequently employed the paeonic, which could be alternated with trochaic meters. Among the fragments of ancient Greek musical compositions that survive, two Delphic paeans dating to the second century b.c.e. reveal extensive musical notation almost entirely in paeonic rhythm. The latest extant example of the use of paeonic rhythm is a poem by the composer Mesomedes (patronized by the emperor Hadrian), which shows three new ways of combining the longs and shorts. Thus, the paeonic rhythm evolved from two variants in the seventh century b.c.e. to seven by the second century c.e. The five-syllable Dochmiac (⋃––⋃–) was a diverse and irregular patterned rhythm, and may have been a combination of iambic, anapestic, and paeonic forms. There is no evidence of its use before the fifth century, but it was popular in tragedy, especially in highly charged scenes in Euripides' plays, where it comprised long strings of many short notes in succession. The Ionic rhythm (⋃⋃––⋃⋃––), first used by the lyric poets Sappho and Alcaeus of Lesbos in the sixth century b.c.e., continued to be popular in all song genres from the tragic chorus to hymns and love songs. Many variations of this rhythm were possible. The so-called Aeolic meter was commonly used by Sappho and Alcaeus, and by other poets between the sixth–fourth centuries b.c.e. This rhythm is characterized by the coexistence of single and paired short notes beginning with a free or undefined series of shorts or longs: the most common was ××–⋃ ⋃–⋃–.


A thorough treatment by Aristoxenus on melody has not survived, but in his Harmonika, he made a distinction between the melody of speech and that of music; melodic speech was based on word-accents, while musical melody moved by definite intervals of greater pitch variation. Very early traditional vocal melodies were simple, constrained by the pattern of long and short syllables in the meter of the verse, and the small number of strings on the lyre or holes in the pipe. Modulation (moving from one key to another) and heterophony (when strings of the lyre sound one melody while the singer sings another) were not commonly practiced. This began to change in the seventh century b.c.e., when poets, such as Archilochus, introduced the combination of differing genera of rhythms, the mixture of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment and singing, and an instrumental accompaniment that did not follow the melodic line in unison. By the middle of the fifth century b.c.e., virtuoso composers and performers expanded and modified their instruments and performance techniques: more strings were added to the lyre, vocal range widened, and use of the chromatic genus of scale added more notes. Melodic ornamentation and melisma (two or more notes sung to a single syllable) occurred on important words (like the names of mythical gods or heroes), and words of songs no longer matched the melody note-for-note. In the Laws, Plato criticized both melodic and rhythmic heterophony as too complex and unsettling to be used in music education. Some Latin writers, such as Cicero, also maligned the melodic complexity of "modern" music, and pined for the old, simple tunes of yore. Nevertheless, the florid style continued to be popular throughout the Roman period, as musical compositions preserved on papyri from the second and third centuries c.e. attest.

Form of Melody.

Aristides Quintilianus wrote that before a lyre-player began a song, he would select a register of the voice, decide upon the structure of the scale, the genus, and the key, and consider the style of melody. Two terms were used for "melody, song, composition" in Greek: melos and nomos. The Greeks defined melos simply as "tune," but more completely as an art form that comprised notes, melody, rhythm, and text. The term nomos (law, custom) was used by poets generally to label a type of song or melodic composition—from the song of birds to the songs in a musician's repertoire. Professional musicians and theorists used the term nomos more narrowly to identify: (1) a specific melody used for an occasion (e.g. a sacrifice or a funeral); (2) a composition for the kithara (lyre) or aulos (reed pipe); (3) a song for a divinity; (4) a type of ethnic song or melody (e.g. Aeolian); (5) a song named for a composer (e.g. Terpandrean); or, (6) a class of song-types, such as lullaby, choral song, etc. The oldest nomos, the so-called kitharodikos, was a solo song for the lyre-player, said to have been invented by Terpander in the seventh century b.c.e. One of the more famous was the instrumental nomos Pythikos ("Pythic Composition") composed for the aulos in the early sixth century, either by Timosthenes or Sacadas; the first-century c.e. writer Strabo described this piece as a melos which narrated the mythic battle between Apollo and the serpent Pytho in five distinct parts, or movements. The composition itself does not survive, but according to Strabo it was performed by an orchestra of winds and lyres, each movement employing a different type of melody and rhythm to illustrate the story through music.


The science of acoustics began in the late sixth century b.c.e. with Pythagoras and his followers. They developed mathematical theories about the laws and principles governing the universe, and extended those to music and the concept of the soul. The primary interests of the Pythagoreans were metaphysical and cosmological, but they were intrigued by the problem of defining musical pitch and the relationship between intervals, which they tried to gauge using a monochord—a single string stretched over a board—and other devices. The Pythagoreans held that there was a mathematical relationship between lengths of vibrating string and harmonious sounds, which could be measured using a ruler. According to ancient theorists, the first to apply mathematical principles to musical sound were Hippasus of Metapontum, a Pythagorean, or his contemporary, Lasus of Hermione, a virtuoso kitharode, instructor of dithyrambic choruses, and theorist. They were said to have discovered the 2:1 ratio between two sounds at the interval of the octave, 3:2 between interval of the fifth, and 4:3 between the interval of a fourth; Hippasus demonstrated this phenomenon using bronze discs of equal diameter, but different thicknesses, while Lasus, filling vessels with different amounts of liquid, struck them. The consonances of a fourth, fifth, and octave became models of harmonia, the "fitting together" of two sounds. A contemporary of Plato, the eminent Pythagorean mathematician Archytas (most of whose own work is lost), noted that a sound can only be produced by an impact of two bodies in motion. Sound, he said, was always created this way, but it was not always audible. He explained that the differences of pitch between sounds depended on the force and speed of the impact. Archytas divided the tetrachord system into harmonic ratios in an attempt to determine which numbers are concordant and why. Another work that is reminiscent of Archytas' acoustic theory, but goes further, is a short anonymous treatise called the Sectio canonis ("Division of the Monochord"), sometimes erroneously attributed to Euclid. The author of this treatise adds to Archytas' idea that force and speed determine pitch by supposing that some movements are more closely-packed, causing notes of higher pitch, while other notes are more widely spaced, creating notes of lower pitch. The quantification of pitch is perhaps the most advanced of the Pythagorean contributions to acoustic theory. No school of thought on acoustics was beyond criticism, however. Aristotle's pupil Aristoxenus (fourth century b.c.e.), whose interest in music was more philosophical than scientific, claimed that mathematical calculation of the relationship between sounds and the measure of intervals was not sufficient to explain musical phenomena or to indicate the characteristics of musical composition. He emphasized in his Harmonika that in order to understand music, the listener needs ear, intellect, and memory; for him, sense perception was vital to judging dynamic musical phenomena. Claudius Ptolemy (second century c.e.), who clearly inclined towards Pythagorean mathematics in his explanations, examined critically both the Pythagorean and Aristoxenian definitions of tuning systems, sound, pitch, and consonance in his Harmonika, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. One of antiquity's finest astronomers, Ptolemy took a scientific approach to the study of music, and held—as did the Pythagoreans—that the principles of harmonic order were mathematical. The Romans, who were ambitious construction engineers, were aided by the application of Greek acoustic theory in the design of their theater auditoria. Vitruvius, a late first-century b.c.e. Roman architect who translated the work of the Greek theorists into Latin, showed an impressive understanding of acoustics when he described a system of resonators that would improve the sound quality in the small and large theater auditorium. He also discussed the importance of using the right materials: wooden structures resonated sound waves more readily than marble or concrete, which did not vibrate in sympathy; he therefore recommended that bronze jars be added to stone-built auditora to improve the acoustics.

Musical Notation.

The system of musical notation that was standard for professional use by the mid-third century b.c.e. and seen in all the extant compositions from the earliest (third century b.c.e.) to the latest (third century c.e.) is best represented in the tables of Alypius (fourth–fifth centuries c.e.). He originally mapped each of the fifteen tonoi (transposition keys or modes) over three octaves and a tone and in three genera—diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic—showing the separate and distinct alphabetic symbols used for vocal (leksis) and instrumental (krousis) music. The enharmonic tables are incomplete, and essentially duplicate the chromatic symbols. Vocal notation employed the 24 letters of the standard Ionic Greek alphabet, with some letters altered and inverted. In the fragments the notation always appears above the text. Instrumental notation matched or was derived from letters in sixth–fifth century b.c.e. local Greek scripts, and appears to have been in use before vocal notation. Some rhythmic values were defined using additional signs; the sole surviving description of rhythmic notation, found in the Byzantine Anonymus Bellermanni treatise, includes five types of signs: duration, ligation, articulation, division, and rest. Aristoxenus mentioned the existence of musical and metrical notation in his Harmonika, but scoffs at its use. He remarked that simply having the ability to notate a meter or melody did not prove a person's ability to understand its nature. Aristoxenus insisted that notation could not be the goal of harmonic science, and evidence shows that the tradition of music in ancient Greece and Rome remained oral, not written, regardless of the existence of a notational system.

The Musical Documents.

Music in ancient Greece and Rome was an oral tradition; songs, melodies, and even complex compositions were learned by ear. Aristoxenus believed that notation was unimportant, and went so far as to dismiss it as useless for the understanding of music. Although a system of notation was well-established by the third century b.c.e., it was used only by a handful of professionals for a very long time; the Roman orator Quintilian (first century c.e.) omitted notation from his list of recommended readings for music education. Yet, a number of notated compositions survive in medieval manuscripts, papyri, and in stone inscriptions. Although a few pieces were already known and transcribed in the sixteenth century, most of the surviving music was not known or studied prior to the nineteenth century. Today, a respectable corpus of approximately sixty genuine fragments has so far been compiled; newly discovered notated pieces are being published on a regular basis. In the most recent century, a number of papyri have been recovered from mummy cartonnage dating to the Ptolemaic period in Egypt (third–second century b.c.e.) that contain snatches of notated music. The extant collection of fragments, which date from the fifth century b.c.e. to the fourth century c.e., is conveniently transcribed and explained (but not translated) in the Documents of Ancient Greek Music, edited by Egert Pöhlmann and Martin L. West. The corpus contains four fragments from the classical period (480–323 b.c.e.), fifteen of the late classical to early Hellenistic periods, three Late Hellenistic inscriptions from sanctuaries, and 39 fragments from the Roman period.

Types of Documents.

Numerous different types of documents exist that show modern scholars different facets of the musical world. From the fifth century b.c.e., examples include a broken clay knee-guard for sewing, located in the Eleusis Museum, which was decorated with a painting of Amazons, one of whom was blowing a trumpet (Greek letters were painted between her body and the trumpet to imitate the sound of the trumpet-call.); remarks on the melody of Euripides, with an example from his tragedy Orestes, in the work De compositione verborum by Dionysius of Halicarnassus; and two papyrus fragments with notated music of Euripides' Orestes and Iphigeneia in Aulis. Late fifth century–third century b.c.e. compositions include fragments on papyri of unknown tragedy, and a hexameter hymn inscribed in stone discovered in the precinct of the healing god Asclepius at Epidauros. Examples from the second century b.c.e. include two substantial paeans (to Athenaios and Limenios), inscribed on the south outer wall to the Athenian Treasury at Delphi, and the so-called "Hymn to the Carian god Sinuri" in two block fragments, published in 1945 c.e., but now missing. The last, and largest, group of extant musical documents comes from the Roman period: the grave stele of Seikilos; several compositions by the emperor Hadrian's court musician Mesomedes of Crete; six Lydian instrumental pieces; a number of excerpts from tragedies and other hymns or paeans, lyric, and instrumental pieces of unknown origin; a selection from Menander's comedy Perikeiromene with some curious notation; and a Christian hymn to the Trinity, written around the end of the third century c.e. on the back of a list of grain deliveries from the first half of the century. Two examples of notated music provide a general idea of the type of fragments available for study in the collection: seven lines from the tragedy Orestes by Euripides (presented on a papyrus of the third century b.c.e.); and an epigram on the grave stele of Seikilos (second century c.e.).


Andrew Barker, ed., Greek Musical Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984–1989).

Giovanni Comotti, Music in Greek and Roman Culture. Trans. Rosaria V. Munson (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, originally published in Italian, 1979).

A. M. Devine and L. D. Stephens, The Prosody of Greek Speech (New York: Oxford, 1994).

Documents of Ancient Greek Music. Ed. and transcribed with commentary by Egert Pöhlmann and Martin L. West (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).

John G. Landels, Music in Ancient Greece and Rome (London: Routlege, 1999).

Thomas J. Mathiesen, Apollo's Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

—, "Greek Music Theory," in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Ed. Thomas Christensen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 109–135.

Martin West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).